Unfortunately, Painter’s father had missed out on the boom, abandoning the reservation in the early eighties to pursue his fortune in New York City. It was there he met Painter’s mother, a fiery Italian woman who would eventually stab her husband to death after seven years of marriage and the birth of their son. With his mother on death row, Painter had grown up in a series of foster homes, where he quickly learned it was best to keep silent, to be unseen.
It had been his first training in stealth…but not his last.
Zhang’s group entered the Grand Pequot Tower’s elevator lobby, showing their suite key to the security guard.
Painter crossed past the opening. He had a Glock 9mm in a holster at the base of his back, covered by his casino jacket. He had to resist pulling it out and shooting Zhang in the back of the head, execution style.
But that would not achieve their objective: to recover the schematics and research for the orbital plasma cannon. Zhang had managed to steal the data from a secure federal server, leaving a worm behind. The next morning, a Los Alamos technician by the name of Harry Klein accessed the file, inadvertently releasing the data worm that proceeded to eat all references of the weapon while defecating a false trail that implicated Klein. That bit of computerized sleight of hand cost investigators two weeks as they pursued the false trail.
It had taken a dozen DARPA agents to filter through the worm shit and discover the true identity of the thief: Xin Zhang, a spy positioned as a technologist with Changnet, a telecom upstart out of Shanghai. According to the CIA’s intelligence, the stolen data was on the suitcase computer in Zhang’s suite. The hard drive had been trip-wired with an elaborate encryption defense. A single mistake in attempting to access the computer would wipe everything.
That could not be risked. Nothing had survived the worm at Los Alamos. Estimates were that the loss would set the program back by a full ten months. But the worst consequence was that the stolen research would advance China’s program by a full five years. The files contained some phenomenal breakthroughs and cutting-edge innovations. It was up to DARPA to stop it. Their objective was to gain Zhang’s password and retrieve the computer.
Time was running out.
Painter watched from the reflection in a Wheel-of-Fortune slot machine as Zhang and his bodyguards stepped into an express elevator that led to the private suites that topped the tower.
Touching his throat mike, Painter whispered, “They’re heading up.”
“Got it. Ready when you are, Commander.”
As the doors squeezed closed, Painter rushed over to a neighboring elevator. It had been crisscrossed with bright yellow tape, lettered in black: OUT OF ORDER. Painter ripped through it while punching the button. As the doors parted, he ducked through. He touched his throat mike. “All clear! Go!”
Sanchez answered, “Brace yourself.”
As the elevator doors shushed closed, he leaned against the mahogany paneling, legs wide.
The car shot upward, driving him toward the floor. His muscles tensed. He watched the glowing numbers climb upward, ever faster. Sanchez had rewired this car for maximum acceleration. She had also slowed Zhang’s elevator by 24 percent, not enough to be noticed.
As Painter’s car reached the thirty-second floor, it decelerated with a shudder. He was lifted off his feet, hung in the air for a long breath, then fell back to the floor. He ducked through the doors as they opened, careful not to disturb the taped entry. He checked the neighboring elevator. Zhang’s car was three floors away and climbing.
He needed to hurry.
Painter raced down the hall of suites. He found Zhang’s room number. “How are we positioned?” he whispered.
“The girl is handcuffed to the bed. Two guards are playing cards in the main room.”
“Roger that.” Sanchez had placed pencil cameras in the room’s heating vents. Painter crossed the hall and keyed his way into the opposite suite.
Cassandra Sanchez sat nestled among her electronic surveillance equipment and monitors like a spider in a web. She was dressed in black, from boots to blouse. Even her leather shoulder holster and belt matched her outfit, carrying her .45 Sig automatic. She had customized the pistol with a Hogue rubberized grip and mounted the thumb catch for her magazine release on the right side to accommodate her left hand. She was a deadly-accurate marksman, trained like Painter in Special Forces before being recruited into Sigma.
Her eyes greeted him with the sparkle of the endgame.
His own breath quickened at the sight of her. Her breasts pushed against the thin material of her silk blouse, snugged tight by the shoulder holster. He had to force his eyes up to maintain proper contact. They had been partners for the past five years and only recently had his feelings for her deepened. Business lunches turned into drinks after work, and finally long dinners. But still, certain lines had yet to be crossed, a distance tentatively maintained.
