"She's going to need immediate attention."


"Help should be there any minute."


The trundle of a heavy vehicle sounded. Gray swung around. A large black van turned and headed down the street.


"I think they're here," he said with a relieved sigh.


The van reached the house, shifted to the curb, and braked at the foot of the driveway. Gray felt a twinge of unease, hating to be blocked in, but he recognized the van. It was Sigma's medical response team. The camouflaged ambulance was based on the same design as the vehicle that accompanied the president, capable of handling emergency surgery if necessary.


"Give me an update as soon as their evaluation is over," Painter said. The director must have spotted the van also.


The side doors of the van shoved open. Three men and a woman, all in surgical scrubs and matching loose black bomber jackets, exited the van with coordinated skill. Two men yanked a stretcher, legs unfolding beneath it. They followed the third man and the woman, who strode forward to meet Gray. The man held his hand out.


"Dr. Amen Nasser," he said.


Gray shook his hand, appreciating the cool, dry grip. Calm and in control. The doctor could be no older than thirty, yet he carried himself with firm authority. His complexion was the hue of polished mahogany, unlike the woman, whose skin was more the color of warm honey.


Gray studied her.


Though of Asian heritage, the woman plainly sought to downplay it. She had shaved her head to a crew cut and bleached her remaining hair an ice blond. Entwining tattoos also circled her wrists in a Celtic pattern. While such severity had never appealed to Gray before, there remained something strangely seductive about her. Perhaps it was the emerald of her eyes, a feature that needed no other embellishment. Then again, it may have been the way she moved, leonine, muscular, balanced. Like much of Sigma, she must have had some military training.


The woman nodded to Gray. No introduction was offered.


"I've been informed of the situation," the team leader continued, his words precise, plainly foreign-born, with a trace of an accent. "I'll ask you all to stand back and let us work. We will transfer the patient to the surgical bay inside the van. I will send out Anni with a status report shortly." He finally acknowledged the woman.


The other two men rushed past with the stretcher. The doctor followed, while Anni remained where she was, leaning on a hip.


The cell phone in Gray's hand began to vibrate as he stepped aside. The team leader spoke rapidly. Gray finally recognized the accent of the team leader.


Dr. Amen Nasser.


He was Egyptian.


1:08 A.M.


Painter stood in front of the wall monitor directly behind his desk. The plasma screens on the other two walls displayed live video of the first and second floor of the safe house. The one behind his desk pixilated with digital feed from the exterior camera.


"Pick up the phone, Gray!" he yelled at the screen.


The controls for the cameras were down a floor in main security. Painter had no way of swiveling the camera. He had seen the med van park at the edge of the screen, but it wasn't until a second ago that he had spotted the pair who had stepped into view in front of Gray.


Neither of them worked for Sigma.


Painter knew all the personnel.


The van might be Sigma's, but the team inside was not.


A trap.


On the screen, Gray flipped open the cell and raised it to his ear. "Director Crowe—?"


Before Painter could answer, a thin foot kicked out and smashed the phone against Gray's head. With a snap of cellular crackle, he went down, caught off guard.


"Gray. . .


The image on the screen suddenly jumped—then went black.


1:09 A.M.


The first shot took out the camera.


Head ringing, Gray heard the muffled cough and splintering shatter. He twisted around.


"What the hell?" his father bellowed as the camera's debris rained down on him. He was still crouched in the backseat with Seichan.


The guard, Kowalski, was on the other side of the car. He froze like a deer in headlights, a grizzled two-hundred-pound deer. But the pistol at the back of his neck was a strong deterrent against moving.


The orderlies had shoved the stretcher into the side yard. One held a gun on Kowalski, the other waved for Gray's father to get out of the car.


"Stay where you are," a harsh voice warned behind him.


Gray glanced over his shoulder. The woman, Anni, held a black Sig Sauer at his face, standing out of reach of a leg sweep, but close enough that she would not miss a head shot.


Recognizing this, Gray faced the Thunderbird.


Dr. Nasser carried a matching pistol in his hand.


Gray somehow knew that it was the weapon that had shot Seichan.


Nasser came around to Gray's father's side. He searched down to where Seichan lay sprawled. He shook his head sadly, then pointed to the gunman on that side. "Get the old man out of the car. See if the bitch has the obelisk, then drag her to the van."


Obelisk?


