He grabbed her upper arm. "And what's to stop me from just turning your ass over to Sigma."


She twisted free. All the freshly transfused blood was now in her face, livid and furious.


"Because you know goddamn better, Gray! If the Guild catches me, I'm dead. If your government captures me, I'll be locked far away forever, beyond any ability to stop what's about to happen. That's why I came to you. But fine. I'll sweeten the deal. Make you a trade. How's that? Help me, convince Vigor of the same, and afterward I'll give you the name of the mole at Sigma. If saving lives isn't good enough .. . the wolves are already at Sigma's door. You may not know it, but the powers that be are seeking to castrate you all, to put you all out to pasture, and now that another mole—a second mole—is hidden in your midst, they'll burn you down and salt the ground. End of Sigma. Forever."


Gray found himself swaying. He had indeed heard of such rumors, engendered by the internal audit by NSA and DARPA. But he also remembered a different Seichan, bent over him, gun in his face. She had attempted to kill him when they'd first met. How much could he trust her?


Before the standoff could be resolved, a shout came from the reception area. "Commander Pierce! Come see this!"


Gray swore under his breath at the man's loud bark. What about covert didn't Kowalski understand?


Gray met Seichan's gaze. She was still burning with raw anger, but it failed to lay waste to what he'd first heard in her voice, bleeding across his parents' driveway. Terror.


He stalked to the side chair, picked up her jacket, and handed it to her. "We'll do it your way for now. But that's all I'll promise."


She nodded.


"Commander!"


With a shake of his head, Gray headed out of the suite. He heard the television turned up louder. He hurried forward. Still clutching the silver crucifix in his palm, he pocketed it before stepping into the reception area.


He found everyone staring up at the television. Gray noted the familiar logo for CNN Headline News. On the screen, three homes burned at the edge of a forest fire.


". . . possibly arson," the report continued. "To repeat, the police are looking for this man. Grayson Pierce. A local Washingtonian."


A picture of Gray flashed in the corner of the screen, in uniform, his black hair shaved to a stubble, eyes angry, mouth grim. It was his mug shot from when he was incarcerated in Leavenworth. Not a flattering picture. He looked like a feral criminal.


His father grumbled at his side. "Looks like your past just bit you in the ass.


Gray concentrated on the news report.


"For the moment, the police are calling this former Army Ranger a person of interest. That is all. He is wanted only for questioning. The police request anyone with the knowledge of his whereabouts to contact authorities immediately."


Kowalski lifted the remote and muted the sound.


Dr. Corrin stepped back from them all. "In the light of all this, I can't keep silent any—"


Kowalski pointed the remote toward the doctor. "In for a penny, in for a buck, doc. Aiding and abetting. Keep quiet or you can kiss your medical degree good-bye."


Dr. Corrin blanched, backing another step.


Gray's mother reached and touched the doctor's arm reassuringly. "Nonsense." She scowled at Kowalski. "Quit scaring him."


Kowalski shrugged.


"Someone is just trying to flush us out," Gray said.


"But it makes no sense," his mother argued. "I spoke with Director Crowe on the phone back at the safe house. He knows we were ambushed. Why is he letting these lies spread?"


The answer came from behind them. "Because they really want me." Seichan stepped into the room. She had donned her jacket. "They don't want to risk having me slip between their fingers."


Gray faced the others. "She's right. They're tightening the noose. We have to leave now."


Kowalski confirmed this assertion. After being chastised by Gray's mother, he had crossed to the lone window, peeking through the blinds. "Folks, we've got company."


Gray joined him. The window faced the main hospital. The curve of the ambulance bay was visible. Four police cars careened into view, silent, lights twirling. Local authorities had begun canvassing hospitals.


Turning, he faced his mother's former teaching assistant. "Dr. Corrin, we've asked much of you, but I'm afraid I must ask more. Can you get my parents somewhere safe?"


"Gray," his mother said.


"Mom, no argument." He kept his eyes on the doctor.


Corrin slowly nodded. "I own a few rentals. One off Dupont Circle is currently furnished but vacant. No one would think to look for your parents there."


It was a good choice.


"And, Dad, Mom ... no outside communication, use no credit cards." He turned to Kowalski. "Can you watch over them?"


Kowalski sagged, plainly disappointed. "Not goddamn guard duty again."


