She searched as she strode to the end of the room—for a weapon, for some other means of escape.
She wasn’t the only one searching.
Amy gasped behind her. “Denise …!”
Without turning, Kat reached an arm back and grabbed Amy’s wrist before the young woman could dart to the side, toward one of the shrouded tanks. Amy had come along with Kat to discover the fate of her sister.
“That’s not her,” Kat said, drawing Amy closer. “That’s just a husk, a shell. Your sister died when she was taken through those doors.”
Amy resisted for a couple of steps, then surrendered—knowing Kat was right. They hurried together, each needing the warmth of the other.
The hallway ended at a line of three glass-walled offices, all facing the horror show. Other hallways branched to the left and the right, likely leading to smaller labs, storerooms, and mechanical spaces.
Kat noted the names etched on the three doors. She memorized them, intending to hold the persons accountable if she ever got out of here. But she moved to the centermost and largest of the three. The name on the door read NANCY MARSHALL, M.D., D.Sc., PH.D., A.B.O.G. It seemed the more abbreviated letters followed a name, the less humanity remained.
Through the glass door, Kat spotted a computer glowing with a screensaver depicting a slowly spiraling helix of DNA. She found the lock unfastened and hurried inside, crossing to the computer.
She reached to wake the monitor up, then paused, noting something odd about the screensaver. The glowing, high-definition image detailed a thick double helix of DNA, slowly spinning, all color-coded, mapping out nucleotides, codons, and chemical bonds. She leaned closer, studying a strange abnormality: a third strand of protein wound within the double helix, entwined into the genetic matrix like a snake in the grass.
Biology and genetics were not her specialty—but she knew someone at Sigma who could better analyze this data. Reaching to the mouse, she woke up the computer. A standard desktop appeared. She needed to secure as much of the data stored on that hard drive as possible and transmit it back to DC, but she also knew she didn’t have time to crack whatever passwords locked this system from the outside world. There was no way to e-mail or send files electronically. The firewalls around this complex were fierce and military-grade.
She would have to improvise and hope for the best.
Reaching to her breast pocket, she removed her surveillance pen. The camera’s video and audio were recorded to a secure digital SD card linked to a cellular transceiver—but the data could also be manually ported over if necessary via a built-in USB connection. She twisted the pen, shedding the camera features, leaving behind the two-terabyte storage card linked to a USB adapter.
Working fast, she found the USB port in the desktop’s tower and shoved the drive in place. Her intent was not to download the card’s content, but to upload files to it, hoping they’d eventually reach Sigma. With the guts of her pen exposed, Kat noted the cellular transceiver glowing a pinpoint green. It remained active, but was anyone picking up the signal?
She straightened as a new icon blinked onto the screen’s desktop, representing her flash drive.
A rumble drew her attention around. Amy stood at the open office door, staring back to the far end of the lab. The steel doors had begun to slowly open, unsealing and cracking with a sliver of light.
Dr. Marshall’s sharp bark carried through: “Find them!”
Kat returned to the computer.
No time to be picky about which files to grab.
Using the mouse, she dragged the image of the computer’s hard drive and dumped it all onto the thumbnail for the SD flash drive.
Files immediately began transferring.
That’s all she could do for now.
“What the hell was that?”
Painter stared over at General Metcalf. He’d never heard the man swear, seldom saw him lose composure. The pair stood before the bank of monitors in the communications nest. Minutes ago, the technician monitoring Kat’s surveillance pen reported new feed coming from her second device. This was the first video transmission since the pen had been activated. They’d picked up some initial audio, snatches of conversation, but nothing afterward.
Then suddenly the screen had bloomed to life.
The first few minutes were a jumbled confusion until the camera settled on a set of red metal doors with a cross symbol emblazoned on them.
Metcalf had just been leaving when the monitor sprang to life, exciting the technician. The general accompanied Painter to observe what was picked up. Together, they viewed in growing dismay as Kat surveyed a dark lab, revealing rows of women in tanks. Then she continued to some offices at the back of the room.
“Did you get those names?” Painter asked the technician. “The ones on the office doors?”
After that, the monitor went dark once again.
“Is that everything?” Metcalf asked. “Where was this footage taken?”