She seemed to sense his thoughts and glanced away, never pressing. “About time the bastard got up here,” she said, turning her attention back to her monitors. “He’d better burn those files in the next quarter hour or—Shit!”
“What?” Painter stepped to her side.
She pointed to one of the monitors. It showed a three-dimensional cross section of the upper levels of the Grand Pequot Tower. A small red X glowed within the structure. “He’s heading back down!”
The X marked the tracer built into the microtransceiver. It was dropping through the levels of the tower.
Painter clenched a fist. “Something’s spooked him. Has there been any communication with his room since he entered the elevator?”
“Not a whistle.”
“The computer is still there?”
She pointed to another monitor, a black-and-white image of Zhang’s suite. The suitcase computer still rested on the coffee table. If not for the encryption, it would’ve been so easy to break in and abscond with the computer. But they needed Zhang’s codes. The planted bug would record every keystroke he made, capturing the code. Once that was obtained, they could lock down Zhang and his men.
“I’ve got to get back down there,” Painter said. The tracking device was built on such a small scale that it had a range of only two hundred yards. Someone had to be close at all times. “We can’t lose him.”
“If he’s wise to us—”
“I know.” He headed for the door. Zhang would have to be eliminated. They’d lose the files, but at least the weapons data wouldn’t make it back to China. That had always been their fallback plan. They had safeguards built upon safeguards. There was even a small EM grenade affixed inside one of the suite’s ventilation grates. At a moment’s notice, they could activate it, triggering an electromagnetic pulse that would activate the computer’s self-defenses to wipe the data. China must never gain the research.
Painter rushed down the hall and crossed back to the taped-off elevator. He ducked inside. He spoke into his radio’s throat mike. “Can you get me down there ahead of him?”
“Better grab your balls,” she answered.
Before he could take her advice, the elevator dropped from under him. He was weightless for a long stretch, stomach riding up into his throat. The elevator plummeted in a free fall. Painter fought down a surge of panic, along with a rise of bile. Then the car’s floor came crashing up. There was no way to hold himself upright. He fell to his knees. Then the slowing eased and the elevator came to a gliding stop.
The doors whisked open.
Painter stumbled to his feet. Thirty floors in less than five seconds. That had to be a record. He pushed through the doorway and out into the elevator lobby. He glanced to the numbers above the express elevator Zhang had taken.
He was only a floor away.
Painter took a few steps back, near enough to cover the door, but not close enough to arouse suspicion, posing again as casino security.
The doors opened on the main floor.
Painter spied indirectly, using the reflection of the polished brass elevator doors across from the express. Oh no… He swung around and crossed in front of the elevator. No one was in the cage.
Had Zhang gotten off on another floor? He stepped into the vacant elevator. Impossible. This was the express. There were no stops between here and the floor of suites above. Unless he had pulled the emergency stop, then forced the doors open to make his escape.
Then Painter spotted it. Taped to the back wall. A glinting bit of plastic and metal. The microtransceiver. The bug.
Painter felt his heart pound against his rib cage as he stepped into the elevator. His vision tunneled on the bit of electronics taped to the wall. He ripped it free, examining it closely. Zhang had lured him away.
He touched his throat mike. “Sanchez!”
His heart continued its heavy thudding. There was no answer.
He swung around and punched the elevator button, marked simply SUITES. The doors closed too slowly. Painter paced the tiny compartment, a caged lion. He tried his radio again. Still no response.
“Goddamnit…” The express began its climb. Painter pounded a fist against the wall. Mahogany paneling cracked under his knuckles. “Move, you fucker!”
But he knew he was already too late.
02:38 P.M. GMT
S TANDING OUT in the hall, steps from the Kensington Gallery, Safia could not breathe. Her difficulty was not from the stench of wood smoke, burned insulation, or the residual scorch of electrical fires. It was the wait. All morning long, she had watched investigators and inspectors from every British bureau traipse in and out. She had been barred.
Official personnel only.
Civilians were not allowed to cross the streamers of yellow tape, the cordons of barricades, the wary eyes of military guards.
Half a day later, she was finally being allowed inside, to see firsthand the destruction. In this final moment, her chest felt as if it were clamped in a giant stone fist. Her heart was a panicked pigeon, beating at her rib cage.
What would she find? What was salvageable?
She felt stricken to the core, devastated, as ruined as the gallery.