The Last Oracle

Page 29

Then the gunman’s head snapped backward. He dropped to his knees like a puppet with its strings cut. Then fell face forward with a clatter. At the base of his skull, the shiny steel handle of a throwing dagger protruded.

Beyond the body, Luca stood outside by the dancing fountain. The Gypsy had another dagger ready in his hand. Gray kicked away the loose rifle, which Kowalski retrieved. Luca rushed up to them and yanked out his knife.

“Thanks,” Gray said.

“I was outside smoking when the gunfire began,” the man explained and waved to the courtyard. “Tracked its source across the street. Went over there. I was going up when he came down, so I hid and followed him back here.”

Gray clapped the man gratefully on the shoulder. He’d saved all their lives. Gray pointed to the door. “Everybody out. We need to get out of this city. Fast.”

They hurried out to the street.

“Fast might be a problem,” Kowalski said. He stood with one hand on his hip, half hiding the snubbed assault rifle under his suit jacket.

Gray stared up and down the street and along the neighboring service alley. Every direction was packed with taxis, rickshaws, wagons, trucks, and cars.

All stopped dead. Not moving.

A chorus of horns and music blared, along with singing and chanting. A festival was in full swing down the street. The commotion had helped to mask the chaos at the hotel, but not completely.

Distantly, Gray heard a siren wailing. City police. Responding to the gunfire. He also heard shouts echo out of the lobby. The assault team headed down.

Rosauro turned to him. “What do we—?”

A scream of motorcycle engines cut her off. Gray turned. To the left a few blocks back, three black bikes zigzagged through the logjam. Too fast, too intent. They barreled through people, knocking them aside. They sped straight toward the hotel. Each bike bore an additional rider with a rifle. More commandos.

Gray pulled everyone into the service alley, out of direct view. He turned to Masterson and snatched the white hat from his head. “Your coat, too,” he ordered as he crammed the hat on his own head.

“What do you intend, sir?” Masterson asked as he climbed out of his white jacket.

“That sniper targeted you first, Dr. Masterson. You’re the primary target.”

“Pierce…,” Rosauro said warningly.

Gray hiked into the loose jacket. “I’m going to lead those bikes away,” he explained and pointed to the crowded street. He aimed his other arm down the narrow alley. “You take the others that way. We’ll regroup at the fort we saw coming into town.”

Rosauro paused to digest his plan, then quickly nodded.

“I’m coming with you,” Kowalski said. He stepped from beside Elizabeth and raised his weapon. “You’ll need backup.”

Rosauro nodded. “He’s better with you than me. I’ll have enough on my hands protecting the civilians.”

Gray didn’t have time to argue. He could use a little muscle and firepower. “Go!” he said.

“Mr. Pierce!”

Gray turned back. Masterson tossed his cane at him. He caught it, completing his ensemble.

“Just don’t lose it! That’s an eighteenth-century ivory handle!”

Gray hurried out into the streets with Kowalski in tow. He ran in a feigned stumble, waving his cane, shouting with a British accent. “Someone help! They’re bloody trying to kill me!”

He headed down the street toward the festival, running among the stalled cars and idling wagons. Behind them, the motorcycles choked and bobbled as they reached the hotel—then whined back up into a full scream.

Coming after them.

Kowalski followed. “They’ve taken the bait.”

6:33 A.M.

Washington, D.C.

A knock on the door startled Painter. He had been close to dozing off, seated in his chair, elbows on the desktop, a pile of notes and test results from Lisa and Malcolm beneath his face. Earlier, he had ordered Kat to take a nap in one of the medical center’s spare beds. Up all night himself, he should’ve taken that same advice.

He pressed the lock release under his desk, and the door swung open. He’d been expecting Lisa or Malcolm. Painter sat straighter in surprise and gained his feet.

A tall, wide-shouldered man entered, dressed in a blue suit. His red hair had gone mostly a whitish gray, combed neatly back.


Sean McKnight was the director of DARPA and Painter’s immediate superior. He’d also been the man to recruit Painter into Sigma over a decade ago, when Sean had sat in Painter’s chair. McKnight had been the visionary first director of Sigma, taking Archibald Polk’s concept and turning it into reality. But more important, Sean was a good friend.

The man waved Painter back into his seat.

“Don’t get up for me, son,” he said. “I’m not about to take that chair again.”

