“No,” Kat answered from the backseat.
Her friend crouched behind Cranston, a pistol in one hand, the doctor’s cell phone in the other. Cranston still sat in the front passenger seat, his wrists zip-tied to the headrest behind him. An awkward stress position, but Kat ignored his protests.
Beyond that cold professionalism, Lisa recognized a glimmer of hatred in Kat’s eyes. While not getting the full story concerning what had happened at the North Charleston Fertility Clinic, Lisa understood enough to know whom to blame.
Cranston was a monster hiding behind a handsome face.
And one with great ambitions.
“There should be a signal by now,” Kat said. “But I’m still not getting any reception.”
After commandeering the vehicle, Kat had ordered Lisa to turn the SUV around and backtrack along their path. She wanted to reach a phone or get close enough to a cell tower to regain reception.
“Some farmhouses off to the right,” Lisa offered. “We can turn in and ask for help.”
“They might alert the local authorities. I don’t know who to trust out here.”
Lisa remembered Painter expressing the same concern. The Gants owned much of South Carolina. Who knew how far that reach extended into local law enforcement?
“Look.” Lisa pointed ahead. “There’s a sign for a turnoff to Orangeburg. Surely that town must get cell signal.”
“Head that way,” Kat agreed, but she kept searching around the vehicle, with a suspicious look.
Lisa made that turn and traveled a half-mile. Off in the distance, the steeple of a church poked above the tree line. That had to be the town of Orangeburg.
Too focused on the horizon, Lisa glided through an intersection with a flashing red light. A small drawbridge crossed a hidden river. A warning gate began to drop across its entrance.
She pulled to a stop in front of it.
As she waited for the drawbridge to open, Lisa asked, “Anything now?”
In the rearview mirror, Kat’s eyes fixed at the back of Cranston’s head. He’d been unusually quiet for the past five minutes, no further complaints about his wrists.
A low rumble announced the raising of the bridge—but then got louder and louder—becoming more like a thumping.
Lisa frowned, concerned about the worn mechanics of the old bridge.
Kat’s reaction was rougher. She jerked upright and threw her cell phone out the window. She clutched Lisa’s shoulder at the same time.
“Get us out of here! Now!”
The warning came too late.
A sleek military-gray helicopter burst out of hiding from the riverbed to the left. It lofted high over the bridge.
Lisa yanked the car into reverse and jammed the gas. She raced backward to the intersection, fishtailed the car a full 180, and was ready to speed off—but the helicopter was faster. The chopper cut them off, plunging out of the sky to block the road.
Lisa braked, avoiding a collision with the whirling blades.
Rotor wash beat at the Ford’s windshield.
A bullhorn roared. “Throw your weapons clear of the vehicle! Exit with your hands up!”
To make sure the order was understood, a small gun mounted on the chopper’s underside chattered, and a spate of rounds blasted into the pavement in front of the SUV.
Lisa turned to Kat.
She shook her head. “Do what they say.”
Into that stunned silence, Cranston smiled. “Ladies, you’re not the only ones allowed surprises.” He awkwardly swiveled around. “Back there, I disabled my phone’s cellular receiver and activated an emergency satellite beacon built into the phone.”
Turning it into a tracking device, Lisa realized. No wonder Kat jettisoned the phone.
Cranston frowned. “Though I have to say the emergency response was faster than I expected. Apparently, my employers truly don’t want you to escape. But why? Who the hell are you?”
Kat raised the pistol to his ear. “You’ll never know.” His eyes got huge as the pistol exploded, shattering away half his face.
Lisa cringed from the sudden brutality, her ears ringing as Kat tossed the weapon through the window. Still, Lisa heard the fierce whisper that followed.
“That was for Amy.”
Painter sat in Kat’s chair, rubbing his eyes. The faint smell of jasmine that hung in the air was no longer evident. Maybe it had faded away with everyone bustling in and out of the office, or maybe he’d just become desensitized to the scent. Either way, he felt a nagging sense of loss, a foreboding.
You’re just exhausted, he tried to convince himself.
Jason and Linus continued their work, searching for any other sightings of the Ford. Painter had played that grainy footage over and over again, watching the shadowy shape shift frame by frame, knowing it was Lisa.
He was relieved to find her still alive, but the longer that silence stretched, with no further word on Kat and Lisa’s true fate, the deeper that icy knife twisted in his gut.
He forced his eyes to stare once more at the map on the monitor. It displayed South Carolina, along with parts of North Carolina and Georgia. Large swaths of red stood out from the green background. The crimson areas were landholdings of the Gant family.
Painter suspected Lisa and Kat were hidden somewhere in that crimson field.
Which presented a major challenge.
The Gant family had arrived on the shores of the Carolinas a century before the founding of this country, settling in the city of Charles Town, which later became simply Charleston. Wealth and power grew rapidly, channeled through the financial support of the family’s Old World connections in both France and England. As that family grew, so did its reach and influence, branching into universities, governments, military institutions, and banking circles.
And much of that wealth turned into land.
It was said, back at the turn of the century, that the Gants could ride horseback from one side of the state to the other—from the beaches of Charleston across the low-country counties and up to the Blue Ridge Mountains—all without ever stepping foot off their own property.
Today, the Gants could drive a herd of cattle across the state and make that same claim.
Painter rubbed his temples, overwhelmed by the wealth and power that opposed his small group. How could they hope to succeed against a force so entrenched? And if the enemy ever did learn Sigma was still investigating them in secret, what would their next response be?
He could guess the answer. In 146 B.C., Rome destroyed Carthage by sacking the place, burning the city, enslaving the survivors, and salting the very earth to make sure nothing ever grew there again.