The sands lay flat all around her, untouched by track or print. Everything was gone: no sandy hollow, no bloodied oryx, no sand-scarred cycle.
She stared out at the empty sands. “Papa…”
A cry from the gallery drew Kara back to the present. Her cigarette, forgotten in her fingers, had burned to the filter. She stood and stomped it out.
“Over here!” the call repeated. It was one of her technicians. “I found something!”
08:02 A.M. EST
P AINTER CROWE crouched low on the elevator floor as the doors rolled open upon the top floor of the Grand Pequot Tower. Ready for an ambush, he had his Glock pointed forward, a round chambered, his finger resting on the trigger.
The elevator bay was empty.
He listened for a long-held breath. No voices, no footsteps. Distantly a television could be heard blaring the theme of Good Morning America. It wasn’t a particularly good morning for him.
Easing up, he risked a glance out the door, covering with his weapon. Nothing. He kicked out of his shoes and placed one so it would hold open the door in case he needed a fast retreat. In his socks, he took three fast steps to the opposite wall and checked the immediate area.
He cursed the lack of manpower. While he had the backing of hotel security and the local police, who were already covering all the exits, any additional federal agents had been limited out of respect for Indian sovereignty.
Besides, the mission was supposed to be a simple nab-and-collar. The worst-case scenario was that they would have to destroy the research data rather than having it fall into Chinese hands.
Now it had all gone to hell. He had been duped by his own equipment. But he had a larger fear at the moment.
He prayed he was wrong about her, but he held out no real hope.
He slid along the wall of the elevator lobby. It opened into the middle of the hallway. Numbered suites marched off in both directions. Keeping low, he swept both right and left. Empty. No sign of Zhang or his bodyguards.
He headed down the hall.
His senses sharpened to a razor’s edge. At the click of a door lock behind him, he swung around, dropped to a knee, pistol pointed. It was only one of the hotel guests. Down the far hall, an older woman appeared in a bathrobe. She picked up her complimentary copy of USA Today resting on the doorstep and retreated back inside, not even noticing the armed gunman down the hall.
Painter twisted back around. He hurried the dozen steps to his suite’s door. He tested the handle. Locked. He reached with one hand for his key; the other held his Glock pointed at Zhang’s door across the hallway. He swept his key across the electronic lock. The green light flashed.
He shoved the door open while pressed against the wall outside.
No shots. No cries.
He sprang through the door. He stopped five feet inside, legs splayed in a shooter’s stance. He had a clear view into the main room and the bedroom.
He hurried forward and checked the bedroom and bathroom. No hostiles…and no sign of Cassandra. He returned to the bay of electronic equipment. He checked the monitors. They still showed various shots of Zhang’s suite across the hall. They had cleared out. The computer was gone. There was only one occupant still in the suite.
He raced back out the door, abandoning caution. He crashed across the hall and fumbled out the security passkey that opened all the rooms in the tower. He forced his way into Zhang’s suite and sprinted through the main room and into the bedroom.
She hung naked from a rope attached to a ceiling fan. Her face had purpled above the noose. Her feet, which had still been kicking on the monitor, now dangled slackly.
Holstering his gun, Painter hurdled over a chair and leaped through the air. He yanked a dagger from a wrist sheath and sliced the rope with a single swift cut. He landed heavily, tossed the knife, and caught the body as it fell.
Twisting at the hips, he brought her down upon the bed, then fell to his knees. His fingers fought the noose’s knot.
The rope had snugged deep into her thin neck, but the noose finally let go of its victim. He pried the rope loose. His fingers gingerly checked her neck. Not broken.
Was she still alive?
As answer, a shuddering gasp rattled up her frame and out her mouth.
Painter bowed his head in relief.
Her eyes rolled open, panicked and lost. More coughs rattled through her. Arms fought an invisible enemy.
He tried to reassure her, speaking in Mandarin. “You’re safe. Lie still. You’re safe.”
The girl looked even younger than thirteen. Her naked body was bruised in places where a child should not be bruised. Zhang had sorely used her, and afterward left her behind, dangling by a rope, meant to delay him, distract him from the pursuit.
He sat back on his heels. The girl began to sob, curling in on herself. He didn’t touch her, knowing better than to try.
