He smiled at her, his eyes sparkling. Despite his outward degeneration, the man himself remained sharp. She had noted a very slight slurring to his speech, but it could just be the drugs. Would his mind be the last to go?
Beneath the table, her hand reached for his, a reflexive gesture.
He took it.
She didn't want him to go. The strength of her emotion overwhelmed her, surprising her. She had barely gotten to know him. She wanted to know more. His favorite food, what made him belly laugh, how he danced, what he would whisper when he said good night. She didn't want it all to go away.
Her fingers squeezed, as if her will alone could hold him here.
At that moment, the door to the room opened again. The UK operative had finally arrived.
Lisa turned, surprised at who walked in. She had been picturing some James Bond clone, some clean-cut and Armani-suited spy. Instead, a middle-aged woman, dressed in a wrinkled khaki safari suit, entered the room. She carried a hat crumpled in one hand. Her face was mildly pancaked in red dust, except around her eyes, where sunglasses must have sat. It gave her a startled appearance, despite the weary set to her shoulders and a certain sadness in her eyes.
"I'm Dr. Paula Kane," she said, nodding to Major Brooks as she entered, then stepping over to join them. "We don't have much time to coordinate."
Painter stood over the table. An array of satellite photos was spread out over the table. "How old are these shots?" he asked.
"Taken at dusk last night," Paula Kane said.
The woman had already explained her role here. After graduating with a Ph.D. in biology, she had been recruited by British intelligence and posted in South Africa. She and a partner ran a series of research projects while secretly monitoring and watching the Waalenberg estate. They had been spying upon the family for close to a decade, until a tragedy less than two days ago. Her partner had been killed under strange circumstances. Lion attack was the official explanation. But the woman had looked little convinced as she offered this explanation.
"We did an infrared pass after midnight," Paula continued, "but there was a glitch. We lost the image."
Painter stared at the layout of the massive estate, over a hundred thousand acres. A small landing strip was visible, cut through a swath of jungle. Outbuildings dotted a landscape of forested highlands, vast grassy savannas, and dense jungle. In the center of the densest section of forest squatted a castle of stone and wood. The Waalenberg main residence.
"And we can't get a better view of the lay of the land around the mansion?"
Paula Kane shook her head. "The jungle in the area is Afromontane forest, ancient woodlands. Only a few such forests remain in South Africa. The Waalenbergs picked this location for their estate both because of its remoteness and to capture this gigantic forest for themselves. The bones of this forest are trees forty meters high, layered into distinct strata and canopies. The biodiversity within its bower is denser than any rain forest or Congo jungle."
"And it offers a perfect insulating cover," Painter said.
"What goes on beneath that canopy is known only to the Waalenbergs. But we do know the engineering of the manor house is only the tip of an iceberg. A vast underground complex lies beneath the estate."
"How deep?" Painter asked, eyeing Lisa. If they were experimenting with the Bell here, they would want it buried away.
"We don't know. Not for sure. But the Waalenbergs made their fortune in gold mining."
"At the Witwatersrand Reef."
Paula glanced up at him. "Correct. I see you've been doing your homework." She turned her attention back to the satellite photos. "The same expertise at mine engineering was used to construct a subterranean complex beneath their mansion. We know the mining engineer, Bertrand Culbert, was consulted in the construction of the manor's foundations, but he died shortly thereafter."
"Let me guess. Under mysterious circumstances."
"Trampled by a water buffalo. But his death was not the first, nor the last associated with the Waalenbergs." Her eyes flared with pain, plainly reminded of her partner. "Rumors abound of people vanishing in the area."
"Yet no one has served a search warrant on the estate."
"You have to understand the volatility of South African politics. Regimes may change, but gold has always ruled here. The Waalenbergs are untouchable. Gold protects them better than any moat or personal army."
"And what about you?" Painter asked. "What's MI5's interest here?"
"Our interest goes back a considerable way, I'm afraid. British intelligence has had their eye on the Waalenbergs since the end of World War II."
Painter settled back down into his chair, tiring. One of his eyes was having trouble focusing. He rubbed at it. Too conscious of Lisa studying him, he turned his attention to Paula. He had not voiced his discovery of the Nazi symbol buried within the center of the Waalenberg crest, but apparently MI5
was already aware of the connection.
"We knew the Waalenbergs were major financial backers of the Ahnenerbe Forschungs und Lehrgemeinshaft, the Nazis' Ancestral Heritage and Teaching Society. Are you familiar with the group?"
He shook his head, triggering a spasm. His headaches of late had spread to his neck and shot pain down his spine. He rode the agony, teeth clenched.
"The Ancestral Heritage Society was a research group, under Heinrich Himmler. They were conducting projects seeking out the roots of the Aryan race. They were also responsible for some of the most heinous atrocities committed in concentration camps and other secret facilities. Basically they were mad scientists with guns."
Painter held back a wince—but this time it was more psychic than physical. He had heard Sigma described in similar terms. Scientists with guns. Was that their true enemy here? A Nazi version of Sigma?
Lisa stirred. "What was the Waalenbergs' interest in this line of research?"
"We're not entirely sure. But there were many Nazi sympathizers in South Africa during the war. We know the current patriarch, Sir Baldric Waalenberg, also had interests in eugenics, and he participated in scientific conferences in Germany and Austria before hostilities broke out. But after the war, he disappeared into seclusion, taking his entire family with him."
"Licking his wounds?" Painter asked.
"We don't believe so. After the war, Allied forces scoured the German countryside, searching for secret Nazi technology." Paula shrugged. "Including our own British forces."
Painter nodded. He had already heard about that pillaging and looting from Anna.