"So don't let me down. I have a reputation to maintain."


She snorted again, her amusement ringing more true. "You really have to work on concluding your pep talks."


"Then how's this: Stay safe, watch your back, and get back here as soon as possible."


"Better."


"Then I'll simply have to go for the gold." He spoke firmly. "I miss you. I love you. I want you in my arms."


He truly did miss her, with a physical ache in his chest.


"See," she said. "With a little practice, you can actually be a pretty good motivational speaker."


"I know," he said. "The same line worked with Monk earlier."


A true laugh followed. It helped shatter his worry from a moment ago. She would do fine. He had faith in her. And in addition, in Painter's stead, Monk would keep her safe. That is, if Monk ever wanted to show his face again . . .


Before Painter could respond further, his aide appeared at his door, knocking softly. Painter waved for him to speak.


"I'm sorry to disturb you, Director. But I've another call holding. On your private line. From Rome. Monsignor Verona. He seemed quite urgent."


Painter's brow furrowed. He spoke into the phone. "Lisa—"


"I heard. You're busy. Once I coordinate with Monk, we'll conference with Jennings on the situation here. Get back to work."


"Stay safe."


"I will," she said. "And I love you, too."


The line blinked off.


Painter took a breath to collect himself, then twisted around to hit the button on his private line. Why was Monsignor Verona calling? Painter knew Commander Pierce had been romantically involved with the monsignor's niece, but that had ended almost a year ago.


"Monsignor Verona, this is Painter Crowe."


"Director Crowe, thank you for taking my call. I've been trying to reach Gray for the past two hours, but there's been no answer."


"I'm sorry to hear that. Is there a message you'd like me to forward?"


Painter didn't bother to explain about the current situation. Though Monsignor Verona had helped Sigma in the past, the matter here was on a need-to-know basis, already coded in black.


"There's been an incident here at the Vatican ... in the Secret Archives precisely. I'm not entirely sure of its import, but it strikes me as a message or warning. One left for both myself and perhaps Commander Pierce."


Painter stood up and circled around his desk to his chair. "What sort of message?"


"Someone broke into a vault here last week and painted the symbol for the Royal Dragon Court on the floor."


Painter sank into his seat, disturbed by the coincidence. Two years ago, Gray and Monsignor Verona had teamed up to root out and destroy a brutal sect of the Dragon Court. They had succeeded—but not without help, requiring an alliance with an enemy, an operative from the Guild.


Seichan.


And now the assassin was here.


Painter was not one to swallow coincidences easily. Not in the past, and certainly not now. If nothing else, his stint as director of Sigma had honed his edge of paranoia to a razor's sharpness.


"Did anyone get a look at this trespasser?" he asked.


"Briefly. Whoever it was, they came alone. Slipped past all of Vatican security. We captured only a shadowy image on one security camera. This was no casual thief. Only one person I know could have crossed into the inner sanctum and out again with no more than a shadow captured. The same someone connected to our joint involvement with the Dragon Court in the past."


So it seemed the monsignor was no less suspicious than Painter.


"And the dragon painting on the floor," Vigor continued. "It was plainly a message, perhaps even a reminder of a debt owed."


"You believe it was the Guild operative, Seichan," he said. "The one who helped you defeat the Dragon Court?"


"Exactly. If we could find her, ask her—"


Painter knew that any further secrets would only hamper discovering the true threat. It seemed the need-to-know status of the situation had just extended to Rome.


"Seichan is here," he said, cutting the monsignor off. "We have her in custody."


"What?"


He quickly related the night's return of the assassin, dropping out of nowhere, bloodied and on the run.


Vigor was stunned for a moment—then spoke in a rush. "She must be interrogated. If for no other reason than to ask her why she painted the message on the floor."


"We'll do that. Once she's treated, we'll conduct a thorough interview. Behind very stout bars."


"You don't understand. There's something larger going on. Possibly larger than the Guild itself."


"What do you mean?"


"The dragon symbol was painted around an ancient inscription carved into the floor of the archive vault. Curved possibly back when the Vatican was first being built, back to the time of Galileo. The symbols are the characters from what some conjecture might be the most ancient of all written languages. Older than proto-Hebrew. A writing that may even predate mankind."


