Only a cover.


His parents knew nothing about his true profession with Sigma, and Gray meant to keep it that way. Which meant he needed to bug out of here ASAP. He had to get moving.


"Dad, can I borrow the T-bird? All this Fourth of July commotion, emergency services are overloaded. I can get the woman to the hospital faster myself."


His father's eyes narrowed with suspicion, but he pointed toward the back door to the kitchen. "Keys are on the hook."


Gray ran and leaped up the rear porch steps. Cracking open the screen door, he reached inside and grabbed the jangling key fob from the hook. His father had restored a 1960 Thunderbird convertible, raven black with a red leather interior, tricked out with a new Holly carburetor, flamethrower coil, and electric choke. It had been moved out to the curb for the party.


He ran to where it was parked with its top down, hopped over the driver's door, and slid behind the wheel. A moment later, he was roaring in reverse and backed into the driveway, bouncing a bit in the seat as he hit the curb. His father was still troubleshooting the rebuilt suspension.


He choked it into park, engine running, and ran to where his mother and father knelt at Seichan's side. His father was already scooping her up.


"Let me," Gray said.


"Maybe we shouldn't move her," his mother opined. "She took quite the fall and roll."


Gray's father ignored them both. He heaved up, cradling Seichan in his arms. His father might be missing a part of a leg and mentally slipping a few gears, but he was still as strong as a draft horse.


"Get the door," his father ordered. "We'll get her spread out across the backseat."


Rather than arguing, Gray obeyed and helped get Seichan inside. He opened the door and folded the front seat down. His father climbed into the back and draped her with deliberate gentleness, then settled into the rear seat, supporting her head.


"Dad. .."


His mother climbed into the passenger front side. "I've locked the house up. Let's go."


"I ... I can take her on my own," Gray said, waving them both out.


He was not headed to any hospital. His earlier phone call had been to emergency dispatch, where he was immediately put in contact with Director Crowe. Thank God he'd still been there.


Gray had been ordered to a safe house, where an emergency medical evacuation team would rendezvous to evaluate and treat Seichan. Painter was taking no chances. In case this was all a trap, she was not to be taken to Sigma's headquarters. A known assassin and terrorist, Seichan was on the most-wanted lists of Interpol and a score of intelligence agencies around the world. Rumor had it that the Israeli Mossad maintained a shoot-on-sight order on her.


His parents had no place being here.


Gray stared at the steel in his father's eyes. His mother's arms were already crossed over her chest. They were not going to budge easily.


"You can't come," he said. "It's not. . . not safe."


"Like here's any safer," his father said, waving an arm back toward the garage. "Who's to say whatever gangbangers or drug dealers who shot her aren't already on their way here?"


Gray had no time to explain. The director had already dispatched a security detail to protect and watch over his parents. They would be arriving in the next couple minutes.


"My car . . . my rules," his father finished with a rumble of finality. "Now go, before she starts seeping through your mother's bandages and messes up my new leather seats."


Seichan groaned, stirring in pain and confused agitation. One arm lifted to her bandage, clawing. His father caught her fingers and lowered her hand. He kept hold of it, reassuring as much as restraining.


"Let's go," his father said.


The rare tenderness more than anything broke through his constraint.


Gray climbed into the driver's seat. "Buckle in," he said, knowing the sooner he got Seichan to the safe house, the better for all of them. He'd deal with the fallout later.


As he started the engine, he caught his mother staring at him. "We're not fools, you know, Gray," she said cryptically, and turned away.


His brows furrowed, more in irritation than understanding. He shifted the car into gear and shot down the driveway. He took the turn onto the street


rather sharply.


"Careful!" his father barked. "Those are new Kelsey wire wheels! If you goddamn scratch them up . . ."


Gray sped down the street. He made several fast turns, minding the wheels. It felt good to be moving. The 390 V8 growled like a beast. An ember of grudging respect for his father's handiwork burned through his exasperation.


His mother glanced down the street as he turned in the opposite direction from the nearest hospital, but she remained silent and settled deeper in her seat. He would find some way of dealing with his folks at the safe house.


As Gray sped through the midnight city, he still heard occasional firecrackers popping. The holiday was ending, but Gray feared the true fireworks had yet to begin.


