He pointed to the child, who had gained her feet and walked to a blank wall. She bore a piece of charcoal from the fireplace in her fingers and drew on the wall in a haphazard manner, jerkily, starting in one place, then moving to another.
“She wouldn’t stop,” Luca continued. “She drew a silhouette of a park with trees and a picture of Rock Creek bridge.” He nodded out the window. “Then after that, a house, set in the same woods. We had to circle the entire park, looking for it, believing it was important. By the time we found this place, she had drawn the picture that I slid under the door.”
Luca stared at them. “A picture of all of you. Friends and family of Dr. Polk. So I must ask you, do you know this Sigma?”
Painter slipped out a glossy black identification card. It had his photograph fixed with the presidential seal. Etched into its surface was a holographic Greek letter.
Luca examined it, angling it to study the holograph. His eyes widened as he recognized it.
While they had talked, Gray had crossed to the girl. He sat on his haunches, studying the girl’s work. He rubbed his chin. Something had drawn his attention. Gray lifted a finger, half hidden between his knees, like a catcher signaling a pitcher. He pointed toward the girl.
Her face shone brighter. Her head lolled slightly to one side. Her eyes were open, but they were not following the path of her scrabbling piece of charcoal. As disturbing as her manner was, it was not what Gray had indicated.
Painter had noted it, too. Her hair, damp with fever sweat, had parted slightly behind her ear. A glint of steel shone through. The shape was unmistakably the same as the device attached to the strange skull.
Only here it was on a living subject.
What had Archibald delivered to them?
As Painter’s mind spun on possibilities, Elizabeth hung farther back in the room. She pointed toward the wall. “Come see this,” she said, her voice quavering with an edge of fear.
Painter retreated to her side. She pointed to the artwork forming on the wall. From this far away, what looked like mindless scribbles had begun to take form. He watched the transformation unfold over the course of four long silent minutes.
Elizabeth stuttered her amazement. “That’s…that’s…”
“…the Taj Mahal,” Painter finished.
In the silent wonder that followed, a distant sound reached them.
A helicopter, flying low, coming closer.
Gray straightened and reached for the girl. “Someone’s found us!”
Nicolas rolled off of Elena and onto his back.
The hotel room fan cooled his sweating body. His lower back ached and his shoulders bore deep scratches that still burned. Elena rolled smoothly to her feet, with an easy swing of her hair, tangled to midback. The curving rise and fall of her buttocks as she strode toward the shower came close to arousing him again. He stirred, but he knew he had another interview in a half hour.
News of the failed assassination had already spread far and wide. He would be on every international newscast. He’d already learned that the sniper, shot by the police, had died before reaching the hospital.
With the death, no one would suspect that it had all been preplanned. Even the sniper—a mine worker from Polevskoy whose brother had been killed in an industrial accident last year—never knew how artfully he’d been manipulated into the assassination scheme.
It had all unfolded with technical precision. Elena had timed her touch perfectly. A skill of hers. When primed, she could calculate probabilities to the nth degree. Her statistical analyses of business spreadsheets rivaled the world’s best economists. And having studied the technical specifications on most pistols and light arms, she had only to see how a weapon was held and pointed to calculate its precise trajectory.
Trusting this, he had put his life in her hands this morning.
At that moment, behind the podium, he’d never felt such a total lack of control, his very survival at the mercy of another. After a lifetime of control, to release that grip even for a moment had quickened his pulse. Afterward, he could not return to the hotel fast enough.
Elena stepped wet from her shower and leaned naked in the doorway. The lust in her eyes slowly died—trailing the last spark of erotic stimulation from her augment’s neural array. The fiery lioness was becoming a sleepy kitten. Still, Nicolas studied that last ember of fire—an arousing blend of need and hatred—but even that would fade to a simple cold obedience.
Such stimulation of her implant was necessary—not only to make the coupling intense, but also to trigger the proper physiological response to increase the chance of fertilization. Nicolas had read the studies. And his mother wanted children from him, even approved of the union of Nicolas and Elena. It was a perfect match: his will and her cold calculation.
Nicolas had done his best to make his mother happy this morning.
And he had the bruises and scratches to prove it.
However, his mother might not have approved of him allowing Elena to tie him to the bedposts and whip his thighs with a scrub brush. But as his mother always told him when he was growing up:
The ends always justifies the means.
