The Judas Strain

Page 16

Boom. . . boom . . . boom . . .

Off to the north, a resounding blast cast up a gout of smoke and flame, coming from the township. Close enough to rattle the Land Rover's windows.

"Telstra substation," Graff said. "They're cutting off all means of communication."

Other sections of The Settlement were already burning.

These were no ordinary pirates. It was a full-on assault.

Who the hell were they?

Monk shifted back into gear and headed away from the township, along the coastal road.

"Where are you—?" Graff began to ask.

Monk rounded a bend. A small beachside hotel, isolated within a couple of tamed acres of rain forest, appeared ahead. Monk took a sharp turn at a sign that read the mango lodge and grille. He sped down the entry road. The hotel rose into view, a two-story building that dissolved into a few freestanding jungle bungalows. A swimming pool glistened.

The place appeared deserted.

"You'll be safe here," Monk said as he braked to a stop at the side of the hotel under the shielding bower of the lodge's namesake, a mango tree.

Monk hopped out.

"Wait!" Graff struggled with his door, finally fighting it open. He all but fell out of the Land Rover. He chased Monk down.

Monk did not slow. He half trotted toward the beach. Like all seaside hotels, the Mango Lodge and Grille offered all the activities a beachcomber might want: snorkeling, kayaking, sailing. At the rear of the establishment, Monk spotted the hotel's activities center, a small cinder-block outbuilding with a thatched roof. It was boarded-up because of the evacuation.

On the fly, Monk snatched up a pole used to clean the pool. In no time, he was prying boards free and smashing through the glass door.

Graff caught up with him.

Monk reached out and hauled the researcher inside, out of the sun. The helicopter roared past overhead, low, its rotor wash whipping palm fronds. Then it swept away, continuing its patrol of the shoreline.

"Keep out of sight!" Monk warned.

Graff nodded vigorously.

Monk stalked through the front of the activities center, packed with beach towels, sunglasses, suntan oils, and a host of souvenirs. The place smelled of coconut and damp feet. Monk circled the counter and proceeded through a doorway draped in rattling beads.

He found what he was looking for.

Scuba gear hung along the back wall.

Monk kicked off his boots.

On the beach side of the room, lined up before a roll-up door, rested a variety of crafts for fun in the sun. Monk bypassed the paddleboats, a pair of kayaks, and stopped before the lone Jet Ski watercraft. It rested on a wheeled trailer, ready for easy hauling to and from the water,

At least the seas on this side of the island were clean of that toxic soup.

Monk turned to Graff. "I'm going to need your help."

Eighteen minutes later, Monk rubbed his elbow across the grease-stained window in the roll-up door. His wet suit squeaked against the glass. Craning his neck, Monk waited for the helicopter to circle by overhead and swing back north toward Flying Fish Cove. The cove lay out of direct sight, hidden by Smith Point. All that Monk could make out of the war zone was the smudged pall of smoke rising over the ridgeline.

At last, the helicopter turned tail and headed back toward the cruise ship.

"Okay, here we go!"

Monk bent down and hauled the door up, snapping it into place overhead. Behind him, Graff lifted the trailer hitch, and Monk swung around to the front. He grabbed the back of the Jet Ski, and together they ran the trailer down to the water. The large rubber sand tires made it quick work.

Graff worked one arm to loosen the craft from the trailer while Monk ran back and hauled on his BC vest and tanks. Once outfitted, he slipped a souvenir Mango Lodge windbreaker over all his equipment.

Heavily burdened, Monk plodded back to the water and helped float the Jet Ski off its trailer. "Stay hidden," he instructed Graff. "But if you can find some means of communication, a radio or anything, try to raise someone in authority."

Graff nodded. "Be careful."

In another minute Monk was gunning the engine to a high whine and racing off toward Smith Point. Behind him, Graff trotted the empty trailer back to its garage.

Monk bent lower in the seat and cranked the craft to full throttle. Flying faster, the windbreaker snapped in the breeze. Sea and salt sprayed. Smith Point grew in front of him. At last, he reached the rocky spur and, without slowing, sped around it.

On the far side of the cove, the Mistress of the Seas rose like a besieged white castle. Closer still, the waters burned with spills of flaming oil and smoking husks of ships. Even the jetty was a blasted ruin. And throughout the war zone, the roar of the pirates' speedboats growled.

On the hunt.

Here we go.

Like a skimming torpedo, Monk shot into the fray.

2:o8 P.M.

"There must be something we can do," Lisa said-

"For now, we sit tight," Henri Barnhardt warned.

