From an old friend.

Gray's mind slipped into the past, back to his first days with Sigma Force. Like all other Sigma agents, Gray had a background with Special Forces: joining the army at eighteen, the Rangers at twenty-one. But after being court-martialed for striking a superior officer, Gray had been recruited by Sigma Force, straight out of Leavenworth. Still, he had been leery. There had been a good reason he'd struck that officer. The man's incompetence had resulted in needless deaths in Bosnia—deaths of children—but Gray's anger had deeper roots. Tangled issues with authority, going back to his father. And while those hadn't been completely resolved, it had taken a wise man to show Gray the path.

That man had been Ang Gelu.

"Are you saying Director Crowe is out in Nepal because of my friend the Buddhist monk?"

"Painter knew how important the man was to you."

Gray stopped walking and stepped into the shadows.

He had spent four months studying with the monk in Nepal, alongside his training for Sigma. In fact, it was through Ang Gelu that Gray had developed his own unique curriculum at Sigma. Gray had been fast-tracked to study biology and physics, a dual degree, but Ang Gelu elevated Gray's studies, instructing him how to search for the balance between all things. The harmony of opposites. The Taoist yin and yang. The one and the zero.

Such insight eventually helped Gray confront demons of his past.

Growing up, he had always found himself stuck between opposites. Though his mother had taught at a Catholic high school, instilling a deep spirituality in Gray's life, she was also an accomplished biologist, a devout disciple of evolution and reason. She placed as much faith and trust in the scientific method as in her own religion.

And then there was his father: a Welshman living in Texas, a roughneck oilman disabled in midlife and having to assume the role of a housewife. As a result, his life became ruled by overcompensation and anger.

Like father, like son.

Until Ang Gelu had shown Gray another way.

A path between opposites. It was not a short path. It extended as much into the past as the future. Gray was still struggling with it.

But Ang Gelu had helped Gray take his first steps. He owed the monk for that. So when the call for help reached Gray a week ago, he had not wanted to ignore it. Ang Gelu reported strange disappearances, odd maladies, all in a certain region near the Chinese border.

The monk had not known to whom to turn. His own government in Nepal was too focused on the Maoist rebels. And Ang Gelu knew Gray was involved in a nebulous chain of command in covert ops. So he had appealed to Gray for help. But already assigned to this current mission, Gray had turned the matter over to Painter Crowe.

Passing the buck…

"I had only meant for Painter to send a junior operative," Gray stumbled out, incredulous. "To check it out. Certainly there were others who—"

Logan cut him off. "It was slow here."

Gray bit back a groan. He knew what Logan meant. The same lull in global threats had brought Gray to Denmark.

"So he went?"

"You know the director. Always wants to get his hands dirty." Logan sighed in exasperation. "And now there's a problem. A storm blanketed communication for a few days, but now that it's cleared, we've still not heard an update from the director. Instead we're hearing rumors through various channels. The same stories as reported by your friend. Sickness, plague, deaths, even possible rebel attacks in the region. Only it's escalating." Gray now understood the strain he'd been hearing in Logan's voice. It seemed it was not only Gray's mission that was going tits up.

When it rains, it pours.

"I can send you Monk," Logan said. "He and Captain Bryant are on their way here. Monk can be on the ground there in ten hours. Stand down until then."

"But the auction will be over—"

"Commander Pierce, you have your orders."

Gray spoke rapidly, his voice tightening again. "Sir, I've already set up buttonhole cameras at entry and egress points around the auction house. It would be a waste to ignore them."

"All right. Monitor the cameras from a secure location. Record everything. But no more. Is that understood, Commander?"

Gray bristled, but Logan had his hands full. All because of a favor to Gray. So he had little reason to object. "Very good, sir."

"Report in after the auction," Logan said.

"Yes, sir."

The line clicked off.

Gray continued through the backstreets of Copenhagen, alert to all around him. But worry nagged him.

For Painter, for Ang Gelu…

What the hell was happening in Nepal?


11:18 a.m. HIMALAYAS

"And you're sure Ang Gelu was killed?" Painter asked, glancing back.

A nod answered him.

Lisa Cummings had finished her story, having told how she'd been enlisted from an Everest climbing team to investigate an illness at the monastery. She had quickly related the horrors that followed: the madness, the explosions, the sniper.

Painter reviewed her story in his head as the pair wound deeper into the monastery's subterranean root cellar. The narrow stone maze was not meant for one his size. He had to keep tucked low. Still, the top of his head brushed across some hanging bundles of drying juniper branches. The aromatic sprays were used to make ceremonial smudge sticks for the temple overhead, a temple that was now just one large smudge stick, burning and smoking into the midday sky.

Weaponless, they had fled into the cellars to escape the flames. Painter had stopped only long enough to grab a heavy poncho and a pair of fur-lined boots from a cloakroom. In the current getup, he almost looked the part of a Pequot Indian, even if he was only half-blooded. He had no recollection of where his own clothes or packs had been taken.

Three days had vanished from his life.

Along with ten pounds.

While donning the robe earlier, he noted the prominence of his ribs. Even his shoulders seemed bonier. He had not fully escaped the illness here. Still, at least his strength continued to improve.

It needed to.

Especially with an assassin still on the loose.

Painter had heard the occasional spats of gunfire as they fled below. A sniper was killing anyone who fled the burning monastery. Dr. Cummings had described the attacker. Only one man. Surely there were others. Were they Maoist rebels? It made no sense. What end did their slaughter serve?

Bearing a penlight in hand, Painter led the way.

Dr. Cummings followed closely.

Painter had learned she was an American medical doctor and a member of an Everest climbing party. He studied her glancingly, evaluating her. She was long-legged with an athletic physique, blond and ponytailed, her cheeks rosy from windburn. She was also terrified. She kept close to him, jumping at the occasional muffled pop of the firestorm overhead. Still, she didn't stop, no tears, no complaints. It seemed she staved off any shock by sheer will.