He spotted or maybe merely sensed the movement of something large just at the forest edge. A slightly paler shade of shadow.
Half beast, half ghost…
Though unseen, he knew the truth.
Not today…he prayed not today.
Khamisi crashed through the reeds—
—and dove headlong into the water hole.
Fiona's scream punctuated the sniper's rifle blast.
Gray twisted, hoping to escape mortal injury. As he turned, a blur of something large crashed out through the remains of the smoky shop window.
The gunman must have caught the same movement a fraction before Gray, enough to throw his aim off by a hairbreadth.
Gray felt the sear of the bullet's passage under his left arm.
He continued to spin farther out of point-blank range.
From the window, the large shape bounded atop the trash bin and bowled into the rifleman.
"Bertal!" Fiona yelled.
The shaggy Saint Bernard, soaked to the skin, clamped his jaws onto the rifleman's forearm. The sudden and unexpected attack caught the man off guard. He fell back into the shadows behind the trash bin. His rifle clattered to the flagstones.
Gray lunged for it.
A canine yelp sounded near at hand. Before Gray could react, the assassin leaped out, high. He planted a boot heel into Gray's shoulder, smashed him into the stones, and bolted over him.
Gray flipped to his side, aiming the captured rifle. But the man moved like a gazelle. Flagging a black trench coat, he vaulted over a garden stone fence and ducked away. Gray heard his footfalls retreating down the alley.
Fiona ran up to Gray. She had a pistol in hand. "The other man…" She pointed behind her. "I think he's dead."
Gray shouldered the rifle and took the pistol from her hand. She didn't argue, too intent on another concern.
The dog came out, tottering, weak, one side was severely scorched.
Gray glanced back to the burning shop. How had the poor guy survived? Gray pictured where he had last seen the dog: blasted by the initial firebombs into the back wall, knocked unconscious.
Fiona hugged the soaked brute.
The dog must have landed under a sprinkler.
She lifted the Saint Bernard's face, staring nose to muzzle. "Good dog."
Gray agreed. He owed Bertal. "All the Starbucks you want, buddy," he promised under his breath.
Bertal's limbs trembled. He sank to his haunches, then to the stones. Whatever adrenaline had sustained the poor brute was giving out.
Off to the left, raised voices reached them, calling out in Danish. A spray of jetted water sailed high. Firefighters were headed around the far side of the shop.
Gray could stay no longer.
"I have to go."
Fiona stood up. She glanced between Gray and the dog.
"Stay with Bertal," he said, backing a step. "Get him to a doctor."
Fiona's gaze hardened. "And you're just going to leave…"
"I'm sorry." It was a lame response to encompass the horrors: the murder of her grandmother, the burning down of their shop, the hairbreadth escape. But he didn't know what else to say, and he had no time to explain more.
He turned and headed toward the rear garden wall.
"Yeah, go ahead, sod off!" Fiona yelled after him.
Gray hopped the fence, face burning.
He hurried down the alley. He hated abandoning her—but there was no choice. She was better off. Within the circle of emergency personnel, she would be sheltered, protected. Where Gray had to go next was no place for a fifteen-year-old. Still, his face continued to burn. Deeper down, he could not deny a more selfish motivation: he was simply glad to be rid of her, of the responsibility.
No matter…it was done.
He stalked quickly down the alley. He tucked the pistol into the waistband of his pants and ejected all the shells from the rifle. Once finished, he shoved the rifle behind a stack of lumber. Carrying it would be too conspicuous. As he continued, he pulled his sweater back on. He needed to abandon his hotel and change identities. The deaths here would be investigated. It was time to let the persona of Dr. Sawyer die.
But before that, he had one more task to complete.
He freed his cell phone from a back pocket and hit speed dial for central command. After a few moments, he was connected with Logan Gregory, his op mission leader.
"We have a problem out here," Gray said.
"Whatever is going on is bigger than we initially thought. Big enough to kill over." Gray debriefed his morning. A long stretch of silence followed.
Logan finally spoke, a strain of tension in his voice. "Then it's best if we scrub this mission until you have more resources on the ground."
"If I wait for backup, it'll be too late. The auction is in a few more hours."
"Your cover's blown, Commander Pierce."
"I'm not sure it is. As far as the principals know, I'm an American buyer who asks too many questions. They won't try anything in the open. There'll be plenty of people in attendance at the auction, and the house has tight security. I can still canvass the site and perhaps ascertain some clues about who or what's really behind all this. Afterward, I'll disappear, go low until I have more help."
Gray also wanted to get his hands on that Bible, if only to inspect it.
Logan spoke. "I don't think that's wise. The potential risk outweighs the potential gain. Especially as a solo op."
Gray's response grew heated. "So the bastards try to fry my ass…and now you want me to sit on it?"
Gray's fingers tightened on the phone. Logan had plainly spent too much time as a paper pusher at Sigma. For a research mission, Logan was adequate as an ops leader—but this was no longer a fact-gathering assignment. It was turning into a full-blown Sigma Force op. And if that was the case, Gray wanted someone with real leadership backing him up.
"Maybe we should get Director Crowe involved," Gray said.
Another long pause followed. Perhaps he had said the wrong thing. He didn't mean to insult Logan, to go over his head, but sometimes you simply had to know when to step aside.
"I'm afraid that would be impossible at the moment, Commander Pierce."
"Director Crowe is currently incommunicado in Nepal."
Gray frowned. "In Nepal? What's he doing in Nepal?"
"Commander, you sent him."
Then it dawned on Gray.
The call had come in a week ago.