“Forty hours from now, this man will assassinate the president of the United States.”

THIRD

HUNTING GROUNDS

32

July 3, 1:04 P.M. EST

Washington, DC

Painter waited for the storm.

He stood in the central hall that cut through the lowermost level of their command bunker. Here Sigma hid its deepest secrets. He stood outside a room that only a handful of people had entered in the past five hours. His muscles knotted as he kept his post.

He wanted to pace away his anxiety—needed to pace.

It had been almost a day since he heard any word concerning Kat and Lisa, and even then, it had only been some grainy footage caught on a bank ATM camera.

Not a word or sighting since.

It ate a hole through his gut, through his spirit.

But he had a duty that could not be forsaken.

At the end of the hall, the elevator chimed and opened. The first two people to exit were members of the Secret Service. They both eyeballed Painter. One came down the hallway; the other remained behind and waved President James Gant out of the elevator.

Two more agents followed behind.

General Metcalf accompanied the president. “This way, sir.”

Gant’s gaze locked onto Painter. A black cloud darkened his aspect: the fury in his eyes, the flush on his face, the hardness to his every move. Even his stride was angry. Painter hoped he could get a word out before getting punched. And he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t still be slugged afterward. But the risk had to be taken.

The fate of the country depended on the next few minutes.

The press corps believed the president was attending a private meeting with the director of the Smithsonian. Even Gant thought he was here on Metcalf’s behalf to listen to Painter give an impassioned plea to save Sigma from the ax. The president had only agreed to come here after intense backroom negotiations by Metcalf. The general had to call in many political chits to get these five minutes of the commander in chief’s time.

Gant checked his watch as he crossed those final steps.

Apparently, time was already ticking down.

“This is a courtesy,” Gant said, his Carolina drawl thick with disdain. “Because of General Metcalf’s long, distinguished career. That’s the only reason I’m here. And this is the last courtesy I will extend to you.”

“Understood, Mr. President.”

Gant balled a fist. “So speak your piece and let’s be done with it.”

Painter instead turned to Metcalf. “What about the Secret Service agents?”

“Thoroughly vetted,” Metcalf answered. “All four. You’ll need them for what’s to come.”

Gant looked between the two of them. “Need them for what?”

Painter stepped back. “Before I speak, Mr. President, I need you to see something.”

Turning, Painter crossed to the door behind him. One of the Secret Service agents followed him. Painter opened the way and let the man go inside first to inspect the room. When he came out, his face was paler.

“Clear,” the agent stated, then stepped aside.

Painter held the door and nodded to Gant.

Glowering and straightening his tie, the president strode into the room.

Painter followed, shadowed by another agent, while the others took posts in the hall.

Gant stepped woodenly to the hospital bed. He stopped at the edge, his posture ramrod-stiff—then he collapsed to his knees, half-falling across the mattress. His shoulders shook. Then sobs wracked out of him.

If Painter had any lingering doubts about the man’s authenticity, they vanished in that moment.

“My baby …” he cried. “She’s alive.”

Amanda Gant-Bennett lay quietly on the bed, still under a light sedation. She wore a blue, flowered hospital gown. Intravenous fluids, along with two antibiotics, ran into a central line. Equipment monitored oxygenation, heart rhythm, and blood pressure. She wore a cap over her head. Beneath that, a bandage covered the surgery site where the cranial drill had been expertly removed by a neurosurgeon. A drain remained in place due to the length of time the burr hole had been left open. CT scans had showed the drill had penetrated the superior sagittal sinus through the frontal bone, but the cerebral cortex remained untouched. Secondary trauma had resulted in a tiny subdural hematoma, but that appeared to be resolving on its own.

With rest and time, she should fully recover.

Two other people occupied the room: Amanda’s neurosurgeon and Tucker Wayne. Neither man had left the young woman’s side since she arrived five hours ago. Her path back to the States had been a circuitous one. Jack Kirkland had transported her to the Deep Fathom, where medical personnel on board his ship had stabilized her en route to Abu Dhabi. There, Painter had called on the assistance of someone he trusted, someone who had powerful influences in the area: the oil baroness Lady Kara Kensington. She had arranged a private corporate jet while Painter prepared false papers.

No one outside Painter’s circle knew Amanda still lived.

Until now.

Gant turned, staying on his knees. “How?”

That one word encompassed so much.

“I’ll need more than five minutes,” Painter said.

Once granted, Painter told him everything. He left nothing out, drawing Gant back to his feet with the story. They stepped into a neighboring medical office just off of the ward—the father refused to be more than a few steps away from his daughter.

When he got to the story of Amanda’s rescue, Gant shook Tucker’s hand. “Thank you, son.”

Tucker nodded. “My honor, sir.”

“I’d like to meet that dog of yours sometime.”

“I’m sure that could be arranged.”

Painter had highlighted the key parts of Amanda’s story. All that was left were questions he could not fully answer.

“But I still don’t understand,” Gant said. “Why did they want my grandson?”

“We’re still trying to piece that together. Amanda had some moments of lucidity. I was able to ask her a few questions, glean some answers.”

“Tell me,” Gant said. He was seated at a small desk in the medical office, too shaken to keep his feet.

Painter remained standing. “Your daughter received a couriered package from an unknown source. Inside were fake passports and a note warning Amanda to flee, that her child was in danger. There were also papers included. Medical documents, faxes, lab reports. Enough to convince your daughter to vanish in order to protect her baby. The note also warned her not to tell anyone in her family, not to trust anyone.”

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