Ever practical, his mother.
The phone rang at his bedside table. Elena strode over, answered it, then held the receiver out for him.
“General-Major Savina Martov,” Elena said formally, gone cold again. “For the senator.”
He took the receiver with a sigh. As usual, the woman’s timing was impeccable. She must have heard about the failed assassination attempt. She would want a full debriefing and must have wondered why he hadn’t already reported in. The schedule in the next days would tighten to an unbreakable knot—at both their ends—leading up to the formal sealing of Chernobyl. Nothing could go wrong.
Nicolas shifted his weight off his bruised buttock with a wince.
The caller spoke before he could. “We have a problem, Nicolas.”
He sighed. “What is it, Mother?”
Gray cradled the girl in his arms and hurried across the front yard. The crisp September night contrasted with the feverish heat of the child. He felt the burn of her skin through his shirt. Her fever had spiked while laboring on her artwork. She had collapsed when Gray had pulled the charcoal from her fingers. She was conscious, but her eyes stared blankly, and her limbs were oddly stiff and wooden, as if he were carrying a life-size doll. Her waxy features heightened the comparison.
Gray touched her face, noting the fine delicacy of her tiny eyelashes.
Who could do this to a child?
They had to get her to safety.
Out in the yard, Gray searched the skies. A single black helicopter—military design—swept low down the street. Another idled higher at the other end of the block. And a third circled the park behind them.
Triangulating in on their position.
Their sedan still stood in the driveway. Luca and his men had three identical Ford SUVs parked down the street. The Gypsy clan leader had already gathered his men. He barked orders in Romani and pointed his arms out in various directions, instructing them to split up. Three men took off on foot toward the park, where they would divide again. Another two ran across the street and disappeared between two houses. A dog barked at their passage.
Ahead, Kowalski marched with Elizabeth toward the Lincoln Town Car in the driveway. She had her cell phone to her ear.
Painter headed toward a small car parked at the curb, a Toyota Yaris that belonged to one of the security guards. Gray followed him. The guard was already behind the wheel after being freed by Luca’s men.
Painter opened the backseat and turned to Gray and held out his arms. Gray passed him the child.
“She’s burning up,” Gray said.
He nodded. “Once safe, we’ll get her medical attention. I’ve already called Kat and Lisa to report to command.”
Lisa was Dr. Lisa Cummings, an experienced medical doctor with a PhD in physiology. She was also the director’s girlfriend. Captain Kat Bryant was Sigma’s expert in intelligence services and coordination. She would oversee the field operation.
“But first,” Painter said, his eyes on the skies as he ducked into the backseat with the child, “we have to break this cordon.”
Off to the side, one of the Ford SUVs shot straight down the street with its headlights off; the other swung sharply around and flew in the opposite direction, zipping past Painter’s idling Toyota.
“Let’s hope this works,” Gray said.
Before leaving, Painter had Luca bring in one of the Cobra receivers that they’d used to track the girl at the national Mall. As the director had hoped, the devices were actually transceivers—capable of both receiving and transmitting. Painter had showed Luca how to switch the radios from receiving a specific signal to broadcasting it. Luca had all his men do the same. They were now scattering in all directions, transmitting the girl’s signature signal, creating a dozen different trails to follow—and most likely broadcasting louder than the girl’s small microtransmitter. Under the cover of such confusion, Painter hoped to escape with the girl to the subterranean bunkers of Sigma’s central command. There, he could isolate her signal and protect her.
Gray stepped in the other direction, toward the waiting Town Car. Kowalski already was revving the engine, impatient. They were headed for Reagan International Airport. Gray pictured the charcoal sketch of the Taj Mahal. The famous mausoleum was located in India, the very country where Dr. Polk had last been seen. Even before the girl’s arrival, Gray had decided to extend the investigation to India, to follow Dr. Polk’s trail out there. The mysterious drawing only added to his determination.
In India, there remained one person who could cast a better light on Archibald Polk’s research and his whereabouts prior to his disappearance.
Elizabeth stood by the open door, studying the skies nervously. She clicked her cell phone closed as Gray reached her side.
“I was able to reach Dr. Masterson,” she said. “My father’s colleague at the university of Mumbai. But he wasn’t in Mumbai. He was in Agra.”