Gray watched as his father was manhandled out of the backseat. He prayed his father would not aggravate the situation. But it proved unnecessary. Plainly stunned, his father offered no resistance.


"She doesn't have it," the man in the backseat finally said, straightening up.


Nasser stepped to the car and scanned the interior himself. He did not find what he was looking for. The only sign of consternation at this lack of discovery was a single crinkle between his eyes.


He stepped away from the car and faced Gray.


"Where is it?"


Gray fixed the man with a steady stare. "Where is what?"


He sighed. "Surely she told you, or you wouldn't be making such an effort for an enemy." Without turning, he signaled the man who had searched Seichan. The man pressed his pistol against his father's forehead.


"I don't ask questions a second time. You probably don't know that. So I'll give you this moment of leeway."


Gray swallowed, noting the raw fear in his father's eyes.


"The obelisk," Gray said. "The one you mentioned. She had it with her, but it broke when she crashed her bike at the house. She passed out before she could say anything about it. For all I know, it's still there."


And it might be.


He had forgotten about it in the rush to deal with Seichan.


Where had it gone?


The man kept his eyes fixed on Gray. He studied him with a calculating and steady gaze.


"I think you're actually telling me the truth, Commander Pierce." Still, the Egyptian signaled his gunman. The shot was deafening.


1:10 a.m.


A minute ago Painter had noted movement on the plasma screen to the left. The interior video cameras of the safe house were still working. He spotted Mrs. Harriet Pierce crouched behind the kitchen table.


The attackers seemed unaware she was hiding inside.


No one except Gray had known he was coming to the safe house with an extra two passengers. The van had arrived after Gray's mother had gone inside. With the one guard stationed at the house immobilized, they had assumed the scene was locked down.


Painter knew it was his only advantage.


He called for a silent alarm to be raised at the house and a line opened. He watched the amber light beside the house phone blink and blink.


See the flashing light, he willed her.


Whether it was the alarm light or the simple instinct to call for help, Harriet crept over to the kitchen phone, reached up, and pulled the receiver to her ear.


"Don't talk," he said quickly. "It's Painter Crowe. Don't let them know you are inside. I can see you. Nod if you understand."


She nodded.


"Good. I have help coming. But I don't know if they'll reach you in time. The attackers must know this, too. They will be cruel and quick. I need you to be crueler. Can you do this?"


A nod.


"Very good. There should be a pistol in the drawer below the phone."


 


1:11 a.m.


The gunshot was deafening.


Deafening.


Not a silencer like before.


Gray knew the truth the fraction of a second before the gunman holding a weapon to his fathers head fell to the side, half his skull splattering against the front quarter panel of the Thunderbird.


He knew the shooter.


His mother.


She was Texas bred, raised by an oilman who worked the same fields as Gray's father. Though his mother constantly petitioned for gun control, she was not shy around them.


Gray had both feared and hoped for some distraction from her. He'd kept ready for it, legs braced. Before the gunman's body even hit the ground, Gray leaped straight back. He had been watching the Asian woman's form in the polished chrome of the rear bumper.


The loud gunshot and the sudden backward leap caught her by surprise. Gray raised his right arm and hooked her arm, the one holding the Sig Sauer. As he struck her, he smashed his boot onto the inseam of her foot and cracked his head backward.


He heard something crunch below and behind.


Ahead, Kowalski had already elbowed his gunman, grabbed him by the scruff, and slammed his face into the edge of the convertible's door.


"Eat steel, jackass."


The gunman dropped like a sack of coal.


Without a pause Gray cradled Anni's captured fist and swung her arm toward Dr. Nasser. He squeezed the woman's finger against the trigger. She fought. Compromised, Gray's aim was off. His shot struck the brick wall with a ringing spark.


Still, it succeeded enough. Dr. Nasser ducked to the right, diving into the bushes that fronted the house, vanishing away.


Gray yanked the pistol from the woman's grip and back-kicked her away from him. She stumbled but kept her feet. Bloody-nosed, she twisted around and fled toward the van, sprinting like a gazelle, oblivious of her smashed foot.


Going for more weapons.


Gray did not want an encore of Anni Get Your Gun. He raised the pistol toward her, but before he could fire, a round sizzled past the tip of his nose. From the bushes.


Nasser.


Startled, Gray stumbled backward, going for shelter under the porte cochere. He fired blindly into the bushes, not knowing where the bastard hid. He backpedaled until his calves struck the rear bumper. He fired another two rounds toward the med van.

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