“Got it. If we go in all shock-and-awe on their asses, they’ll know their captive is important.”
“And they’ll bury her.” Painter regretted his choice of words as soon as they passed his lips.
James Gant’s face went ashen, but as a mark of the man’s fortitude, he waved for Painter to go on.
“The team I told you about is already in the area. I’ll continue to coordinate with NSA, NRO, and my superiors at DARPA. If the pirates’ location is discovered, my team is under strict instructions to attempt a rescue only if success is guaranteed. Otherwise, we’ll pass on the coordinates and summon in the navy’s fast-response SEAL team for extraction.”
A worried nod acknowledged his plan.
Painter continued, “The kidnappers will move your daughter somewhere safe, then interrogate her. They’ll need to obtain a phone number, a contact here in the States where they can forward a ransom demand. If your daughter is smart—”
“Then she’ll keep her identity a secret. Hopefully she’ll give them some number outside the presidential circle. Perhaps a relative or a close friend. We have to be ready for that. Make sure that recipient stays quiet, doesn’t go to the police or the press.”
“I’ll pass the word.”
Painter asked a pointed question: “Can you trust all of your relatives to remain silent?”
“They won’t say a word. The Gant clan knows how to keep secrets.”
That’s certainly true.
For the past month, Painter had been conducting a quiet investigation into the Gant family. Information had come to light during a recent Sigma mission that cast suspicions upon the family. Not that there weren’t already rumors surrounding such a high-profile dynasty. They were nicknamed the Kennedys of the South, with generational ties going back to the founding of America. And as America grew, so did this family, rooting and entwining into multiple industries, corporations, the halls of statehouses, and now a second-term presidency.
But last month, a disturbing bit of information about this Southern dynasty had come to light. Documented centuries ago, this same clan appeared to be connected to a shadowy cabal of old aristocratic families. They went by many names: the Guild, Echelon, les familles de l’étoile, the star families. All that was truly known about this group was that they moved throughout history, manipulating events, gathering power, wealth, and knowledge, often achieving this by enfolding themselves within a series of secret organizations, brotherhoods, and fraternal lodges.
They were said to be the secret within all secret societies.
But the passing centuries had not been kind to them, winnowing the lineage down to a single bloodline: the Gant clan.
Still, that did not mean the president—or his immediate kin—had any knowledge of this organization. The Gant family tree had roots and branches that spread far and wide, on this shore and others. It was impossible to say which family members were involved with the modern-day incarnation of this criminal organization—that is, if any of them were involved.
All of it might end up being a wild-goose chase as the true leaders of the Guild—for lack of a better name for them—remained as elusive as ever. But what was known for sure was that the group was deadly, resourceful, and responsible for countless acts of terrorism, global atrocities, and an inestimable number of international crimes. To consider that the president—this man seated across from him, heartsick and terrified for his daughter—was a part of that same organization seemed impossible.
The lack of solid proof was one of the reasons Painter kept his suspicions about the Gant family to himself, trusting no one with this information, not even his fellow Sigma operatives. Especially Commander Gray Pierce, whose mother had been killed recently by a rogue Guild agent. If the man learned the president had any hand in that cold-blooded murder, there was no telling what he would do. As angry as he was, he’d shoot first and ask questions later.
So the questions were left for Painter to ask. He stared back at James Gant. “Not to be indelicate,” he started, “but I still don’t understand what your pregnant daughter was doing out among the outer islands of the Seychelles. Why was she traveling under false papers?”
There was something wrong about this whole situation.
Painter pressed, knowing this matter might offer his best chance to wheedle more information about the family—and, more specifically, about the First Family. “Is there anything you’re not telling me, Mr. President? Anything you’re holding back? Any detail could make a difference between success or failure.”
This time, he purposefully avoided saying life or death.
James Gant stared down at his hands, as if trying to find meaning in the lines of his palms. “Amanda was always a wild child.” He offered Painter a wan, wistful smile. “Much like her father. She was nineteen when I first stepped into the White House, even younger when I was running for my first term. She hated the limelight, chafed against being a president’s daughter.”
“I remember she once punched a Secret Service agent.”
