The Judas Strain

Page 10

Damn, that's a lot of ifs. . .

But there was only one certainty here.

They were dead if they stayed shivering like a pair of rabbits.

"We'll have to stay underwater as much as possible," Monk warned. "Maybe we could even take a breath or two if we keep air trapped in our contamination hoods."

Graff's face looked little comforted by this idea. Though the worst of the toxic event was over, the bay remained a poisonous cesspool. Even the gunmen knew better than to leave the safety of their boat. The masked men were using oars to pry the craft off the rocks, rather than climbing in themselves and lightening the load.

If even pirates refused to go into the water . . .

Monk suddenly began to question the wisdom of his own plan. Besides, he hated diving. He was a former Green Beret, not a friggin' Navy SEAL.

"What?" Graff asked, reading something in Monk's expression. "You don't think your plan is going to work, do you?"

"Let a man think already!"

Slumping down, Monk found himself staring back toward the worn Buddha statue under its lean-to, protected by its charred row of prayer sticks. He wasn't Buddhist, but he was not above praying to any god that would get him out of this scrape.

His eyes again settled to the burned prayer sticks. Without turning away, he spoke to Graff. "How did these worshippers get here?" he asked. "There's no village for miles along the coastline, the beach is protected by reefs, and the cliffs appear too sheer to climb."

Graff shook his head. "What difference does it make?"

"Someone lit those prayer sticks. Within the last day or so." Monk shifted up. "Look at the beach. No footsteps but our own. You can see where someone knelt to light their smudge sticks, but no steps head out to the water or along the beach. That means they had to come down from above. There must be a path."

"Or maybe someone just raised and lowered a rope."

Monk sighed, wishing for a more dim-witted companion, someone less able to poke holes in his reasoning.

"Water or Buddha?" Monk asked.

Graff visibly swallowed as the speedboat's engine throttled up. The pirates were almost free.

Graff turned to Monk. "Is . . . isn't it good luck to rub the belly of a Buddha?"

Monk nodded. "I think I read that on a fortune cookie somewhere. 1 hope that Buddha read the same cookie."

Monk shifted around, raising his pistol. "On my count, you haul ass. I'm going to be at your heels, blasting at the boat. You just concentrate on getting to that Buddha and finding that path."

"And I'll pray the worshippers didn't use a rope to—"

"Don't say it or you'll jinx us!"

Graff clammed up.

"Here we go." Monk braced himself, bouncing a bit to get circulation into his legs. He counted off. "Three . . . two . . . one . . . !"

Graff took off, bolting out like a jackrabbit. A bullet rang off the rock at the man's heels.

Monk cursed and jerked up. "You were supposed to wait for go," he mumbled, squeezing the trigger and firing toward the trapped boat. "Civilians..."

He peppered the boat, driving the snipers onto their bellies. He watched one man throw his hands up and go toppling overboard. A lucky shot on Monk's part. Return fire consisted of a few wild blasts, fired in an angry panic.

Ahead, Graff reached the Buddha and skidded in the sand, slipping past the prayer sticks. Twisting around, he caught his balance and leapfrogged behind the lean-to.

Monk took a more direct route and crashed through a sandy thornbush. He landed next to Graff.

"We made it!" Graff gasped out with way too much surprise in his voice.

"And pissed them off damn good."

Monk pictured the man going overboard into the toxic soup.

Possibly in retribution, rifle blasts tore through the lean-to and exploded the vines and leaves draped along the cliff wall. Monk and Graff sheltered together, protected by Buddha's wide stone belly. Surely there was symbolism in this last act.

But that was about all Buddha had to offer.

Monk studied the cliffs behind the wooden shack.

Sheer and unscalable.

No path.

"Maybe one of us should have rubbed that belly when we ran up here," Monk said sourly.

"Your gun?" Graff asked.

Monk hefted it up. "One round. After that, I could always throw the pistol at them. That always works."

Behind them the boat finally freed itself with a roar of its engine. Worse yet, the boat was now on the island side of the reef, sidling toward the beach, sluicing through the bodies of the dead.

Before long there would be another two bodies to add to the soup.

A volley of shots peppered the Buddha and shattered through the lean-to. More vines were shredded. A ricochet sped past Monk's nose—but he didn't move. He watched one of the drapes of blasted vine fall away, revealing the mouth of a cave behind it.

Monk crawled forward, keeping the statue between him and the appr oaching pirates. He nudged open the vines. Sunlight revealed a step, then another ...