Painter heard the anxiety in the other's voice. "What do you mean predate mankind? How could that be?"


Vigor answered him.


Painter kept the shock out of his reaction, along with his disbelief. He ended the call with a deep frown. The monsignor's assertion was plainly impossible, but true or not, he immediately understood the monsignor's distress. They needed to question Seichan as soon as possible—before anything else happened to her.


Painter hurriedly confirmed ETA on the medical team, then had his aide patch him through to the guard stationed at the safe house.


Who was on duty out there?


He called for Brant to contact security and have them forward video feed from the safe house to his office plasma screens.


As Painter waited, Vigor's final words echoed through him.


Those symbols. . . carved into the stone...


Painter shook his head.


Impossible.


. . . they are the language of the angels.


01:04 A M.


Gray sped down Greenwich Parkway into the exclusive Foxhall Village subdivision. He reached the end and made a left turn onto a tree-lined street. He slowed. He let the Thunderbirds idling engine carry him forward. The safe house appeared ahead, a two-story red-brick Tudor with forest-green shutters, a match to the woods of Glover-Archibold Park upon which the home backed.


With the top down, he could smell the damp forest.


Nearing the house, he noted the front porch light was on, as was a lamp in the upper corner window.


The all-clear sign.


He turned and bumped into the driveway, earning a groan from their injured passenger.


"Where are we?" his mother asked.


Gray braked under an overhanging porte cochere on the left side of the house. A side door to the house lay steps away. He had attempted repeatedly to get his parents to vacate the car, but with every hospital and medical center they passed, they only became more stubborn. Or at least his mother did. His father remained at the same level of muleheadedness.


"This is a safe house," he said, seeing little reason to dissemble now. "Medical help should be on its way. Stay put for now."


Gray cut the engine and climbed out.


On the far side of the car, the side door to the house opened. A large shadowy figure filled the doorway. A hand rested on a holstered weapon at his hip. "You Pierce?" the man asked, gruff and short, eyeing the additional passengers with suspicion.


"Yes."


The figure stepped out into the light. He was an ape of a man, thick-limbed, stubble-cut brown hair. He was dressed in military fatigues. Not exactly keeping a low profile.


"Name's Kowalski. I have Crowe on the horn for you." He raised his other hand and held out a cell phone.


Gray headed around the back of the car. He had not been looking forward to this conversation with the director, to explain his blown cover. It was not exactly covert to have your parents tagging along.


Even the guard stationed here seemed baffled by the elderly pair sharing the open convertible. He studied the new arrivals with his brows bunched into a knot over his forehead. He scratched his chin.


"Three fifty-two?" he asked as Gray came around.


Gray could not fathom what he meant.


His father answered from the backseat. "No, it's a three-ninety block. Rebuilt V8 from a Ford Galaxie."


"Sweet ride."


Plainly the guard hadn't been studying his parents, only the car.


Seichan stirred in the backseat, perhaps somehow noting the lack of wind and motion. She struggled weakly to sit up.


"Can you help get her inside?" Gray asked the guard. He noted the lower half of a US Navy anchor on the man's right biceps as he accepted the phone. Ex-military. No surprise there. If there had been a picture under jarhead in the dictionary, it would've been this man's mug shot.


His mother opened the passenger door. "Where's that medical help?" She seemed to find little hope in the large form of the guard, even clutching her purse a bit tighter to her side.


Gray held up a palm, asking for patience.


"Ma'am," Kowalski said, and pointed to the kitchen. "There's a medkit on the kitchen table. Morphine stabs and smelling salts. I've laid out a suture pack."


His mother eyed the man with a more studied appraisal. "Thank you, young man."


With a more withering glance in Gray's direction, his mother headed inside.


Stepping out of the way, Gray spoke into the phone. "Director Crowe, Commander Pierce here."


"Is that your mother who just got out of the car?"


How the hell. . . ?


Gray searched up and spotted the video camera hidden under the porte cochere. It must be sending a live feed to Central Command. He could feel heat rise at his collar.


"Sir—"


"Never mind. Explain later. Gray, we've intel out of Rome, related to our new arrival. How is the prisoner holding up?"


Gray eyed the back of the convertible. The guard and his father were discussing the best way to move Seichan's limp form. He noted the fresh bloom of blood in the center of her belly wrap.

***

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