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The Midnight Watch

James Rollins


  The Midnight Watch

  What’s True, What’s Not

  An Excerpt from The Bone Labyrinth



  Chapter 1

  About the Author

  By James Rollins


  About the Publisher

  The Midnight Watch

  April 25, 12:21 A.M. EDT

  Washington, D.C.


  Jacketless, with his sleeves rolled to his elbows, Painter Crowe paced the length of the communication nest at the heart of Sigma Force’s central command. Data streamed across the monitors that covered the curved walls as a single warrior waged a battle against a faceless enemy.

  Jason Carter sat at a station, typing with one hand, clutching a Starbucks cup in the other, while studying the screen before him. “It looks like they built their own back door into the Smithsonian Institution’s network using a high-­level system administrator access. At this point, they literally have the keys to the kingdom.”

  “But who are they?” Painter stopped to stare over Jason’s shoulder. The twenty-­three-­year old was Sigma’s chief intelligence analyst. He had been recruited by Painter after getting kicked out of the navy for hacking into Defense Department servers with nothing more than a BlackBerry and a jury-­rigged iPad.

  “Could be the Russians, the North Koreans, but I’d place money on the Chinese. This has their fingerprints all over it. A few months back, they hacked into the Office of Personnel Management, stealing information on millions of federal employees. They used a similar back door, giving them administrator privileges to the OPM servers.”

  Painter nodded. He knew the Chinese government employed an army of hackers, numbering over a hundred thousand, dedicated solely to breaking into U.S. computers. Rumor had it that they had successfully hacked into every major American corporation over the past several years, absconding with blueprints to nuclear plants, appropriating technology from steel factories, even cracking into Lockheed Martin’s servers to copy the top-­secret schematics for the U.S. military’s F-­35 fighter jet. If there was any doubt about the latter, one only had to view the Chineses’ new FC-­31. It was almost an exact copy of the American jet.

  “If it is Chinese, what are they after?” Painter asked. “Why hack into the Smithsonian servers?”

  Jason shrugged his shoulders. “Either data theft or sabotage. That’s the end goal of most hacks. But from the code, it looks like they’re just blindly grabbing files. I’m not seeing any attempt to install malware into the systems.”

  “So data theft,” Painter said. “Can you stop them?”

  In the reflection of a neighboring dark monitor, Painter caught the young man’s crooked grin. “Did that a full minute ago,” Jason said, “and slammed the door behind them as I kicked them out. They won’t be coming in that way again. I’m now attempting to identify which files were taken from which servers.”

  Painter glanced to the clock.


  The attack had started exactly at midnight, most likely timed to strike when the hack was less liable to be detected. Still, twenty-­two minutes was twenty-­two minutes too long for an enemy to have unfettered access to the Smithsonian servers. The Institution was home to nine different research centers, encompassing a multitude of programs that spanned the globe.

  Still, they were lucky. The only reason this attack had been caught so promptly was that Sigma Force’s servers were linked to the Smithsonian’s systems—­though Sigma’s operations were heavily guarded behind multiple firewalls to keep their presence hidden. Painter imagined those towering digital walls. It was a fitting metaphor. Sigma’s central command had been covertly established beneath the Smithsonian Castle. He glanced up, picturing the turrets and towers of red sandstone above his head, a true Norman castle perched at the edge of the National Mall.

  A fortress that someone had attempted to breach.

  Or at least that was Painter’s greatest fear: The Smithsonian servers were not the primary target of this attack but, instead, the hackers were sniffing at the walls of Sigma’s own digital fortress. Sigma was a covert wing of DARPA, the Defense Department’s research-­and-­development division. The unit recruited former Special Forces soldiers and retrained them in various scientific disciplines to act as field agents for DARPA. It was one of the reasons the Castle had been chosen for Sigma’s central command. It was ideally situated within the heart of the political landscape, while allowing Sigma and its operatives to have easy access to the Smithsonian’s resources and global reach.

  If Sigma was ever compromised, its agents exposed. . .

  A small huff drew Painter’s attention back to the tangible world.

  Jason scooted his chair back from his station, stood up, and stared across the banks of monitors, all still flowing with cryptic data. The young man studied the screens, running fingers through his blond hair, plainly concerned.

  Painter stepped to his side. “What is it?”

  “The pattern of theft is not random, despite how much they’re trying to make it look like it.” He pointed to one monitor. “This is no blind smash and grab. There is intent here, masked by all the rest of this noise.”

  “What intent?”

  Jason returned to his station and began typing again, this time with both hands, his nose inches from the screen. “A majority of the files were stolen from one specific research center.”

  “Which one?”

  Jason’s voice tightened with plain confusion. “The Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute.”

  Painter understood his consternation. It was a strange target for such a sophisticated and elaborate cyber attack by a foreign enemy.

  Jason continued as he typed. “The Smithsonian CBI has labs and facilities both in Virginia and here in D.C., at the National Zoo in Rock Creek Park. In this case, it’s the campus at the zoo that was being targeted.”

  “Is there any rhyme or reason to the specific files that were being stolen?”