"A tunnel! So much for your rope-ladder theory, Graff!"

Monk turned and saw the doctor slumped to one side, a hand pressed to Ins shoulder. Blood welled between his fingers.

Crap . . .

Monk hurried back to him. "C'mon. We've no time to dress it. Can you walk?"

Graff spoke between clenched teeth. "As long as they don't shoot me in the leg."

With some help, the two crawled through the vine drape and into the tunnel. The temperature dropped a full ten degrees. Monk kept a grip on Graff's elbow. The man trembled and shook, but he followed Monk's lead and hurried up the steps into the dark.

Behind them he heard the scrape of hull on sand and the victorious shouts of the pirates, confident their prey was trapped. Monk continued up, around and around, feeling in the dark.

It would not take long for the pirates to find the tunnel. But would they pursue or simply take off? The answer came soon enough.

Lights flared below . . . along with more furtive barked orders.

Monk hurried.

He heard the anger in the voices below.

He had indeed pissed them off.

Slowly the darkness overhead turned to gray. Walls became discernible. Their pace increased. Graff was mumbling under his breath, but Monk could not understand the man's words. A prayer, a curse ... he would take either if it would work.

At last the upper end of the stairs appeared. The pair burst out of the tunnel and into the fringe of rain forest that frosted the cliff. Monk pushed onward, grateful for the dense cover of the jungle. As he entered the forest, he saw the toxic kill zone was not limited to the beach below. Dead birds littered the forest floor. Near his toes lay the furred body of a flying fox, crumpled like a crashed jet fighter.

But not all the forest's denizens were dead.

Monk stared ahead. The forest floor churned and eddied in a red tide of its own. But this was no bacterial bloom. Millions of crabs covered the forest floor, every square inch. Some were latched onto trunks and vines.

Here were the missing Christmas Island red crabs.

Monk remembered his earlier study. Throughout the year, the crabs remained docile. Until aroused or stirred up. During their annual migration, the crabs were known to slash tires of passing cars with their razor-sharp claws.

Monk took a step back.

Stirred up described the crabs at the moment. They climbed all over one another, agitated, snapping. In a feeding frenzy.

Monk now understood why the creatures were missing from the beach below. Why go down when there was plenty to eat up here?

The crabs not only feasted on the dead birds and bats—but also on their own brothers and sisters, in a cannibalistic free-for-all. At the men's appearance, massive claws lifted in warning, snapping like broken sticks.

Welcome to the party!

Behind them, from the tunnel opening, excited voices echoed forth.

The pirates had spotted the tunnel's end.

Graff took a step forward, clutching his shoulder. A large crab, hidden under a fern leaf, swiped at his toe and cleaved clear through the plastic.

The doctor retreated back, mumbling under his breath again. It was the same mantra as on the stairs, only now Monk understood it. . . and couldn't agree more.

"We really should have rubbed that Buddha's belly."



July 5, 12:25 a.m. Takoma Park, Maryland

"What the hell is going on?"

"I don't know, Dad." Gray hurried with his father to close the carriage doors to the garage. "But I intend to find out."

The two had hauled the assassin's motorcycle into the garage. Gray had not wanted the bike left in the open. In fact, he wanted no trace of Seichan left here. So far there had been no sign of whoever had shot her, but that didn't mean they weren't coming.

He rushed back to his mother. As a biology professor at George Washington University, his mother had taught plenty of pre-med students and knew enough to belly-wrap Seichan's wound in order to stanch any further hemorrhaging.

The assassin hovered at the edge of consciousness, drifting in and out.

"It looked like the bullet passed clean through," his mother said. "But she's lost a lot of blood. Is the ambulance on its way?"

Moments ago Gray had made an emergency call with his cell phone—but not to 911. Seichan could not be taken to any local hospital. A gunshot wound required answering too many questions. Still, he had to move her, get her medical attention as soon as possible.

Down the street, a door slammed. Gray listened, jumpy at any noises, his senses stretched to a piano-wire tautness. Someone called out, laughing.

"Gray, is the ambulance on its way?" his mother persisted in a harder tone.

Gray just nodded, refusing to lie out loud. At least not to his mother. He turned to his father, who joined them, wiping his palms on his work jeans. His parents thought he was a laboratory technician for a D.C. research company, a lowly position after being court-martialed out of the Army Rangers for striking a superior officer. But that had not been the truth either.

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