And now he served his younger brother with equal aplomb.
“Don’t worry, Jimmy. The NRO will have a satellite in geosynchronous orbit above the Somali coastline within the hour. I’ll make sure no stone is left unturned. We’ll find her.”
The president nodded, but he seemed unconvinced by his brother’s promise.
As the secretary of state exited, Painter found himself alone with the leader of the free world. The president ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, then rubbed the palm over the rough stubble on his chin. The man hadn’t slept since word had reached him. He still wore the same clothes, only shedding the jacket and rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. He stood for a moment, straight-backed, lost in his own thoughts—then he finally sagged and pointed to another door.
“Let’s get out of this damned woodshed,” he said, using the nickname for the Situation Room. With the departure of his executive team, his Carolina drawl grew thicker. “My briefing room’s right next door.”
Painter followed him into a more intimate chamber. Another conference table filled the room, but it was smaller, abutting against a wall with two video screens.
The president dropped into one of the seats with a heavy sigh, as if the weight of the entire world rested on his shoulders. And, Painter imagined, sometimes it did. Only this day was worse.
“Take a seat, director.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
“Call me Jimmy. All my friends do. And as of this moment, you’re my best friend, because you have the best chance of finding my girl and grandson.”
Painter sat down, slowly, warily, feeling some of that weight of the world settle on his own shoulders. That was the other concern. Amanda was pregnant, in her third trimester.
So what was she doing in the Seychelles, traveling under false papers?
The president’s ice-blue eyes bore into him. The force of his charisma was like a stiff wind in the face. “In the past, Sigma saved my life.”
And they had. It was one of the reasons Painter had been summoned by the president to participate in this search.
“I need another miracle, director.”
At least the man understood the gravity of the situation. For now, the Somali pirates had no idea whom they’d kidnapped. As far as they knew, Amanda was just another American hostage. But if they should ever learn her true identity, they could panic and kill her, dump her body in the closest crocodile-infested river, and wash their hands of the situation. Or they’d hide her so well, bury her in some godforsaken hole, that any hope of rescue would be impossible until their demands were met—and even then she might be murdered. The head of Homeland had offered a third, chilling possibility this morning: that she’d be sold to some hostile government, used as a pawn to leverage some concession from the U.S. government.
So, the goal was clear: Find Amanda before the kidnappers learned the truth.
“What’s your take on this morning’s briefing?” the president asked.
“Your team has the larger picture covered. I wouldn’t do anything differently. Move a fast-response team into the region, be ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Coordinate with CIA assets across the Horn of Africa. But until we get a new satellite feed of the Somali coast, we’re operating blind.”
In cross-referencing the time of the attack with the logs of satellites passing over the Indian Ocean, they’d managed to download a fleeting view of the actual kidnapping. The resolution had been poor, but they could make out the yacht and the raiding vessel. It had fled east after the attack, heading for the African coast. But unfortunately, within an hour, the ship had passed out of satellite range, so the exact location where it made landfall was unknown. It could be anywhere along the East Africa coast, but Somalia—notorious for its rampant piracy—was the most probable base of operations. A new National Reconnaissance Office satellite was being commandeered and shifted to help search for the missing ship along that rocky coastline.
But that wasn’t their best hope.
Painter continued, “Sir, we need boots on the ground there. Our highest probability for a success lies in a surgical extraction, to drop in a small search-and-rescue team under the radar.”
“Got it. If we go in all shock-and-awe on their asses, they’ll know their captive is important.”
“And they’ll bury her.” Painter regretted his choice of words as soon as they passed his lips.
James Gant’s face went ashen, but as a mark of the man’s fortitude, he waved for Painter to go on.
“The team I told you about is already in the area. I’ll continue to coordinate with NSA, NRO, and my superiors at DARPA. If the pirates’ location is discovered, my team is under strict instructions to attempt a rescue only if success is guaranteed. Otherwise, we’ll pass on the coordinates and summon in the navy’s fast-response SEAL team for extraction.”
A worried nod acknowledged his plan.
Painter continued, “The kidnappers will move your daughter somewhere safe, then interrogate her. They’ll need to obtain a phone number, a contact here in the States where they can forward a ransom demand. If your daughter is smart—”
“Then she’ll keep her identity a secret. Hopefully she’ll give them some number outside the presidential circle. Perhaps a relative or a close friend. We have to be ready for that. Make sure that recipient stays quiet, doesn’t go to the police or the press.”
“I’ll pass the word.”
Painter asked a pointed question: “Can you trust all of your relatives to remain silent?”
“They won’t say a word. The Gant clan knows how to keep secrets.”
That’s certainly true.
For the past month, Painter had been conducting a quiet investigation into the Gant family. Information had come to light during a recent Sigma mission that cast suspicions upon the family. Not that there weren’t already rumors surrounding such a high-profile dynasty. They were nicknamed the Kennedys of the South, with generational ties going back to the founding of America. And as America grew, so did this family, rooting and entwining into multiple industries, corporations, the halls of statehouses, and now a second-term presidency.
But last month, a disturbing bit of information about this Southern dynasty had come to light. Documented centuries ago, this same clan appeared to be connected to a shadowy cabal of old aristocratic families. They went by many names: the Guild, Echelon, les familles de l’étoile, the star families. All that was truly known about this group was that they moved throughout history, manipulating events, gathering power, wealth, and knowledge, often achieving this by enfolding themselves within a series of secret organizations, brotherhoods, and fraternal lodges.