“I did. Especially with you. It was better together.”

He smiled. “Looks like I’m back in Sigma, then. I mean, someone’s got to keep you out of trouble.”

Her grin widened.

“And speaking of things that are better together.” He lifted her and pulled her atop his lap. Her legs straddled his waist. “And in case you wanted solid proof about how beautiful you are …”

He shifted.

Her eyes widened. “Oh.”

3:30 P.M.

President James T. Gant sat in his wheelchair as the nurse pushed him, trailed by two Secret Service agents.

“Your wife is resting comfortably,” the nurse assured him as they reached the private room, guarded by another agent.

“Thank you, Patti,” he said. “I’d like to go in alone, if that’s okay.”

“Certainly, Mr. President. If you need anything, you can buzz the nursing station.”

The guard opened the door, and James wheeled in by himself, leaving the agents outside. After the door closed, he climbed out of the wheelchair and crossed to the hospital bed on his own.

Teresa had two operations already to repair the damage from the “car accident,” which was the official story. They’d plated her shattered cheekbone and cracked her skull open to cauterize internal bleeding. The doctors warned him each time that the brain damage was too severe, that his wife would remain in a vegetative state, likely forever.

Still, James played the stricken husband who would do anything to keep his wife alive, demanding the painful surgeries.

He stared down at her shaved head, the tubes going into every orifice, the droop of her eyelids.

“You look a mess, Teresa,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “The doctors explained the difference between a coma and a vegetative state. Coma is characterized by a lack of awareness. You have what’s known as partial awareness. They say there’s a good chance you can hear me in there. I hope so.”

He patted her hand.

“Permanent vegetative state is defined as when you’ve been in this state for longer than a year. We’ll be reaching that milestone, my dear, I assure you of that. I’ve got a private hospital picked out in Charleston. Gant family–owned, of course. They’ll make sure you stay in this state forever, even if more surgery is necessary to make sure you never wake up.”

He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “And all of those life-extension research projects that you’ve been running? It seems a distraught husband is going to employ every one of them to make sure you stay like this year after year after year.”

He stood back up, remembering the oath he swore to Painter Crowe if he ever found out who hurt his family: There will be no quick death. I will make them suffer like no other. I’ll turn their world into a personal hell on earth.

If nothing else, James T. Gant was a man of his word.

He bent down, kissed his wife’s forehead, noting a fat tear rolling from her eye. “Welcome to hell, Teresa.”

9:30 P.M.

Takoma Park, Maryland

Gray finished washing the dinner dishes, staring out the window to the backyard. A dark gazebo stood in a remote corner, nestled amid overgrown rosebushes and shadowed by the bower of a cherry tree.

Movement drew his gaze: a shift of darkness, a glint of steel zipper on a jacket, a pale hint of skin.

Seichan stalked back there, as restless as she was thoughtful.

He knew what plagued her.

A dead man’s words.

Steps sounded behind him. He turned as Mary Benning, the night nurse, returned from upstairs.

“Got your father settled,” she said. “Already snoring by the time I was out the door.”

“Thanks.” He slipped the last dinner plate into the drying rack. “He seemed good tonight.”

“More at peace,” she agreed and smiled softly. “He missed you. But he’s too hardheaded to ever admit it.”

No argument about that.

Still, Gray remembered a strange moment when he first got back from the mission. He had come here, expecting the worst after being gone for nearly a week. Instead, he found his father in the kitchen with the sports page. When Gray stepped inside, his father looked him up and down, as if searching for something, then asked a blunt question that was oddly canny.

Did you get ’em?

Gray had answered truthfully. I got ’em, Dad. All of ’em.

His father could have been talking about many things, his inquiry interpreted many different ways, especially with the state of his dementia.

No matter the cause, his father had risen from the table and hugged Gray—as if thanking him for getting the revenge he could not.

And then, this morning, they’d gone as a family to their mother’s grave. Usually such visits brought tears and storm clouds, followed by a sullen, silent ride home. This morning, there had been tears, but also soft laughter. On the way home, his father told a couple of anecdotes about their mother. Even Kenny had shed his corporate bluster for an easier camaraderie. And more surprising still, his brother had agreed to extend his stay for another two months, mentioning something about telecommuting.

Some of that decision might be because Kenny had met a girl.

He was out with her tonight.

I’ll take what I can get.

Mary pointed to the screen door. “You kids enjoy the night. There’s supposed to be a meteor shower. If he gets restless, I’m taping the Nationals game against the Marlins. A little baseball quiets him right down. Unless it’s against the Yankees, then the gloves come off.”

Gray smiled. “Thanks, Mary.”

9:45 P.M.

Seichan stood in the dark gazebo, waiting, lost in her own thoughts. It was a balmy night, with crickets chirping in a continuous chorus, and a few fireflies blinking in the bushes and tree limbs.

She stared back at the house, wondering who she would be if she grew up there, picturing a happy childhood of report cards, scraped knees, and first kisses.

Would I even be me?

She fingered the silver dragon pendant resting in the hollow of her throat, remembering Robert Gant’s last words.

Your mother … escaped … still alive …

Over the past week, she’d slowly allowed herself to believe it.

It scared her.

Even her father’s death was no more than a dull ache, with no sharp edges to it. She didn’t know him and never really wanted to. Her mother had raised her. The word father had no meaning in her childhood. And a part of her still burned with anger and resentment, for the abuse and horrors she had to endure to become a killer. What father would allow that to happen to his daughter?

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