The Sonnekonige were not like other men.

He slowly pushed to his feet. He had a duty to finish. It was why he had been born. To serve.

Painter slammed the trapdoor closed.

"Help me with this," he said, limping to the side. Pain prickled up his leg. He pointed to a stack of crates. "Stack them on the trapdoor."

He dragged off the topmost crate. Too heavy to carry, it crashed to the floor with a clang of rattling metal. He dragged it toward the door. He didn't know what was inside the crates, only that they were heavy, damn heavy.

He manhandled the box atop the trapdoor.

Lisa struggled with a second. He joined her, grabbing a third.

Together they hauled the load to the door.

"One more," Painter said.

Lisa stared at the pile of crates on the door. "No one's getting through that."

"One more," Painter insisted, panting and grimacing. "Trust me."

They dragged the last one together. It took both of them to lift it atop the others already piled on the trapdoor.

"The drugs will keep him out cold for hours," Lisa said.

A single gunshot answered her. A rifle round pierced through the loaded trapdoor and drilled into one of the barn rafters.

"I think I'm going to want a second opinion," Painter said, pulling her away.

"Did you get all of the midazolam…the sedative into him?"

"Oh yeah."

"Then how—?"

"I don't know. And right now, don't care."

Painter led her toward the open barn door. After searching for any other gunmen, they fled outside. To the left, the world was a fiery, smoky ruin. Flaming embers swirled into a lowering sky.

Clouds the color of granite obscured the summit overhead.

"Taski was right," Lisa mumbled, pulling up the hood of her parka.

"Who?"

"A Sherpa guide. He warned that another storm front would strike today."

Painter followed the flames twisting toward the clouds. Heavy white snowflakes began to sift downward, mixing with a black rain of glowing ash. Fire and ice. It was a fitting memorial to the dozen monks who had shared this monastery.

As Painter remembered the gentle men who made their home here, a dark anger stoked inside him. Who would slaughter the monks with such me re i I ess n ess?

He had no answer to the who, but he did know the why.

The illness here.

Something had gone wrong—and now someone sought to cover it up.

An explosion cut off any further contemplation. Flame and smoke belched out the barn door. One of the crate lids sailed out into the yard.

Painter grabbed Lisa's arm.

"Did he just blow himself up?" Lisa asked, staring aghast toward the barn.

"No. Just the trapdoor. C'mon. The fires will only hold him off so long."

Painter led the way across the ice-crusted ground, avoiding the frozen carcasses of the goats and sheep. They picked their way out the pen gate.

Snow grew heavier. A mixed blessing. Painter wore only a thick woolen robe and fur-lined boots. Not much insulation against a blizzard. But the fresh snowfall would help hide their path and shave visibility.

He led the way toward a path that ran along a sheer cliff face and trailed down to the lower village, the village he had visited a few days ago.

"Look!" Lisa said.

Below, a column of smoke churned into the sky, a smaller version of the one at their back.

"The village…" Painter tightened a fist.

So it wasn't just the monastery that was being eradicated. The scatter of huts below had been firebombed, too. The attackers were leaving no witnesses.

Painter pulled back from the cliff-side trail. It was too exposed.

The path would surely be watched, and others might still be below.

He retreated back toward the fiery ruins of the monastery.

"Where are we going to go?" Lisa asked.

Painter pointed beyond the flames. "No-man's-land."

"But isn't that where—?"

"Where the lights were last seen," he confirmed. "But the broken land is also a place to lose ourselves. To find shelter. To hole up and weather out the storm. We'll wait for others to come investigate the fire and smoke."

Painter stared at the thick black column. It should be visible for miles. A smoke signal, like his Native American ancestors once used. But was there anyone to see it? His gaze shifted higher, to the clouds. He tried to pierce the cover to the open skies beyond. He prayed someone recognized the danger.

Until then…

He had only one choice.

"Let's go."

1:25 a.m. WASHINGTON, D.C.

Monk crossed the dark Capitol Plaza with Kat at his side. They marched in brisk stride together, not so much in simpatico as irritation.

"I'd prefer we wait," Kat said. "It's too early. Anything might happen."

Monk could smell the hint of jasmine from her. They had showered hurriedly together after the call from Logan Gregory, caressing each other in the steam, entwined as they rinsed, a final intimacy. But afterward, as they separately toweled and dressed, practicality began to intrude with every tug of a zipper and securing of a button. Reality set in, cooling their passion as much as the night's chill.

Monk glanced at her now.

Kat wore navy blue slacks, a white blouse, and a windbreaker emblazoned with the U.S. Navy symbol. Professional as always, as spit-and-polished as her black leather pumps. While Monk, in turn, wore black Reeboks, dark jeans, and an oatmeal-colored turtleneck sweater, topped by a Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

"Until I know for sure," Kat continued, "I'd prefer we keep silent about the pregnancy."

"What do you mean by until I know for sure? Until you know for sure you want the baby? Until you're sure about us?"

They had argued all the way from Kat's apartment at the edge of Logan Circle, a former Victorian bed-and-breakfast that had been converted into condos, within walking distance of the Capitol. This night, the short walk seemed interminable.

"Monk…"

He stopped. He reached a hand out to her, then lowered it. Still, she stopped, too.

He stared her square in the eye. "Tell me, Kat."

"I want to make sure the pregnancy…I don't know…sticks. Until I'm further along before telling anyone." Her eyes glistened in the moonlight, near tears.

"Baby, that's why we should let everyone know." He stepped closer. He placed a hand on her belly. "To protect what's growing here."

She turned away, his hand now resting on the small of her back. "And then maybe you were right. My career…maybe this isn't the right time."

Source: www.StudyNovels.com