Gray started to order, but his mother cut him off. "We can take care of ourselves, Gray. Seichan is still in poor shape. You may need an extra pair of hands more than we will."


"And the apartment building has around-the-clock security," Dr. Corrin added, a bit too briskly. "Guards, cameras, panic alarms."


Gray suspected the doctor's support was less for his parents' security than to keep Kowalski off his property. Even now, Dr. Corrin was careful to remain a few steps away from the man.


And his mother was right. With Seichan compromised, they might need the large man's strength. He was Sigma's muscle, after all. Might as well put him to work.


Kowalski must have read something in Gray's expression. "About time." He rubbed his hands together. "Let's get this party started then. First, we'll need guns."


"No, first we need a car." Gray turned again to Dr. Corrin.


The doctor did not hesitate. He pulled out a. key chain. "Doctor's lot. Slot 104. A white Porsche Cayenne."


He was more than happy to part with their company.


Another was not.


His mother hugged him hard and whispered in his ear. "Keep safe, Gray." Her voice lowered to a breath. "And don't trust her . . . not fully."


"Don't worry . . ." he said, agreeing to both.


"A mother always worries."


Still in her arms, he whispered one final instruction, meant only for her ears. She nodded, and with a final squeeze, she let him go.


Gray turned to discover his father's hand out. He shook it. It was their way. No hugs. He was from Texas. His father turned to Kowalski.


"Don't let him do anything stupid," he said.


"I'll try my best." Kowalski nodded to the door. "We ready?"


As he turned away, his father placed a hand on Gray's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze, followed by a pat good-bye. It was as close to I love you as he'd get from the man. And it warmed Gray more than he'd care to admit.


Without another word, he led the others out.


3:49 A.M.


"Still no word on Commander Pierce's whereabouts," Brant reported over his intercom.


Painter sat at his desk. The lack of news both disheartened and relieved him. Before he could analyze his own internal reaction, Brant continued.


"And Dr. Jennings has just arrived."


"Send him in."


Dr. Malcolm Jennings, head of R&D, had called half an hour ago, eager for a meeting, but Painter had to put him off because of the crisis at the safe house. Even now, Painter could only give him five minutes.


The door opened and Jennings strode into the office, a hand already up. "I know ... I know you're busy . . . but this couldn't wait."


Painter motioned to the seat before his desk.


The former forensic pathologist lowered his lanky frame into the chair, but he remained perched at its edge, plainly anxious. A file folder was clutched in his hand. Jennings, close to sixty years old, had been with Sigma since before Painter took over as director. He adjusted his glasses whose half-moon lenses were tinged a slight shade of blue, better to prevent eyestrain during computer use. They also complemented his dark olive skin and graying hair, giving him a hip professorial air. But right now, the pathologist merely looked worn from the long night, though there remained a manic vein of excitement in his eyes.


"I assume this meeting is about the files Lisa transmitted from Christmas Island," Painter began.


Jennings nodded and opened the folder. He slid over two photographs, gruesome shots of some man's legs, riddled with what appeared to be gangrene. "I've gone through both the toxicologist's and the bacteriologist's notes. Here is a patient whose skin bacteria suddenly turned virulent, consuming the soft tissues of his own legs. I've never seen anything like it."


Painter studied the pictures, but before he could even ask a question, the doctor was back up on his feet, pacing.


"1 know we initially classified the Indonesian disaster as a low-level priority, merely a fact-gathering operation. But after these findings, we need to upgrade. Immediately. I came here in person to petition for a promotion of the scenario to Status Critical Level Two."


Painter sat straighter. Such a classification would mean diverting massive resources.


"We need more than two people poking around," Jennings continued. "I want a full forensic team on the ground as soon as possible, even if we have to outsource with the general military."


"And you don't think this is jumping the gun? Monk and Lisa are due to touch bases in"—Painter checked his watch—"in a little over three hours. We can strategize then, when we have more data."


Jennings took off his glasses and rubbed a knuckle into an eye. "I don't think you understand. If the preliminary conjectures by the toxicologist prove to be true, we may be facing an ecological disaster, one with the potential to alter the entire earth's biosphere."


"Malcolm, don't you think you're overstating your case? These results are preliminary. Most of it mere conjecture." Painter waved to the photographs. "All this could just be a onetime toxic event."

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