The Judas Strain

Page 30

"So what happened to it?"

"Though they feared it, whoever edited the book also worried about destroying the map completely. So the writer, along with a handful of others, rewrote the map in a code that would protect and bless it."

Gray nodded his understanding. "So they buried it in angelic script."

"But who inserted the page?" Vigor asked.

Seichan shrugged. "It was unsigned, but there were enough references on the page to suggest that the Polos' descendants had handed Marco's secret book over to the papacy following the ravage of the Black Plague in the fourteenth century. Maybe the family feared the plague was the same pestilence that struck the City of the Dead, come at last to destroy the rest of the world. It was then the book was added to the archives."

"Interesting," Vigor said. "If you're right, it might explain why all trace of the Polo family vanished about then. Even Marco Polo's body vanished out of the Church of San Lorenzo, where he'd been buried. It was as if there was a systemic attempt to erase the Polo family. Did anyone ever date that rambling new page?"

Seichan nodded. "It was dated to the early sixteen-hundreds."

Vigor squinted his eyes. "Hmm . . . another great outbreak of bubonic plague swept Italy at about that time."

"Exactly," Seichan said. "And it was also at that time that a German named Johannes Trithemius first developed the angelic script. Despite his claim that it was a script from before man walked the earth."

Vigor nodded. He had performed his own historical study of angelic script. Its creator believed that by using his angelic alphabet—supposedly gained from deep meditative study—one could communicate with the heavenly choir of angels. Trithemius also dabbled in cryptography and secret codes. His famous treatise, Stenographia, was considered to be of occult nature, but it was actually a complex mix of angelology and code breaking.

"So if you wanted to hide a map during that time," Gray concluded, "one you deemed evil, then locking it up inside angelic script might seem a good way to ward against its dangers."

"That is exactly what the Guild came to believe. There were clues in that secret page as to the location of this coded map, a map now carved onto an Egyptian obelisk and hidden in the Gregorian Museum of the Vatican. But the obelisk had vanished, lost in time, shifted around. Nasser and I played a cat-and-mouse game searching for it. But I won. I stole it from under Nasser's nose."

Vigor heard the bitter pride in her voice, but he frowned and searched the others' faces. "What obelisk are you all talking about?"

7:42 A.M.

In sketchy highlights, Gray explained about the Egyptian obelisk that was used to hide the friar's cross and described the code painted in phosphorescent oils.

"Here is the actual text." Gray handed over his copy.

Vigor studied the complex jumble of angelic code and shook his head. "It makes no sense to me."

"Precisely," Seichan said. "The rambling letter in Marco's text also references a key to the map. A way to unlock its secret. A key hidden in three parts. The first key was tied to the inscription in the room where the secret text was originally hidden."

"In the Tower of Winds," Vigor said. "A good hiding place. The tower was under construction during that century. Built to house the Vatican Observatory."

"And according to the false page in Marco's book," Seichan continued, "each key would lead to the next. So to begin, we need to solve that first riddle. The angelic inscription in the Vatican." She turned fully to Vigor. "You claimed you'd succeeded. Is that true?"

Vigor opened his mouth to explain, but Gray placed a hand on his arm. He wasn't about to give Seichan all of their cards. He needed to hold at least one ace in the hole.

"Before that," Gray said, "you've still not said why the Guild is involved in all this. What gain is there in pursuing this historical trail from Marco Polo

to the present?"

Seichan hesitated. She took a deep breath—whether to lie or steel herself for telling the truth, he wasn't sure. When she spoke, she confirmed Gray's own growing fears.

"Because we believe Marco's disease is loose again," she said. "Freed from some ancient timbers of Marco's original galleys found among the Indonesian islands. The Guild is already on-site, ready to follow the scientific trail. Nasser and I were assigned to follow the historical trail. As was custom for the Guild, the right arm was not supposed to know what the left one was doing."

Gray understood the cell-like compartmentalization of the Guild, a pattern taken to heart by many terrorist organizations.

"But I stole some information," she said. "I learned the nature of the disease, and its ability to alter the biosphere forever."

Seichan continued with the Guild's discovery of a virus—something called the Judas Strain—and its capability of turning all bacteria into killers.

