The Judas Strain

Page 26

brother. She had no choice. She lifted a trembling arm and pointed a finger to

another of the boys, the oldest of the group at ten years of age.

May God forgive me.

"Very good. Rakao, you know your duty."

The Maori gunman stepped over to the boy, whose frightened face lifted hopefully.

A moan escaped Lisa. She took a step forward, trying to retract her decision. The guard tightened his grip on her elbow. Restrained, her legs trembled—then she was on her knees, boneless with terror and grief.

The gunman lifted his pistol and pointed it at the boy's head.

"No . . ." Lisa gasped.

He pulled the trigger—but there was no blast of fire. The gun's hammer clicked sharply in the confined space, snapping on an empty cylinder.

Rakao lowered his weapon.

In the silence a gurgling cry erupted from the other side of the hall. Lisa turned in time to watch Dr. Lindholm sink to his knees, matching Lisa's posture. He met her gaze, eyes wide with shock and pain. His hands clutched his throat. Blood poured between his fingers.

Behind his shoulder, Devesh's companion, the woman Surina, stepped back, her head bowed down as if she had just served tea and was now exiting. Her hands were empty, but Lisa had no doubt the woman had slashed the doctor's throat, her dagger vanishing away as quickly as it had struck.

Lindholm slumped and fell to his chest on the carpeted floor. Blood soaked into the plush weave and overspilled into a growing pool. One hand twitched on the carpet, then stopped.

"Motherfucker .. ." Ryder growled, his face stony, turning away.

Devesh stepped back to Lisa.

"Wh-why?" she managed to force out, heartsick and cold.

"Like I said, nothing escapes our notice, Dr. Cummings. Including Dr. Lindholm's skill. Or rather lack thereof when it comes to research and fieldwork. He served his purpose in keeping the WHO off our backs with his call, but beyond that, he is more a liability than an asset. His death at least served one last function. A demonstration. Not only to show the cost of insubordination." Devesh fixed her with a hard stare. "Can I assume you've learned that cost, Dr. Cummings?"

She slowly nodded, staring at the pool of blood.

"Very good." He faced the others. "The death also demonstrates a lesson to everyone. Of the seriousness of our venture here. Your lives depend upon your usefulness. It is that simple. Perform or die. I encourage you to pass on this lesson to your other colleagues before further demonstrations prove necessary."

Devesh clapped his hands together. "Now, with that little bit of unpleasantness over, we can begin our work." He motioned to the Maori leader. "Rakao, please guide everyone to their respective posts. I'll escort Dr. Cummings personally to her patient."

Holstering his pistol, Rakao dispersed his men. Devesh led Lisa down the hall, away from everyone else. She passed the line of children. Shell-shocked, they were being gathered for a return to the ship's day care.

Surina, trailing Lisa and Devesh, paused by the little brother and sister. She bent to the girl, still cowering under her brother's arm. Surina held out an empty palm; then with a flicker of fingers, a small wrapped sweet appeared in her hand, as if out of the air. She offered it to the terrified girl, but the child only pulled tighter against her older sibling. Her brother, more practical, reached out and snatched the candy from Surina's palm, as if grabbing it out of a baited mousetrap.

Surina straightened in a smooth flow of embroidered silk, lightly brushing her fingers along the girl's cheek as she rose. Her fingertips came away damp with the child's tears. Lisa wondered if it was the same hand that had slashed Lindholm's throat. The woman's face remained perfectly still.

Lisa turned away, following Devesh.

He took her down to the very last cabin on this level and keyed his way inside. Another suite. A massive amount of equipment was being assembled in the outer room. Ignoring it all, Devesh crossed to the adjoining bedroom.

Lisa kept near him.

As Devesh passed inside, Lisa spotted a familiar figure sprawled atop the room's bed, draped in an isolation tent: a woman, tangled amid monitoring equipment, her blond hair a match to Lisa's own, but shaved to a close crop. Lisa had spotted the gurney used to transport the patient here out in the main room. It was the woman taken off the helicopter. Her features were still obscured behind an oxygen mask that covered her full face.

Two men, the same orderlies who had transported the patient down here, were busy hooking and securing the final leads and lines that ran from the woman to a neighboring bank of monitoring equipment. Lisa took it all in with a glance: electroencephalogram, EKG, Doppler blood pressure monitor, A central lead was already established in the patient's chest, tied to an intravenous drip. One of the men straightened the drape of a urinary catheter.

