The Judas Strain

Page 18

But it was too little, too late.

Neither the convertible Gray had driven to the safe house nor the hijacked medical van was among the wreckage. The raging fires hampered further investigation.

The only solid news was bad. The original med-van team had been discovered in an abandoned field, each shot in the head. He had four folders on his desk. He sank to his seat. On top of everything else, he had four hard calls to make before dawn. To their families.

Painter's aide, Brant, wheeled into his doorway. "Sorry, sir."

Painter nodded to him.

"I have Dr. McKnight holding on your third line. He's available for phone or video conferencing."

Painter pointed a thumb at the fiery screen. "I've seen enough of this for the moment. Patch Sean through."

Painter peeled the headset out of his ear. He swore he might as well have one surgically implanted. He swung around to face the screen as the emergency scene dissolved away, replaced by the face of his boss.

Sean McKnight had founded Sigma but had since been promoted to the head of DARPA. Painter had placed a call to him as soon as Seichan had crashed into Gray's life. Both for his advice and expertise. But also for one more pressing reason.

"So the Guild is back on our doorstep," Sean said. He combed his fingers through his graying red hair. It was mussed, and it looked like he had been summoned directly from his bed. But his white shirt was creased and pressed. A navy pinstripe jacket lay over an arm of his chair. Ready for a long day.

"The Guild may be more than on our doorstep," Painter said. "Current in-tel suggests they may be through the door already." Painter tapped a folder behind him. "You've already read the sit-op."

A nod answered him. "Plainly the Guild knew about the safe house. Knew Gray was headed there with their AWOL operative. We have a leak somewhere."

"I'm afraid we have to assume that."

He shook his head. If true, it was disastrous. The Guild had infiltrated Sigma once before, but Painter would swear his organization was clean now. After the last mole had been exposed, Painter had burned Sigma to its roots and rebuilt it from the ground up, with hundreds of safeguards and countermeasures.

All for nothing.

If there was still a leak, the very foundation of Sigma might be suspect. It could mean the dissolution of the organization. An internal audit was already under way, a cost-benefit analysis of Sigma's basic command structure, under the guise of unifying U.S. intelligence-gathering services within Homeland Security.

But worst of all, there was a more intimate cost.

Painter had the four folders waiting on his desk to remind him.

Sean continued. "It is not just our division that is plagued by this terrorist-for-hire network. Two months ago, MI6 cleared a cell that had infiltrated a British Aerospace's black-ops project outside of Glasgow. They lost five agents in the process. The Guild is everywhere and nowhere. Here at home, the NSA and the CIA are still trying to figure out who the Guild's Osama is. We know next to nothing about their leader or their main players. We don't even know if they are called the Guild. The derivation of that name came out of a nickname by an SAS officer, now deceased. Still, apparently the various cells have taken on the name as their own, at first mockingly, then perhaps more genuinely. We know that little about the network."

He left this last hanging.

Painter understood. "And now we have a defector."

Sean sighed. "We've been trying to get a foothold in the organization for years. I've proposed several scenarios. But nothing as efficient as having an operative, one of the Guild elite, drop into our laps. We must secure her."

"And the Guild will try just as hard to stop that from happening. They've made that plain. To eliminate her, they've chosen to expose their own infiltration into Sigma. A costly choice. And to carry it out, they've sent their best and most elusive operative. Another of their elite."

"I saw the video of the man at the safe house. Read his dossier." Sean grimaced.

Painter had read the same. The Butcher of Calcutta. His true origin and allegience was unknown. Of mixed descent, he had posed in the past as Indian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Libyan. If Seichan had a male counterpart, it would be this man.

"We have one lead," Painter said. "We were able to pick out his name off the video feed. Nasser. But that's the best we could manage."

Sean waved a dismissive hand. "His aliases are as numerous as his assassinations. He's left a bloody trail all around the world, mostly concentrating in North Africa and throughout the Middle and Near East. Though just recently he's extended deeper into the Mediterranean. The garroting of an archaeologist in Greece. The assassination of a museum curator in Italy."

Painter's attention hardened back to the screen. "In Italy? Where?"

"Venice. A curator found shot in the prisons below the Duke's Palace. Nasser—or whatever his real name is—was seen in surveillance footage of the piazza outside."

Painter rubbed his chin, hard enough to burn the stubble. "I received a call earlier from Monsignor Verona at the Vatican. The details should be in the sit-op report. There is a good chance that Seichan was also attempting some action in Italy at around that time."