She quoted from Marco's text. " 'A legion of pestilence.' That is what struck Indonesia. But 1 know the Guild. I know what they plan to do. By harvesting and harnessing this pathogen, they hope to create a slew of new bacterial bioweapons, an inexhaustible source born of this virus."

As Seichan related details about the disease, Gray had gripped the edge of the table. His knuckles ached. A greater terror had taken hold of him.

Before he could speak, Vigor cleared his throat. "But if the scientific arm of the Guild is pursuing this virus, what is so important about this historical hunt along Marco Polo's trail? What does it matter?"

Gray answered, quoting the last line of Marco's text. " 'A dark Virtue that saved us all.' That sounds like a cure to me."

Seichan nodded. "Marco survived to tell his story. Even the Guild wouldn't dare unleash such a virus without some means of controlling it."

"Or at least to discover its source," Gray added.

Vigor stared out toward the city, his face limned against the rising sun. "And there are other unanswered questions. What became of Father Agreer? What scared the papacy?"

But Gray had a more important question of his own. "Exactly where in Indonesia did this new outbreak happen?"

"At a remote island, luckily far from any large population."

"Christmas Island," Gray filled in.

Seichan's eyes widened in surprise.

Confirmation enough.

Gray shoved up. Everyone stared at him. Monk and Lisa had gone out to Christmas Island to investigate the same disease. They had no idea what they were about to confront—or of the Guild's interest. Gray's breathing grew heavier. He had to get word to Painter. But with Sigma compromised, would his alarm put his friends in more danger, paint a bull's-eye on them?

He needed more information. "How far along is this Guild operation in Indonesia?"

"I don't know. It was difficult learning what I did."

"Seichan," Gray growled at her.

Her eyes narrowed with concern. In his agitation, he almost believed it was genuine. "I... I truly don't know, Gray. Why? What's wrong?"

With a hard exhalation, Gray crossed to the railing, needing an extra second to think, to let everything he'd learned settle through him.

For the moment, he knew only one thing for certain.

He needed to get word to Washington.

1:04 A.M. Washington, D.C.

Harriet Pierce struggled to calm her husband. It was especially difficult as he'd locked himself in the hotel bathroom. She pressed a cold damp rag to her split lip.

"Jack! Open the door!"

He had woken two hours ago, confused and disoriented. She had seen it before. Sundowner's syndrome. Common with Alzheimer's patients. A condition of heightened agitation after sunset, when the familiar surroundings become confusing in the dark.

And it was worse here. Away from home.

It didn't help that the Phoenix Park Hotel was their second accommodation in less than twenty-four hours. First, Dr. Corrin's apartment, and now here. But Gray had been firm when he whispered his good-byes and added a private instruction to her. Once Dr. Corrin left them at the apartment, she

had been told to leave, cross the city, and check into another hotel, paying cash, using a false name.

An extra precaution.

But all the moving had only worsened Jack's status. He had been off his Tegetrol mood stabilizer for a full day. And he had finished the last of his Propranolol, a blood pressure medication that reduced anxiety.

So it was no surprise that Jack had woken earlier in a panic, disoriented. The worst she had seen in months.

His shouts and heavy-footed blundering had woken her. She had inadvertently fallen asleep, seated in a chair in front the hotel room's small television. The channel had been tuned to Fox News. She had the volume on low, just loud enough to hear if Gray's name was mentioned again.

Startled awake by her husband's shout, she had hurried to the bedroom. A foolish mistake. One didn't surprise a patient in his state. Jack had slapped her away, striking her in the mouth. With his blood up, it took him a full half minute to recognize her.

When he finally did, he had retreated to the bathroom. She'd heard his sobbing. It was the reason he had locked the door.

Pierce men didn't cry.

"Jack, open the door. It's okay. I've called a prescription into the pharmacy down the street. It's all right."

Harriet knew it was a risk, calling in the prescription. But she couldn't take Jack to a hospital, and if untreated, his dementia would only grow worse. And his shouting threatened to draw the wrath of the hotel's management. What if they called the police?

With no choice, her teeth aching from the blow, she had made a decision. Using the phone book, she had called a twenty-four-hour pharmacy that delivered and ordered a refill. Once the medication arrived and her husband was treated, she would check out, move to a new hotel, and disappear again.

The doorbell chimed behind her.

Oh, thank God.

"Jack, that's the pharmacy. I'll be right back."

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