They were holed up in one of the empty outside cabins. Lisa stood near one of the room's two portholes. Henri took a post by the door.

An hour ago they had fled through the ship, only to discover the place in full chaos. Uniformed crew and wild-eyed passengers, both the sick and the healthy, crowded the hallways. Explosions and gunfire were almost drowned out by the nerve-rattling klaxon of the ship's alarm bell. Whether automated or purposeful, someone had tripped the ship's fire doors, dropping them, isolating sections.

Meanwhile masked gunmen cleared the halls, one after the other, shooting anyone who resisted or moved too slowly. Lisa and Henri had heard the screams, the gunfire, the trampling feet from the deck above. They came close to being shot themselves. Only a swift race through the ship's gilded showroom and down another hallway had saved them.

They did not know how much longer they could hold out.

The rapidity of the takedown of the Mistress of the Seas suggested some of the crew must have been involved.

Lisa stared out the porthole window. The sea was on fire. From this same window, she had watched a handful of desperate passengers leap from upper balconies into the waters, hoping to make it to shore.

But the gunboats swept the cove, peppering and strafing the water.

Bodies floated amid the flaming debris.

There was no escape.

Why was this happening? What was going on?

Finally, the alarm klaxon went silent, cutting off with a final whining squelch. The silence that remained felt heavy, a physical weight. Even the air seemed thicker.

Somewhere above someone sobbed and wailed.

Henri met Lisa's eyes.

From the room's speaker a stiff voice began speaking in Malay. Lisa didn't speak the Malaysian language. Still staring at Henri, she watched the toxicologist shake his head. He was just as lost. But whatever was said was eventually repeated in Mandarin Chinese. They were the two most common languages spoken on the island.

Finally, the speaker switched to English, heavily accented.

"The ship is now ours. Each deck is patrolled by guards. Anyone caught out in the halls will be shot on sight. No one will come to harm as long as we are obeyed. That is all."

The speech ended with a snap of static.

Henri tested to make sure the cabin door was locked, then stepped toward Lisa. "The ship's been hijacked. Someone must have been planning this for some time."

Lisa flashed back to the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship hijacked by Palestinian terrorists back in 1985. And more recently in 2005, Somalian pirates attacked another cruise ship off the east African coast.

She turned to the porthole, staring out, and studied the boats patrolling the waters below, operated by teams of masked gunmen. They appeared to be pirates, but she suspected otherwise.

Maybe some of Painter's paranoia had rubbed off on her.

This was all too coordinated for a random act of piracy.

"Surely," Henri said, "they'll ransack the ship and steal everything not locked down, then flee back among the islands. If we can keep alive, avoid any confrontation . . ."

The speaker screeched again, and a new voice spoke through the general shipboard communications. In English. It didn't repeat in Malay or Chinese.

"The following passengers will report to the ship's bridge. They will be expected here in the next five minutes. They will come with their hands on their heads, fingers clasped. Failure to appear will result in the death of two passengers for every minute you are late. We will shoot the children first."

The names were stated.

Dr. Gene Lindholm.

Dr. Benjamin Miller.

Dr. Henri Barnhardt.

And last: Dr. Lisa Cummings.

"You have five minutes."

The radio went silent again.

Lisa still faced the porthole. "This is no hijacking."

And these were no ordinary pirates.

Before she turned away from the window, she spotted a Jet Ski racing across the water toward the cruise ship. A rooster tail of water jetted high behind it, making it easy to spot. It weaved through the debris with skill. She could not make out who was aboard the craft. The rider was hunkered low.

And with good reason.

Two speedboats were in tight pursuit, crashing through flames and smoking planks. Muzzle flashes sparked from the boat.

She shook her head at the Jet Skier's foolishness.

From over the top of the cruise ship, a helicopter dove into view, sweeping down toward the Jet Ski. She didn't want to watch, but she felt some obligation. Some acknowledgment of the rider's suicidal assault.

The helicopter tilted in a sharp arc, side door open.

A blast of smoke spat from its interior.

Grenade launcher.

Wincing, Lisa glanced down in time to see the Jet Ski explode in a fiery ball of smoke and charred metal.

She swung away, numb and trembling all over. She faced Henri. They had no other choice.

Let's go.

2:12 P.M.

Monk sank into the depths of the sea, dragged down by his weight belt and tanks. He did not fight it and held his breath. Overhead, the blue of the water blazed with fire. Shrapnel from the blasted Jet Ski sizzled through the water. Two meters away, the watercraft sank nose first into the depths.

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