Gray imagined that wafting nerve gas, so lethal even the briefest skin contact caused an agonizing end.
“ONE DEATH VERSUS HUNDREDS OF INNOCENT MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN. THE CHOICE IS YOURS, COMMANDER PIERCE. EITHER END WILL SERVE OUR NEEDS. BUT IT SERVES OUR PURPOSE BETTER IF YOU PULL THAT TRIGGER. A LONE DEATH BY ASSASSINATION WILL BE FAR MORE POIGNANT AND POWERFUL THAN ONE DEATH AMONG MANY.”
The coldness of that calculation reached Gray, chilling him.
“ALSO, WITH YOUR RIFLE DISCOVERED HERE, AS WELL AS YOUR DNA, THE ASSASSINATION WILL BE BLAMED ON THE ROGUE ACTIONS OF A DISGRUNTLED COVERT OPERATIVE, ONE WHO WAS RETALIATING AGAINST THE MOTHBALLING OF HIS GROUP BY THE ADMINISTRATION.”
In effect, putting the final nail in Sigma’s coffin.
But the Guild’s schemes were even grander than that.
“SUCH AN ACT WILL REQUIRE AN ENTIRE REVAMPING OF THE UNITED STATES’ COVERT AND INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES. ONE OVERSEEN BY US, AS WE TAKE OVER THE WHITE HOUSE WITH THE NEXT ELECTION. THAT POIGNANT SYMPATHY FOR THE DEATH OF JAMES GANT WILL EXTEND TO HIS FAMILY MEMBERS, TO SOMEONE ALREADY STANDING AT HIS SIDE IN A POSITION OF POWER.”
… extend to his family members …
Gray felt sick to his stomach. As he listened, armed with his new knowledge, he could now hear the slight Southern cadence, the word choice that couldn’t be wiped away digitally. His mind raced, picturing the man who stood so steadfastly at his brother’s shoulder, whom the world already loved and respected and would surely hand the reins of power to. The man only had to ask for the White House after such a tragedy, and it would be given to him—in a landslide.
The secretary of state.
Robert Lee Gant.
Gray squeezed his eyes closed. He suddenly remembered sensing that Painter had been keeping something hidden from him, something about the Guild, about the organization behind his mother’s fiery death.
Was this that secret?
Had Painter suspected the man all along?
No wonder the director hadn’t wanted anyone in the Gant family to know about Amanda surviving Somalia. He feared word would reach the president’s brother.
Anger burned at the edges of his dismay. He logically knew why the director had kept such a secret from him. Gray might have taken the man out immediately, jeopardizing everyone around him. And, ultimately, the foreknowledge of that traitor in the White House would not have changed Gray’s mission objectives.
Apparently, such knowledge was “need to know” only.
And Gray wasn’t on that list.
You should have told me.
“ONE MINUTE,” the voice warned. “YOU WILL WAIT FOR OUR SIGNAL—THEN FIRE.”
Gray secured the magazine in place and returned to his post at the aperture. Shame and anger burned through him. He didn’t know if the voice had been lying about those gas canisters—or if they’d be blown up anyway. Either way, Gray knew he couldn’t take that chance.
James T. Gant had to die.
He stared through the rifle’s telescopic scope and lowered the crosshairs to the profile of the president as the man turned to the side. He double-checked his range—seven hundred yards—and fixed the main targeting chevron of the rifle’s sights upon the occipital bone behind the man’s left ear, knowing a shot there would do the most damage. Festive music and bright laughter from the holiday picnic filtered to him. He let it all fade into the background as he concentrated on his target, on his mission.
In U.S. history, three presidents had died on the exact same day, on July 4, on the birthday of this country. It seemed beyond mere chance.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe.
Today would mark the fourth.
Then the president leaned down, forcing Gray to follow him. The man ruffled the fur of a dog sharing the platform with him. Gray tensed, recognizing that shepherd.
Gray zoomed out to watch James Gant straighten and shake the hand of Captain Tucker Wayne. The man must have recovered his uniform. His dress blues were decorated with the medals and awards from his tours in Afghanistan. It was appropriate that Tucker should be standing there on the dais, a war hero and his dog being thanked by a grateful commander in chief.
But Gray knew why Tucker and Kane were really there.
All the earlier anger at Painter’s secrecy dried up, leaving behind only relief and respect. The director must have received the recorded video from Dubai and understood—but what did he want Gray to do?
Gray searched the stage. Painter must have put Tucker up there for a reason. The former army ranger was not a regular member of Sigma, only a hired hand, so no one was likely to recognize him. But what was the message Painter was trying to send to Gray?
Then he knew.
It wasn’t just Tucker on that stage—but also Kane.
Gray shifted his concentration to the dog. The shepherd stood quietly, tail out, nose pointed up. Gray had seen that particular pose a few times before, when the dog had found the source of a scent.
Kane was pointing, like any good hunting dog.
Gray followed his gaze to a red balloon behind the podium, not far from the president’s head. Gray fingered the telescopic sight to zero in on that balloon.
It twisted in a slight breeze, revealing a small Greek letter in a darker shade of red, barely discernible unless you were looking for it.
He smiled and made some final adjustments to his weapon.
In his ear, he got the order he needed: “FIRE.”
Steadying his breath, Commander Gray Pierce pulled the trigger.
July 4, 12:00 P.M. EST
No shot was heard—only the popping of a balloon.
Even that noise startled everyone on the podium.
He had been waiting for that signal. He used the distraction to press the button on the transmitter in his pocket. Small squibs, hidden under the president’s white polo shirt, exploded. Packets of the president’s own blood erupted out his back in a violent blast and seeped heavily over his heart in front.
The First Lady screamed, catching some of the spray on her face.
The Secret Service enveloped the president immediately, gathering him up and whisking him off the platform. Tucker got knocked to the side; Kane danced out of the way.
Another cordon of agents formed a living shield to protect the fleeing president. More crowded around the First Lady and rushed her in another direction.
Tucker tapped his leg, gathered Kane to his side, and rushed after the president’s group. Chaos exploded across the picnic grounds, the sudden violence catching everyone off guard. People yelled, kids were hidden under the bodies of protective parents, a barbecue got knocked over, setting fire to a tent. But a majority of those in attendance were military or former service members. Most had probably been under fire.