Devesh lifted a hand toward the figure in the bed. "May I introduce you to Dr. Susan Tunis, a marine biologist out of Queensland. One of the first people to encounter the toxic bloom of cyanobacteria. I believe you have met another of her party already. The John Doe down in the isolation ward."

Lisa remained near the door, unsure why she was brought here, still numb from the casual slaughter of Dr. Lindholm. Even if this was one of the first victims, what did it have to do with her? She was not a virologist or a bacteriologist.

"I don't understand," she said, voicing her confusion. "There are ....................

qualified medical doctors aboard the ship."

Devesh waved away her statement. "We have technicians to meet her medical needs."

Lisa frowned. "Then why—?"

"Dr. Cummings, you're a proficient physiologist. With significant field research experience. But more importantly, you've proven yourself quite resourceful in your service to Sigma in the past. We'll need that innovation and experience here. To assist me personally. With this one case."

"Why her? Why this case?"

"Because this one patient holds the key to everything." Devesh stared down at the woman. His eyes narrowed with worry for the first time. "She holds a riddle, one that extends deep into the historical past, back to Marco Polo and his trips through these waters .. . and into a larger mystery."

"Marco Polo? The explorer?"

Devesh waved a hand. "Like I said earlier, that's a trail we are leaving to another arm of the Guild." He nodded to the woman. "All our efforts here, all the research aboard the ship, all the sacrifices to come, center on this one woman."

"I still don't understand. What's so important about her?"

Devesh's voice lowered. "This woman ... she's changing. Like the bacteria. The Judas Strain is growing inside her."

"But I thought you said the virus doesn't infect human cells."

"It doesn't. It's doing something else inside her."


Devesh faced Lisa. "It's incubating."


Of a Journey Untold

July 6, 6:41 a.m. Istanbul

In less than a day Gray had escaped halfway around the globe—and landed in another world. From the minarets of Istanbul's countless mosques, muezzin called the Islamic faithful to morning prayer. Sunrise cast long shadows and ignited the city's domes and spires.

Gray had a bird's-eye view from the rooftop restaurant where he waited with Seichan and Kowalski. No one looked happy They were jet-lagged and on edge. But the dull ache behind Gray's eyes had more to do with his own concerns. Pursued by assassins, hunted by his own government, he had begun to doubt the wisdom of this current partnership.

And now this strange summons to Istanbul. Why? It made no sense. But at least for once, Seichan seemed equally baffled. She dripped honey into a tiny gold-rimmed cup of Turkish tea. The tea waiter, dressed in a traditional blue-and-gold embroidered vest, offered a refill to Gray.

He shook his head, already buzzing from the caffeine.

The waiter did not bother with Kowalski. The large man—dressed in a pair of jeans, black T-shirt, and long gray duster—had skipped the tea and gone straight for dessert. He nursed a chilled glass of grape brandy, called raki. "Tastes like licorice and asphalt," he had commented with a curl of his lip, but it did not keep him from consuming two glasses. He had also discovered the buffet table, buttering up a pile of bread, stacking on olives, cucumbers, cheese, and a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs.

Gray had no appetite. He was too full of worries, too full of questions.

He stood up and crossed to the half wall that encircled the rooftop terrace, careful to stay in the shadow of a table's umbrella. Istanbul, a terrorist hot spot, was under constant satellite surveillance. Gray wondered if his features were already being run through a facial-recognition program in some intelligence agency.

Was Sigma or the Guild closing in even now?

Seichan joined him, resting her teacup on the tiled ledge. She had slept the entire flight here, reclined in first class. With the rest, her color had much improved, though she still walked with a limp, favoring her wounded side. Aboard the jet, she had changed into a looser outfit, donning khaki pants and a billowing midnight-blue blouse, but she'd kept her black Versace motorcycle boots.

"Why do you think Monsignor Verona called us all the way here?" she asked. "To Istanbul."

Turning, Gray leaned a hip on the wall. "What? So we're talking now?"

Her eyes rolled ever so slightly, exasperated. Since they had left the doctor's office back in Georgetown, Seichan had refused any further explanations. Not that they'd had much time. On the run, Seichan had stopped only long enough to make one call. To the Vatican. Gray had listened in on the conversation. It seemed Vigor had been expecting her call and was not at all surprised to find Gray with her.

"Word has spread," the monsignor had explained. "Interpol, Europol, everyone is searching for you. I assume it was you, Seichan, that left me that little message in the Tower of Winds."

"You found the inscription."

"I did."

"You recognized the writing." Or course.

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