His LASH communicator buzzed in his ears. “Commander Crowe.” It was the head of hotel security. “There’s a firefight at the north tower exit.”
“Zhang?” He gained his feet and rushed to the balcony window.
“Yes, sir. Report is he’s using your partner as a human shield. She may have been shot. I have more men on the way.”
He shoved the window open. It was safety-secured and only opened enough to shove his head through. “We need those roadblocks up.”
The sound of squealing tires reached him. A Lincoln Town Car careened from the valet parking lot and headed toward the tower. It was Zhang’s personal car, on its way to pick him up.
Security came back on the radio. “He’s broken out of the north exit. He still has your partner.”
The Town Car reached the corner of the tower.
Painter swung back inside. “Get those damn roadblocks up!” But there wouldn’t be enough time. He had put in the emergency call less than four minutes ago. Law enforcement here mostly dealt with drunken fights, DUIs, and petty thefts, not matters of national security.
He had to stop them.
Bending down, he retrieved his knife from the floor. “Stay here,” he said softly in Mandarin. He rushed to the main room and used the dagger to pry off the ventilation grille. It snapped open with a pop of screws. He reached within and grabbed the black device hidden inside. The EM grenade was roughly the size and shape of a football.
Palming the device, he fled to the suite’s door and out into the hall. Still without his shoes, he sprinted down the carpeted hall. He analyzed a quick schematic in his head, coordinating where the north exit was in relation to his location on this floor. He did a best-guess estimate.
Eight doors down he stopped and pulled out his security key again. He swiped it through the electronic lock and shoved the door open as soon as it flashed green. “Security!” he hollered, and raced into the room.
An older woman, the same one he had spotted earlier, sat in a chair reading USA Today. She tossed the paper in the air and clutched her robe to her throat. “Was ist los?” she asked in German.
He hurried past her to the window, reassuring her that nothing was wrong. “Nichts, sich ungefähr zu sorgen, fraulein,” he answered.
He slid the window open. Again it was only enough to stick his head through. He glanced down.
The Lincoln Town Car idled below. The rear door to the sedan slammed shut. Shots rang out. Slugs pelted the side of the car as its tires squealed and smoked, but the car had been bulletproofed, an American-built tank.
Painter leaned back and shoved the football-shaped device out the window. He depressed the activation button and threw the grenade straight down with all the force in his shoulder, hoping for a Hail Mary pass.
He pulled his arm back inside. The wheels of the Town Car stopped squealing as it gained traction. He sent a prayer to the spirits of his ancestors. The EM pulse range was only twenty yards. He held his breath. What was that old saying? Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
As he held his breath, the muffled whump of the grenade finally sounded. Had he been close enough?
He leaned his head back outside.
The Town Car reached the near corner of the tower, but rather than making the turn, it swerved uncontrollably and struck a row of parked cars head-on. The front of the Lincoln climbed up the hood of a Volkswagen Passat and came to a crooked rest.
That was the good thing about EM pulses. They didn’t discriminate about what computer systems they fried. Even those that operated a Lincoln Town Car.
Below, uniformed security personnel poured from the exit and quickly surrounded the disabled car.
“Was ist los?” the old German woman repeated behind him.
He turned and hurried across the room. “Etwas Abfall gerade entleeren.” Just dumping some garbage. He crossed quickly down the hall to the elevator lobby. Retrieving his shoes from the jammed elevator door, he hit the button for the main floor.
His stunt had stopped Zhang’s escape, but it had also surely wiped out the computer he carried, destroying the research data. But that was not Painter’s main concern.
He had to get to her.
As soon as the doors opened, he rushed across the gambling floor, where pandemonium reigned. The firefight had not gone unnoticed, though a few people still sat calmly in front of their slot machines, pushing their buttons with dogged determination.
He crossed to the north exit and had to run through a series of blockades, flashing his identification, frustrated at being held back. Finally he spotted John Fenton, head of security, and called out to him. He ushered Painter through the shattered exit. Safety glass crunched underfoot and the telltale taint of gunpowder hung in the air.
“I don’t understand why the car crashed,” Fenton said. “Lucky for us, though.”
“Not just luck,” Painter said, and explained about the EM pulse and its twenty-yard range. “A few guests are going to have a hard time starting their cars this morning. And there’ll probably be a few fried televisions on the first floors.”