Painter smiled. On his first day as director, Sean had sent Painter a crate of antacids. He had thought it was a good gag gift—but a couple of years later, Painter had gone through half the crate.

“Something tells me, Sean, your job isn’t any lighter.”

“Not today it’s not.” Sean sank into a chair across the desk from him. “I’ve been checking into that man Commander Pierce saw outside the museum. Mapplethorpe. John Mapplethorpe.”

“So it wasn’t a false I.D. he’d spotted?”

“On the contrary. Mapplethorpe is a division chief for the Defense Intelligence Agency. His oversight is the Russian Federation and its splinter states.”

Painter recalled Malcolm’s initial assessment about where Polk had been fatally exposed to radiation. Chernobyl. What was Mapplethorpe’s role in all of this?

“The man has powerful allies among intelligence agencies,” Sean continued. “Known for his ruthlessness and manipulation. But he’s also known as someone who can get results. A valuable commodity in Washington.”

“So how is he involved in all of this?”

“I’ve read your update. You know all about the declassified Project Stargate. How it was discontinued in the middle 1990s.”

“But it wasn’t,” Painter said. “In its final years, it vanished into the Defense Intelligence Agency.”

“That’s correct. It became Mapplethorpe’s project. He was approached in 1996 by a pair of Russian scientists—who were running the Soviet Union’s version of Stargate. They were strapped for funds and sought our aid. We agreed to help—for our mutual benefit in this new world of borderless enemies. So a small cabal of Jasons was assigned to work jointly with the Russians. That’s when the whole project went deeply classified. Vanished. Only a handful of people were even aware of its continuing existence.”

“Until Archibald came stumbling to our doorstep,” Painter said.

“We believe he sought to expose them. To bring out evidence.”

“Of the atrocities being committed in the name of science.”

“In the name of national security,” Sean corrected. “Keep that in mind. That’s the oil that greases the wheels in Washington. Do not underestimate Mapplethorpe. He knows how to play this game. And he believes himself a true patriot. He’s also gone a long way to establish himself as such in the intelligence communities. Here and abroad.”

Painter shook his head.

Sean continued, “Mapplethorpe has got every intelligence agency in the country looking for that skull you acquired. Every combination of initials imaginable. CIA, FBI, NSA, NRO, ONI…I wager he’s even employed the network of retired spies with the AARP.”

Sean tried to smile at his own joke, but it came out tired. “I can’t keep a lid on this much longer. Archibald was shot right on your doorstep. His ties to the Jasons, to Sigma, will not go unnoticed for long. And after last year’s government oversight on our operations, there are many classified trails that lead here.”

“So what are you saying?” Painter asked.

“I think it’s time that the skull made a reappearance. The wolves are circling closer. I can broker the skull through another intelligence agency, so it doesn’t leave a trail back to Sigma.” He met and held Painter’s gaze.

“But that’ll buy you only a half a day grace period with the girl. If Gray and his team don’t have answers before then, we may be forced to give her up.”

“I won’t do that, Sean.”

“You may have no choice.”

Painter stood. “Then you meet her first. You look at her, what was done to her. And you tell me how I can hand that girl over to Mapplethorpe.”

Painter saw his mentor balk. It was easier to condemn the faceless. Still, Sean nodded and stood. He never shied from the difficult. It was why Painter respected the man so much.

“Let’s go say hello,” Sean said.

They exited together and descended the two levels to where the child was being kept.

As they reached the lower floor, Painter spotted Kat and Lisa at the end of the hall near the door to the girl’s room. Kat seemed frantic. Painter knew the woman had been upset after seeing the child draw a picture of her husband, Monk, but Kat had eventually calmed down. She had admitted opening her wallet to show the girl pictures of her own daughter, Penelope, as a baby, hoping to establish a bond with the child. She’d had a picture of Monk among the photos.

But I’m sure she didn’t see it, Kat had said. At least I’m fairly certain.

The only other explanation, as wild as it might be, was that the girl had somehow plucked Monk’s image out of Kat’s head, someone close to the woman’s heart.

Either way, Kat had calmed down and agreed that it was best she take a nap. Exhaustion had put her on edge.

Spotting the men now, Kat came down the hall to meet them, plainly too anxious to wait.

“Director,” she said in a rush, “we were about to call you. The girl’s fever is spiking again. We have to do something. Lisa thinks…thinks she’s dying.”

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