Gant laughed, leaning back and half covering his mouth as if surprised he could still laugh. “That was Amanda. During my second run for office, she was twenty-three, fresh out of college, and off on her own. She flourished out of my shadow, I have to say. Then she met Mack Bennett, a Charleston police officer. After they married, I thought that would settle her down.”
Painter gently directed him back to the mystery at hand. “And this trip out to the Seychelles.”
Gant lifted his empty hands and shook his head. “Not even the Secret Service knew about this unscheduled trip. Damned if she didn’t slip out from under all our noses. My only guess is she wanted some time alone with her husband, away from the paparazzi and tabloids, before the birth of my grandson. After that, the two would be lucky for a moment’s privacy.”
Painter studied the president’s face, looking for any micro-expression that would indicate deceit. But all he found was a man dissolving into grief and fear.
“If that’s all …” Gant said.
Painter stood up. “I’ve got what I need. My team should be flying into Somalia as we speak, and I must get back to Sigma command.”
“Very good.” Gant pushed out of his seat. Ever the Southern gentleman. “Let me walk you out.”
The pair left the president’s personal briefing room, pausing only long enough for Painter to retrieve his BlackBerry from a lead-lined box outside the Situation Room. As he straightened and pocketed his phone, a familiar figure appeared at the end of the hall, flanked by Secret Service.
She was dressed in a sapphire-blue twill dress, over which she tied a lace cardigan tightly around her belly. Painter noted her balled fists, the scared cast to her eyes as she found her husband.
The First Lady, Teresa Gant, hurried toward him, balanced between attempting to maintain a professional decorum and raw panic. “Jimmy … I heard from your secretary that the meeting was over. I waited for as long as I—”
“Terry, I’m sorry.” The president caught his wife, hugged her, and brushed a few loose blond hairs from her cheek. “I had a few more details to attend to. I was going to you next.”
She stared up at his face, searching for any news there, plainly afraid to question him in front of her bodyguards. No one could know about Amanda’s plight.
“Come, let’s return to the residence.” The president looked ready to scoop her into his arms and carry her to safety. “I’ll tell you everything there.”
Gant glanced at Painter.
He understood. Teresa needed her husband. At this moment, they were not the First Lady and the president. They were simply two parents terrified for their child, seeking comfort in each other’s arms.
Painter left them to their grief, more determined than ever to find their daughter. But as he headed down the hall, he could not escape the feeling that the events in the Horn of Africa were masking something far greater—and far more dangerous.
He checked his watch. Gray and his team would be landing in Somalia in the next hour. If anyone could ferret out the true intent behind the kidnapping of the young woman, it was Commander Pierce. Still, Painter felt a stab of misgiving for having sent Gray in blind, for failing to mention his suspicions about the president’s family.
He prayed that silence didn’t cost lives.
Especially the president’s daughter and her unborn child.
July 1, 8:02 P.M. East Africa Time
Cal Madow Mountains, Somalia
The truck continued its slow crawl through the mist-shrouded forest.
Amanda Gant-Bennett rode in the back of the older-model Land Rover. Modified with an open top, it must have once served as a safari-touring vehicle. A massive grille protected the front end, and four large driving lights were mounted on the roof rack. She’d also noted the two winches—front and back—along with a shovel and ax secured to the fender, ready to help free the vehicle if it became bogged down or stuck.
From the terrain they traveled, she understood the necessity for such modifications. The road was little more than a muddy track through the dark jungle. Somalia suffered from an arid climate, but the rainy season—called gu, she’d overheard—had just ended. These highlands, bordering the Gulf of Aden, received most of that rain. And what didn’t fall here as precipitation remained as thick fog.
A jarring bump threw her high. Only her seat belt kept her from flying out of the truck. She had initially thought of doing just that, of leaping free and taking her chances out in the dark jungle. But seated beside her was a heavyset guard, armed and sweating, chewing khat, a local stimulant used by nearly everyone. A second, larger truck followed at their heels, making any chance of escape impossible.
And she ultimately knew that any attempt would put more than her own life at risk.
She pushed the lap strap of the seat belt lower, below the bulge of her belly and above her hip bones. She had to protect her child. The baby boy growing in her womb was more important than her own well-being. He was the reason she and her husband had risked this flight halfway around the world.