  “Not that it makes any more sense, but a majority of the research material being drained comes from one specific program.” Jason looked over his shoulder, displaying a deep frown. “A program titled Ancient DNA.”

  “Ancient DNA?”

  Jason shrugged, just as lost. “The hacked files all belong to a single researcher, a postdoctoral fellow named Dr. Sara Gutierrez.”

  The young man leaned back from the monitor, revealing a staff identification badge on the screen. The woman on the badge looked no older than Jason, her black hair cut in a short bob, her eyes intent, with a shy grin fixed to her face.

  “It looks like they cleaned out half of her files before I slammed the door on them.”

  “So they failed to get everything . . .” Painter felt a flicker of unease. “What was she working on?”

  Jason shook his head. “All I have are the file names, which doesn’t tell me much. But if I could access her computer, I might be able to trace the hackers’ location. When I cut the connection, some pieces of code might have been left on her terminal, a digital fingerprint that might give us some clue as to who was behind this attack.”

  “You can do that?”

  “I can try, but admittedly it’s a long shot. Still, the odds would be better if I can get to that computer before anyone else uses it and accidentally wipes away that digital fingerprint.”

  “Understood. I’ll see about arranging that. We’ll also want to interview Dr. Gutierrez as soon as possible. Preferably tonight.” He glanced to the wall clock. “Let’s hope she’s a night owl.”

  “I have her cell number from her records.” Jason slipped out his own phone, lifting one eyebrow.

  “Call it. Let her know what happened and that we need her help. We should arrange to meet at her office.”

  As Jason dialed, Painter considered whom to send at this late hour. His usual go-­to operative, Commander Gray Pierce, was on a transatlantic flight to Europe to meet Seichan in Paris. Monk and Kat were on their way back from a road trip to Boston with their two young daughters. In his head, he ran through the remaining list of field agents best suited for this investigation.

  Jason’s voice caught his attention as Dr. Gutierrez answered the call. After some back and forth, the young man sat straighter and placed his cell on speakerphone mode. “And who called you?” Jason asked her.

  A small voice whispered from his phone, but the confusion was plain. “They said they were with Zoological Park Police. Claimed someone had broken into my office. They were sending someone over to collect me. But . . .”

  Her voice trailed off.

  “But what?” Jason asked.

  “It’s just . . . I don’t want to sound racist, but the caller was hard to understand. He had a thick accent. Asian, I think. It’s probably nothing, but I got a bad feeling after I hung up.”

  Jason glanced worriedly in Painter’s direction. “Did you tell him your location?” he asked the woman.

  “I . . . I did.”

  “Where are you now?”

  “I’m at the National Museum of Natural History. I was collecting DNA samples from some of the exhibits as part of my program. It’s easier after hours. I told the caller I would wait for them outside the museum at the corner of 12th and Madison.”

  “Stay put.” Jason looked to Painter for confirmation. “We’ll meet you inside the museum.”

  Painter nodded.

  From the small speaker on the phone, a new noise erupted: a sharp and strident ringing.

  Alarm bells.

  The researcher’s voice rose above the din. She sounded spooked. “What do I do?”

  Jason eyed Painter while offering the young woman one hope. “Hide.”

  Painter thought quickly. With an alarm being raised at the museum, he had no time to summon an outside field operative. He momentarily considered going himself, but he knew he was needed here to help hold local law enforcement at bay—­at least long enough to safely extract the woman.

  That left only one Sigma member to assist Jason—­someone still on the premises at this late hour. He pictured the muscled bulk of the former navy seaman, with his shaved head, his crooked nose, and his thick Bronx accent.

  Dear god, help us all. . .

  JOE KOWALSKI LAY on his back in a puddle of oil. He gave the wrench a final tug to tighten the new filter on the old Jeep. He wiped the surface clean to make sure that the gasket had stopped leaking.

  That oughta do it.

  He rolled out from beneath the vehicle and shifted over to a cigar resting atop an overturned glass cup. Still on his back, he placed the stub between his lips and drew a ­couple hard pulls to get the end glowing brightly, then sighed out a long stream of smoke. Maybe it was stupid—­and definitely against the rules—­to be smoking in Sigma’s motor pool, but who was around to complain at this late hour?

  He had the place to himself—­which he preferred.

  He climbed to his feet and inspected the ’79 Jeep CJ7 that he was restoring. He had bought the off-­roader three months earlier from a retired Forest Service member who had driven it hard, then let it sit idle for almost a decade. Never a good thing for a beast that loved to tear through a rugged landscape. Kowalski had already done a mild rebuild on the Chevy 400 motor, while troubleshooting issues with the transmission, steering, and drivetrain, but he still wasn’t entirely happy with the wiring.

  The open-­body exterior was a patchwork of bondo and primer, with some of the original olive-­green paint showing. The front seats and rear bench, all original, were ripped and worn. He’d eventually get around to sprucing it all up, but for now, he appreciated his progress.

  “You might be an ugly son of a bitch,” he mumbled around his cigar, “but you can at least haul ass now.”