Sean's eyes slowly narrowed. "Interesting. It's a coincidence that bears further investigation. Both assassins in Italy. Now they're here. One hunting the other. Two master assassins, the best of the Guild. And if nothing else, Nasser has driven Seichan into our arms."

Or rather into Gray's arms, Painter added silently.

"We need that woman in custody. Immediately. To lose this chance is beyond acceptable."

Painter understood the severity of the situation, but he also knew Gray, how his mind worked. If anyone had a level of paranoia equal to his own, it was Gray. Custody could prove to be a problem.

"Sir, Commander Pierce is on the run. Ambushed at the safe house, he must suspect a leak like we do. He'll go into hiding with her. Lay low until he feels it's safe to come out of the cold."

"We may not have that long to wait. Not with the Butcher of Calcutta hunting them both now."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Commander Pierce must be found, brought back in with her. I have no choice but to expand the search, to contact local authorities and the FBI. I've already ordered a search of all hospitals and medical facilities. We can't let him go to ground."

"Sir, 1 would prefer to give Commander Pierce some leeway to address the situation. The more light shone in his direction, the more likely it will draw the attention of Nasser."

"If so, then we attempt to apprehend two Guild operatives."

Painter could not keep the shock from his voice. "By using Gray as bait."

Sean stared out of the monitor. Painter read the stiffness of his posture. He also noted again the pressed jacket and shirt. Painter suddenly realized he had not been the first one to have Sean's ear this night.

"This decision was made by Homeland. Signed by the president. There will be no countermanding it." Sean firmed his voice. "Gray and this Guild agent must be found and brought in by whatever force necessary."

Painter found no words to argue. There could be none. It was a new world. He slowly nodded. He would cooperate.

Still, in his heart, he knew Gray.

On the run, hunted by both sides, the man would prove formidable.

He would hide deep.

3:04 A.M.

"I spotted a Starbucks in the lobby downstairs," Kowalski mumbled. "Maybe it's open now. Anyone want a cup of Joe?"

"We stay put," Gray said.

Kowalski shook his head. "No fucking kidding. It was a joke."

Ignoring him, Gray continued to examine Seichan's broken obelisk. They were gathered in the small reception room of a dental office. At his elbow, a table lamp illuminated the cramped space, decorated in the typical cookie-cutter manner: months-old magazines, generic watercolors, an anemic potted ficus plant, and a dark wall-mounted television.

Forty minutes ago the group had followed the woodland trail to the edge of Glover-Archibold Park. It had ended at a street that separated the park from the Georgetown University campus. At that hour, there had been no cars, no traffic. They had hurried across the street, slipped between two darkened research buildings, and reached the university's Dental Annex. The hospital proper lay beyond, lit brightly. They had dared not go that far, risk that level of exposure.

So they made other arrangements.

Across the dental-room reception, Kowalski swore quietly and folded his arms, plainly bored but still on edge. They all awaited word.

"What's taking so goddamn long?" Kowalski grumbled

Gray had learned the man was a former seaman with the U.S. Navy. He'd been recruited into Sigma following his assistance with a Sigma operation in Brazil, not as an agent, but as muscle. He had tried to show Gray his scars from that mission as they waited, but Gray declined. The man did not know how to shut up. No wonder he'd been assigned to guard duty. Alone.

But Kowalski's ongoing commentary had not fallen on deaf ears.

Across the room, Gray's father lay sprawled over three chairs, eyes closed but not sleeping. It took an effort to maintain that deep frown.

"So you're some sort of science spy," his father had said earlier. figures. . .

Gray still didn't know what his father meant by that, but now was not the time to confront the issue. The sooner he could get Seichan patched up and away from his parents. . . the better for all of them.

Gray continued his examination. He turned the obelisk around, studying every surface. The black stone was ancient, pitted and scored, but was otherwise nondescript. It looked Egyptian, but it was not his area of expertise. Even his assessment of origin might have been clouded by the failed assassin's Egyptian accent.

But one feature of the obelisk was definitely not natural to the stone.

He turned the broken top section on end. Protruding from the bottom was a bar of silver, about the thickness of his smallest finger. He touched it. Gray knew it was the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Something had been hidden at the heart of the obelisk. Looking more carefully at the broken end, he was able to make out an old cemented seam in the stone, invisible from the outside. The obelisk was really two pieces of marble craftily glued together, hiding something within. Like carving out the pages of a book to hide a gun or valuables.

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