Painter nodded. “While the project was deeply classified, they did outsource to two Jasons who were doing parallel research. One of them was your father, Elizabeth. The other was Dr. Trent McBride, a biomedical engineer in brain physiology.”
Elizabeth knew that name. She remembered late-night visits, her father sequestering himself with strangers in his study, including Dr. McBride. He was hard to forget with his loud, boisterous voice, but in a good-hearted way. He also brought her gifts when she was younger. First editions of Nancy Drew.
“I attempted to contact Dr. McBride,” Painter continued. “Only to learn that no one’s heard from him in the last five months.”
Elizabeth felt a cold chill. Five months. “The same time my father flew to India.”
She shared a worried glance with Gray.
What was going on?
Yuri Raev exited the elevator on the subbasement floor of the research facility. After getting the phone call, it had taken him forty-five minutes to reach the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland. The building housed half a million square feet of laboratory space, much of it designated for BL-3 biohazard research, meaning it dealt with all manner of infectious diseases.
Yuri had used the panic code—Pandora—to reach the Jasons. It had taken another ten minutes to patch an alert to those he sought, an inner cabal of the organization who had cooperated with the Russians on the project for the greater good of both nations. Yuri had hoped to get the Jasons working on his behalf, to keep Sasha out of Mapplethorpe’s hands. The Jasons, with their various scientific backgrounds, understood the delicacy it took in handling the child, both physiologically and psychologically.
Mapplethorpe on the other hand was all about brinkmanship, political ambitions, and blind self-interest. Yuri didn’t trust the man.
With Sasha missing, Yuri needed allies on American soil.
He’d been instructed to meet Dr. James Chen, a neurologist and a member of the inner circle, to plan a strategy.
They would be joined by another.
Someone who could help, he was cryptically told.
Yuri was given specific directions and clearance to the location of the rendezvous. He started down the hallway. At this hour, all the doors were closed. Few laboratories were down at this level. As he walked, bleach burned his nose and masked a muskier scent. Behind one door, he heard a familiar soft hoot of something simian. Here was where the facility must house its live-animal research subjects, deserted of personnel at this hour.
He checked the room number.
He found the door with a frosted glass panel and knocked. A shadow passed across the pane, and the door opened promptly.
“Dr. Raev. Thank you for coming.”
Yuri barely got a glimpse of the young Asian man as he turned away. He wore a white laboratory coat over blue denim pants. A pair of eyeglasses rested atop his head, as if forgotten there. The room held a utilitarian table along one wall, and a bank of stainless-steel cages filled the opposite side. A few whiskered black noses poked between the bars. The scritch-scratch of tiny nails whispered from the cages. Laboratory rats. Only these were hairless, except for their whiskers.
Dr. Chen led him through an open back door. There he found a cluttered office: a steel desk stacked with journals, a whiteboard jotted with boxed to-do lists, and a bookcase crammed with glass specimen jars.
Yuri was surprised to find a familiar figure hulked behind the desk, a cell phone at his ear. The man, edging toward his midfifties, demonstrated his Scottish heritage in his massive frame, ruddy cheeks, and a red-and-gray beard tidily trimmed close to a jutting jaw. He was the head of the cabal of Jasons assigned to assist the Russians—and also a colleague and longtime friend of Archibald Polk.
Dr. Trent McBride.
“He’s just arrived,” the man said into the phone with a nod toward Yuri. “I’ll brief everyone in an hour.”
McBride closed his cell phone, stood, and held out his hand. “I’ve been updated on your situation, Yuri. Considering the girl’s fragile state, this is a top priority. We’ll do what we can to help find the child.”
Yuri shook his hand and sat down. Although startled, he felt relieved to find McBride here. Beneath his good-natured bravado, the man had a sharp and practical mind.
“So then you understand,” Yuri said, “how vital it is that we acquire her again? And soon.”
He nodded. “How many hours can the girl survive without her medication?”
“And her last injection?”
“Seven hours,” he answered grimly.
That leaves Sasha only a little over a day to be found.
“Then we’ll have to move fast,” McBride said. “As you might suspect, Mapplethorpe had already called me. In fact, that’s why I’m here myself.”
“I thought you were in Geneva. Hadn’t you decided to keep a low profile? To keep hidden?”
“Just until matters with Archibald settled out.” His eyes hardened slightly at Yuri. “Which it seems it has. Though the outcome could have been better. He was my friend.”