  He stared across the handful of other vehicles in the motor pool, mostly a sleek and polished mix of Land Rovers, German sedans, and a pair of Ducati motorcycles. He ran his palm over the Jeep’s quarter panel, feeling the rough texture of bondo and a small buckle from an old fender bender, all testaments to its hard use and toughness.

  He couldn’t wait to test this beast off road, to let her truly loose.

  Imagining that, he grabbed the roll bar and climbed behind the wheel—­an easy enough maneuver, as both doors were leaning against the neighboring wall, waiting to be reinstalled. He turned the key. The engine coughed twice, belching smoke from the exhaust, then settled into a throaty growl.

  He leaned back, allowing a satisfied grin to crack his face.


  The sharp voice made him jump. He twisted around to see the lanky form of Sigma’s resident computer geek come racing into the garage. A loose navy-­blue windbreaker flapped around the kid’s thin shoulders, exposing a holster strapped across his chest.

  “We have to move!”

  Kowalski puffed out a lungful of cigar smoke. “Where?” he growled around the glowing nub.

  “Across the Mall. To the National Museum of Natural History.”

  A twinge of fear spiked down Kowalski’s spine—­not for himself, but for another. It was a knee-­jerk reaction. His girlfriend—­or, rather, ex-­girlfriend—­had worked there for the past ­couple of years, overseeing exhibits on Greek mythology and ancient history. But Elizabeth had left three months ago for Egypt to join an archaeological dig. Their relationship had already taken a rocky turn before that and had been on its last legs. As much as opposites might initially attract, it wasn’t necessarily the recipe for a long-­term relationship. And though this dig in Egypt had been a great opportunity for her, he knew a large part of her drive to go had been to put some distance between them—­less for her sake than his own, he suspected. It was no secret between the two of them that his torch had burned brighter.

  And still did.

  It was one of the reasons he had purchased the Jeep and undertaken this restoration. He needed something to distract himself with.

  Jason pointed to one of the BMW sedans. “Let’s go! I’ll fill you in along the way!”

  Kowalski flicked the nub of his cigar into a nearby pail of water. “Get your ass over here!” he called out, gunning the engine for emphasis. “We’ll take my Jeep!”

  Jason skidded to a stop and looked skeptically at the vehicle, but he adjusted to the change with the pliability that only came with youth. He ran to the open passenger side and hopped into the seat. He looked for the shoulder strap, but like the doors, the seat belts were also missing.

  Kowalski yanked the truck into gear and bucked the vehicle forward. Jason had to grab the edge of the roll cage to keep his seat.

  Hmm . . . maybe the tranny needs some further tweaking, too.

  Kowalski hauled on the wheel and sent the truck rumbling toward a ramp that spiraled up to a private exit onto Independence Avenue.

  Jason spoke rapidly as they climbed, filling Kowalski in on the details of a cyber attack upon the Smithsonian servers—­and of a potential asset hiding inside the museum across the Mall. “Director Crowe thinks the enemy has implemented a backup plan. After failing to obtain the information electronically, they’re going directly for the source.”

  For this woman . . .

  Once at the top of the ramp, Kowalski pointed toward the glove compartment. “Open that.”

  Jason obeyed, popping the compartment to reveal a large steel pistol resting inside. He passed the weapon over to Kowalski—­using both hands. “What t
he hell is it?”

  Kowalski accepted the huge revolver with a grin. The rubberized grip fit his meaty palm perfectly. “A .50 caliber Desert Eagle.”

  “.50?” Jason said with a whistle. “What’s wrong with a .45?”

  “Because they make a .50,” Kowalski said, stating the obvious.

  He shoved the large pistol into his belt.

  Once out onto Independence Avenue, Jason took a call from Painter as Kowalski wound them in a big circle around the Mall. He ended up behind a massive dump truck trundling and filling his side of the street. Though the National Museum of Natural History was a direct arrow shot across the Mall from the Castle, the circuitous route was further complicated by an ongoing construction project to restore the Mall’s ragged turf, which had turned this section of parkland and fields into towering piles of dirt and rock.

  Jason hung up. “The director managed to convince DC Metro that it was a false alarm, blaming an electrical surge from the neighboring construction project. But such a ruse will only buy us a narrow window of time.”

  Kowalski gave a shake of his head. He had to hand it to the director. Painter was a master puppeteer when it came to pulling the strings around Washington.

  Jason added, “We’ve also got clearance to enter the museum through an entrance on the northwest side. It’s located—­”

  Kowalski cut him off. “I know where it’s at.”

  He had sometimes used that entrance to reach Elizabeth’s office. It was the most direct route, bypassing the tumult of the main entrance and its flock of tourists. When the dump truck turned onto Madison, Kowalski finally got clear of it and sped up, reaching the parking lot on the western side of the museum.

  He raced across the empty lot and skidded to a hard stop near the entrance. They both tumbled out and ran for the door. Jason’s head swiveled from side to side, watching for any sign of the enemy. Someone had set off that alarm. But did that mean they were already inside, or had they merely tripped the alarm to flush their quarry out into the open?