She guessed the Blue Ridge Mountains, but she couldn’t be certain.
She had faded away again and suspected she had been given a second injection at some point. Two needle marks itched on her upper arm.
She scratched absently at them through the thin gown she wore. Someone had stripped her and dressed her in a featureless cotton dress, like a hospital gown but closed in the back. It was pulled over the head and cinched in place. She also wore slippers and an ill-fitting bra and a pair of panties. The garments were clean but not new. From the slight fraying, someone had worn these clothes before—and that added to her nervousness.
What had happened to those others?
A sharp buzz sounded from the television. It drew her attention around. On the screen, the view of a small hospital ward appeared. Two figures in scrubs moved across the screen, working in what appeared to be a NICU, a neonatal intensive care unit.
A computer-altered voice spoke, eerily flat and disjointed. “DR. LISA CUMMINGS, IT HAS COME TO OUR ATTENTION THAT YOU HAVE BOTH A MEDICAL BACKGROUND AND A PH.D. IN PHYSIOLOGY. IS THAT CORRECT?”
“Yes,” she said tentatively, unable to think of a good reason to lie. They clearly knew who she was, likely pulling her records based on her fingerprints.
“USEFULNESS IS A VIRTUE HERE,” she was coldly instructed. “EVERYONE MUST HAVE A PURPOSE. TO THAT END, WE WOULD LIKE YOU TO ASSIST US IN DIAGNOSING AND TREATING A NEWBORN HERE AT THE FACILITY. WE’RE CURRENTLY UNDERSTAFFED FOR THE WORK NECESSARY, ESPECIALLY IN REGARDS TO SKILLED MEDICAL PERSONNEL.”
Lisa processed this and came to one conclusion. “Why should I help you?”
“IF SAVING THE LIFE OF A CHILD IS NOT ENOUGH, PERHAPS THE LIFE OF A FRIEND.”
The view swiped away, and a room similar to hers materialized on the monitor—only its walls were a dark red. It was like looking through a window into a neighboring cell. But that room could be anywhere in the complex. The woman seated on the bed burst to her feet, rushed forward to fill the screen, placing a hand against it.
Lisa laid hers there, too, matching finger for finger. She imagined the warmth of the electronics came from the palm of her best friend.
“Lisa, are you okay?”
The connection cut, and the screen went black. The voice returned. “EVERY FAILURE OR DISOBEDIENCE ON YOUR PART WILL BE EXACTED UPON THE FLESH OF YOUR FRIEND. PROVE YOUR USEFULNESS, AND YOU BOTH CONTINUE TO LIVE.”
She swallowed hard, suddenly finding it too chilly in her thin gown. “What do you want me to do?”
The electronic door lock clicked loudly.
“GO OUT TO YOUR RIGHT. END OF THE HALL.”
The screen went dark.
Lisa hesitated a few breaths, but she knew she had no choice. Cooperation would buy extra time—time to find a way to escape, time for Painter to find them. She pictured her boyfriend’s face, the lock of snowy hair tucked behind one ear, the sharp intelligence in his eyes—and, most of all, the love shining in the night across a pillow.
That last, more than anything, gave her the strength to keep moving.
She stepped over to the door, pushed it open, and headed to the right. The hall held a dozen cells. She searched for Kat among them, but they all appeared empty, at least as far as she could tell.
“Kat,” she called out softly, walking slowly, swiveling her head.
No response, no face appeared pressed against a glass door.
Several of the rooms had their mattresses rolled up, giving the entire wing a feeling of disuse, but also a sense of expectation, like an empty boarding school waiting to be occupied for a new semester.
Maybe that came from the low murmur of voices ahead.
Reaching the end of the hall, she pushed through the far door into a small medical ward, the same one from the television. Crates and boxes filled one half of the space, some open, others spilling packing material and showing plastic-wrapped medical equipment inside.
The other half held the neonatal unit. A woman in scrubs spotted her and motioned her forward to join them, like one colleague greeting another.
Before she could step closer, a door on the other side of the ward opened, and a broad-shouldered older man entered, dressed in a somber gray suit, his white hair neatly combed, his manner genteel as he strode over to Lisa.
She had become rooted in place, recognizing him.
The man held out his hand, his Carolina drawl warm. “Thank you, Dr. Cummings, for agreeing to help my grandnephew.”
Lisa shook his hand, dumbfounded.
He was the former ambassador to Southeast Asia, now secretary of state—and brother to the president.
Robert L. Gant.
“Tell me,” James Gant demanded, staring off to the next room, where his daughter rested on the hospital bed. “Who’s behind all of this?”
Painter knew the next part of this discussion would take some delicacy. What transpired here was for the president’s ears and eyes only.
Him, and one other.
Jason Carter worked at the desk computer in the medical office, where Painter and the president had been holed up. His Secret Service agents continued to watch the hall, with one posted next to Amanda.
Jason finally nodded, ready to proceed. He had the necessary footage transferred and keyed up.
Painter faced Gant. “As you know, Mr. President, we already suspected the Guild had a hand in the kidnapping of your daughter.”
Gant’s eyes darkened. “I’ve read the intelligence briefings.”
“Exactly, but the Guild is not their true name. It’s more of an umbrella designation encompassing the group’s many cells around the world, a network of agents and operatives ensconced in various militaries, governments, research institutions, and financial circles. There are many levels within this organization, some go by other names, but recently I’ve uncovered a clue to the true leaders, the puppet masters of the Guild.”
Gant focused harder on him. “Go on.”
“This inner circle has also hidden under many names, burying themselves in countless secret societies to cover their footprints, going back centuries.”
“Centuries?” A skeptical note rang in the man’s voice.
“At least to the Middle Ages,” Painter confirmed. “Maybe even farther back into the past.”
He flicked a glance toward Jason. The young analyst was tracing the lineage of the Gant family deeper into history, but it was slow going, and that track grew fainter, worn away by time into mere rumor and suspicion.
“What about now?” Gant said, keeping his eye on the target. “What do you know about their operations today?”