12:55 A M


Washington, D.C.


SO MUCH FOR holidays off. . .


Director Painter Crowe stalked down the hall toward his office. Central Command's skeletal night staff was rapidly swelling in numbers. A general alert had been dispatched. He'd already fielded two calls from Homeland Security. It wasn't every day you had an international terrorist fall into your laps. And not just any terrorist, but a member of the shadowy network known as the Guild.


Often competing with Sigma, the Guild hunted and stole emerging technologies: military, biological, chemical, nuclear. In the current world order, knowledge was the true power—more than oil, more than any weapon. Only in the Guild's case, they sold their discoveries to the highest bidder, including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah in the Middle East, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, and the Shining Path in Peru. The Guild operated through a series of isolated cells around the world, with moles in world governments, intelligence agencies, major think tanks, even international research facilities.


And once, even at DARPA.


Painter still felt the sting of that betrayal.


But now they had a key Guild operative in custody.


As Painter entered the antiroom to his offices, his secretary and aide, Brant Millford, shifted back from his desk. The man used a wheelchair, his spine severed by a piece of shrapnel following a car bombing at a security post in Bosnia.


"Sir, I have a satellite call coming in from Dr. Cummings."


Painter stopped, surprised. Lisa was not scheduled to report in so soon. A thread of worry cut through the tangle of responsibilities this night.


"I'll take it in my office. Thank you, Brant."


Painter crossed through the door. Three plasma monitors hung on the walls around his desk. The screens were dark for now, but as the night wore on, they would soon be flowing with data, all pouring into Central Command. For now, that could all wait. He reached across his deck to the phone and tapped the blinking button.


Lisa had been scheduled to report in just around dawn, when it was nightfall among the Indonesian islands. Painter had requested the full day's debriefing at that time, just before she went to bed. Such scheduling also offered him the perfect chance to wish her a good night.


"Lisa?"


The connection proved spotty with occasional drops.


"God, Painter, it's great to hear—voice. I know you're busy. Brant mentioned a crisis—little else."


"Don't worry. Not so much a crisis, as an opportunity." He rested his hip to the edge of the desk. "Why are you calling in early?"


"Something's come up here. I've transmitted a large batch of technical data to research. 1 wanted someone over there to start double-checking the results from the toxicologist here, Dr. Barnhardt."


"I'll make sure it gets done. But what's the urgency?" He sensed the tension in her voice.


"The situation here may be more dire than originally projected."


"I know. I've heard about the aftermath of the toxic cloud that blew over the island."


"No—yes, that was horrible, certainly—but things may be growing even worse. We've isolated some strange genetic abnormalities showing up in secondary infections. Disturbing findings. I thought it best to coordinate with Sigma researchers and labs as soon as possible, to get the ball rolling while Dr. Barnhardt completes his preliminary tests."


"Is Monk helping the toxicologist?"


"He's still out in the field, collecting samples. We'll need everything he can bring us."


"I'll alert Jennings here in R and D. Get him to roust his team. I'll have him call and coordinate at our end."


"Perfect. Thanks."


Despite the resolution, Painter could not escape his own worry. Since assigning this mission, he was doing his best to balance his responsibilities as director, to maintain that necessary professional distance, but he could not achieve it, not with Lisa. He cleared his throat. "How are you holding up?"


A small amused snort escaped her, tired but familiar. "I'm doing okay. But after this, I may never take another cruise in my life."


"I tried to warn you. It never pays to volunteer. I wanted to contribute. To make a difference," he said, mimicking her with a ghost of a smile. "See what it gets you. A passport to the Love Boat from Hell."


She offered him a halfhearted laugh, but her voice quickly lowered into a more serious tone, halting and unsure. "Painter, maybe it was a mistake . . . me coming here. I know I'm not an official member of Sigma. I may be in over my head."


"If I thought it was a mistake, I wouldn't have assigned you. In fact, I would have grabbed any excuse to keep you from going. But as director, I had a duty to send the best people suited to oversee a medical crisis on behalf of Sigma. With your medical degree, your doctorate in physiology, your field research experience ... I sent the right person."


A long stretch of silence followed. For a moment, Painter thought the call had dropped.


"Thank you," she finally whispered.

***

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