“You know, as well as I, that Dr. Polk would not have survived another few days. I had to do what was necessary.”
McBride seemed little mollified.
“And if you recall,” Yuri added, “I voted against approaching Dr. Polk in the first place.”
McBride sagged back into his chair with a squeak. “I truly thought Archibald would be more amenable, especially once he saw the project firsthand. After all, it was an extension of his life’s work. And considering the threat he posed, the only other option was—”
Again a sad shrug.
Dr. Polk had been treading too close to the heart of the research project. Closer than even McBride knew. It left them only two choices: recruit him or eliminate him.
Brought to the Warren, the man had ended up escaping with valuable intelligence. They had no choice but to hunt him down.
“I’m sorry about Archibald,” Yuri said.
And he truly was. Dr. Polk’s death, while a tragic necessity, was still a profound loss. On his own, the professor had accomplished so much, even coming close to exposing what the Russians had been keeping secret from the Americans. Ultimately both sides had underestimated Dr. Polk’s resourcefulness.
Both prior to kidnapping him and afterward.
Yuri continued. “In regards to the missing girl—”
McBride interrupted. “I presume she is one of your Omega subjects.”
He nodded. “Tested at the ninety-seven percentile range. She’s vital to our project. To both our work. I fear Mapplethorpe doesn’t understand the delicate balance needed to keep an Omega subject alive and functioning.”
McBride rubbed the bridge of his nose. “During my phone conversation with him, Mapplethorpe did happen to suggest that we might want to acquire the child ourselves.”
“I suspected he would try something like that.”
Behind Yuri, the door to the outer office opened. He heard Dr. Chen greet someone, stiff and formal.
Yuri swung around, shocked to see the subject of their discussion appear at the door. Mapplethorpe’s sagging features looked even more dour than usual. A chill of misgiving spiked through Yuri.
McBride stood. “John, we were just talking about you. Did your team have any luck acquiring the augmented skull?”
“No. We’ve scoured both museums.”
“Odd,” McBride said with a worried frown. “And what word on the girl?”
“We have helicopters sweeping the entire city grid, section by section, radiating out from the zoo. Still no hits on the tracking device.”
Yuri fixed upon this last bit of information. “Tracking…what tracking device?”
McBride stepped around the desk. He held out a closed fist toward Yuri—then opened his fingers and exposed a tiny object resting on his palm.
Barely larger than the head of a pin.
Yuri had to lean closer to even see it.
“Wonders of nanotechnology,” McBride said. “A passive microtransmitter with burst-pulse attenuator, all housed in a sterile polymer sleeve. While on my last visit to the Warren, I had all the children injected with them.”
Yuri knew nothing about such implantations; then again, he wasn’t kept abreast of everything. “Did Savina approve such trackers?”
He glanced up to see McBride lift one eyebrow at him. Surely you’re smarter than that, Dr. Raev, he seemed to imply.
Yuri realized what the American was insinuating. Savina knew nothing about the matter. It was McBride who had injected the children—in secret, without anyone’s knowledge. He’d had plenty of access to the children, but always while being monitored. Yuri studied the size of the microtransmitter. It was small enough to have been delivered in a hundred different ways.
Why would McBride—?
Yuri’s mind quickly cascaded through the possibilities, implications, and consequences. McBride must have placed trackers in all the children. Once he had the children implanted, all he had to do was set up the proper scenario that would require one or more of the children to leave the nest.
Yuri pictured Archibald Polk’s face. The realization struck him like a blow to the solar plexus.
“It was a ruse all along,” Yuri gasped out. “Dr. Polk’s escape…”
McBride smiled his agreement. “Very good.”
Mapplethorpe’s shadow fell upon him like a physical weight.
Yuri had been played the fool. He glared over at McBride. “You were at the Warren when Archibald escaped. You helped him escape.”
A nod. “We needed some way to lure one of your Omega subjects out into the open.”
“You used Dr. Polk like bait. Your own friend and colleague.”
“A necessity, I’m afraid.”
“Did he…did Archibald know he was being used?”
McBride sighed with a tired ache in his voice. “I think he might have suspected…though he didn’t have much choice. Die or run the gauntlet. Sometimes you have to be a patriot whether you want to or not. And I must say he did well. He almost crossed the goal line.”