Painter’s patience was thread-thin, but he waved for them to continue.
“I asked Linus to test our new protocols in the search for Captain Bryant and Dr. Cummings,” Jason said. “I hope that was all right.”
“Of course.” At this point, he’d take any help. “What were you testing?”
“A new surveillance-and-tracking system similar to current facial-recognition programs—but instead of faces, we applied it to motor vehicles. Once on the road, the wear and tear on an automobile creates a unique pattern, as individual as any person’s fingerprints or facial features.”
“Is this going somewhere?” Painter asked.
Jason rushed ahead. “I took the liberty of gathering the database from your security team in Charleston. You asked them to collect video from the traffic and security cams around that restaurant.”
“And nothing came up.”
“Right. So I had Linus collect similar data from the cameras in North Charleston—gathering video footage from all the vehicles passing through that neighborhood. We took all that information and ran it through our new vehicle-recognition program.”
Jason squeezed Linus’s shoulder. He brought up side-by-side images on his monitor. It showed two partial views of a nondescript Ford SUV.
Jason continued, “I think our targets were purposefully avoiding traffic cams. It’s not hard to do if you know which intersections are monitored.”
And they would know that, Painter thought. It’s their home turf.
“We got these images off a couple of bank ATM cameras. The picture on the left was taken three blocks from the restaurant where Dr. Cummings vanished. The second crossed a bridge about four blocks from the clinic.” Jason faced him. “They’re the same vehicle.”
Painter countered skeptically, “There are a lot of Ford SUVs on the road.”
“Not that match the exact same pattern of wear and tear. But I wanted to be sure. That’s why I called you over.” Jason patted Linus again. His partner zoomed into the second image and set the footage in motion. “Like I said, the image is grainy, but we enhanced it the best we could.”
Painter leaned closer.
The expanded view peered through a back window. The shadowy figure of a man could be seen—and beside him a woman. Though the features were far from clear, she was definitely light-haired, similar profile—but it was more the way she carried herself, the way she moved, that made Painter’s breath quicken.
Hope surged in him.
“I wasn’t sure,” Jason said.
“What about Kat?” Painter asked.
Other figures were in the car, but they were just indistinct blurs.
“I can’t say for sure,” Jason admitted. “And unfortunately we never did get a clear take on the license plate. If they’d gone through a traffic cam …”
It was unfortunate, but it was also a start.
And, more important.
He took a deep breath, not letting his relief overwhelm him, knowing matters could change at any moment. Painter only had to look at the neighboring monitor, at the fiery ruins of the clinic, to remind himself again of the Guild’s scorched-earth policy.
The bastards would not leave loose ends.
And right now that was the definition of Lisa and Kat.
The same could be said of Gray’s team. They were penetrating the latest Guild stronghold, on the trail of the president’s daughter.
Painter watched the last of the clinic buildings crumble into flame and smoke. It was a fiery warning for Gray, too.
July 3, 3:13 A.M. Gulf Standard Time
Off the coast of Dubai
“They took Amanda into this elevator,” Tucker said.
Gray stood with his hands on his hips. He watched Kane sniff along the floor, the shepherd’s tail wagging vigorously. He didn’t doubt the dog’s nose, but he still hesitated.
The lobby bay had a dozen elevators banked in a semicircle. He stared up, following the spiraling curve of the translucent staircase. Both the elevators and the stairs ascended the central shaft of the Burj Abaadi. Each floor revolved around this stable core.
“Fifty floors,” Kowalski said. “At least we don’t have to climb each one.”
“But we’ll need to stop at each one,” Seichan said. “Have Kane see if Amanda’s trail continues out onto any of those levels.”
Gray’s three teammates looked to him for their next step. Even Kane stopped his sniffing to glance in his direction. Gray ignored them for a moment longer.
Something doesn’t make sense.
Gray had studied each of the floors on the security cameras. He saw no evidence of life up there. But he had to trust Kane. The dog had gotten them this far. Settled, he reached and hit the call button for the elevator.
The doors opened immediately. They all stepped inside the posh lift, appointed in rich exotic woods and crystal lighting.
“So should we start at the top and work our way down?” Tucker asked. “Or the other way around?”
“Neither,” Gray said, an edge of certainty hardening inside him as he bent down toward the elevator’s controls.
He pointed to the rows of buttons lined along a flat touch-screen display. Illuminated numbers designated each floor. As he watched, each numeral slowly transformed and rotated through various characters in other languages: Chinese, Japanese, Arabic.
Definitely trying to appeal to the global traveler here.
“I don’t get it,” Kowalski said. “If we’re not going up, then where are we going?”
Gray watched the lowest button glow in Arabic.
Then it shifted to the English equivalent.
“There’s a lower level,” Seichan said.
Kowalski looked to his toes. “Wait. How could there be a basement on a floating island?”
Gray knew this tower had been built in conjunction with the island’s construction. The bedrock upon which the foundation of this tower had been placed was the immense platform holding up Utopia. That concrete-and-steel stage lay approximately ten meters under them, leaving plenty of space for a basement here.
“Must be a service level for the tower,” Seichan said.
“And maybe more,” Gray added, pressing the button.
The letter flashed green, and the cage dropped silently, so smoothly it was hard to tell they were moving at all.
“Be ready,” Gray warned.
Weapons appeared in hands. Tucker signaled his dog, who lowered his haunches, readying to spring.