Painter knew he had to come clean—about everything. He drew the general back into the side office. Once inside, with the door closed, he explained, “Captain Bryant was investigating a fertility clinic in South Carolina, the same facility where Amanda had her in vitro fertilization performed.”
But it hadn’t been just Kat conducting that investigation. Lisa had gone down there, too. Fear for her stoked brighter, but he had to stay focused.
Metcalf turned toward him. “What fertility clinic are you talking about? Who authorized—?”
Painter cut him off before he worked up a full head of steam. He needed to shock the man into listening—for all of their sakes. “Amanda may still be alive.”
As he expected, those few words knocked the man back a step.
Painter continued, not letting the general recover. He needed to present the entire picture before Metcalf started to put up mental roadblocks. Only the complete story could win this stubborn man to their cause.
Painter started at the beginning, with Amanda’s kidnapping and his belief that it was tied to the unborn child she carried. They ended in front of Kat’s office computer. Painter showed him the cross atop the island of Utopia, realizing just then that it matched the symbol on the red steel doors.
What did that mean?
Metcalf sank into the desk chair, his eyes fixed to the screen. The general was a tough man, a skilled player in the ways of power and politics—some would say even an opportunist—but that was a requirement to function in the Beltway politics of DC. Painter also knew the general to be a shrewd strategist, capable of putting logic before emotion.
He hoped that proved to be the case now.
“And all of these properties are owned by the Gant family, the president’s family?” Metcalf asked, staring at the island. “And you’ve already received confirmation that Amanda was taken there.”
Behind that glaze of shock, Painter saw the gears churning through all the evidence.
Finally, Metcalf shook his head, not in disbelief, more like defeat. “Dear God … if you’re right …” He placed a palm on his forehead and stared Painter square in the eye. “Even if the Gants are the puppet masters behind the Guild, how could the president involve his own daughter with something like this?”
The general glanced to that dark monitor in the other room, obviously picturing the horror show from a moment ago.
“James Gant may not know,” Painter explained. “We don’t know which of the Gants are in that inner circle, the True Bloodline. That’s why I’ve been playing this game so cagily. I have a gut feeling that inner circle is not without internal friction or dissent.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Something sent Amanda running to the Seychelles, almost like she was tipped off. Like someone was trying to protect her.”
“Or maybe they purposefully tricked her into fleeing in secret so she could be nabbed out of the public eye.”
It was a more cynical hypothesis, one Painter hadn’t even considered, proving yet again that Metcalf was an expert chess player.
“You’ve built a case against the Gants,” Metcalf conceded, “but it’s far from solid. None of this is strong enough to confront them, especially the administration. If we tried, we’d end up tipping our hand too soon, exposing that we’re onto them. The backlash would burn us down. And that Bloodline would bury itself even deeper. There’s only one solution.”
Painter understood. “We need Amanda.”
Metcalf met his eyes, confirming this. Any hope for Sigma to rise from these ashes depended on recovering and securing the president’s daughter—and surely the Bloodline knew that, too.
A knock at the door drew both their attentions. It was Kat’s chief analyst, Jason Carter. Painter motioned him forward, but the kid only stuck his head through the door.
“Director, we’re receiving new data from Captain Bryant’s device.”
Painter stared past the young man’s head. The monitor was still black. “Is it new video … or just audio again?”
“Neither. They’re digital files.”
Painter’s eyes pinched with momentary confusion—then realized what Kat was doing: downloading information off one of the lab’s computers.
Clever, Kat … very smart.
“Start forwarding those files to me,” Painter said.
Jason nodded and ducked back out.
Metcalf waited with Painter. “I wish you hadn’t told me any of this,” he said. “I’d certainly sleep better not knowing. For that matter, why did you tell me? Why trust me? Who’s to say I’m not on the Guild’s payroll?”
It was a good question—and Painter had only one answer.
“Because you’ve been a thorn in Sigma’s side from the beginning.”
“You mean I’ve been an ass.”
Painter didn’t argue with his wording. “But you’ve also had our back, sir, when we’ve truly needed it. And besides, I can’t do this on my own. Not any longer. I need an ally, someone to hold the wolves at bay if we’re to have any chance of recovering Amanda.”