The Judas Strain

Page 53

"Well, that sure helped," Kowalski said sarcastically.

Gray rubbed a hand over the stubble on his chin, concentrating. "Something's here. I can sense it."

"Maybe you're supposed to connect the dots," Kowalski said with no less sarcasm. "Maybe it'll form a big flashing arrow spelling out go the fuck here."

Siechan frowned. "And maybe it's time for you to shut the hell up."

Gray did not need their bickering. Not now. Kowalski was fine as a getaway driver, good in a firefight, but Gray needed sage advice, not kindergarten suggestions, like connect the dots.

Then he saw it.

"Oh my God!" Gray sat up, fumbled his pencil, and grasped it more firmly. "Kowalski is right!" I am?

"He is . .. ?" Seichan responded.

Gray turned to Vigor, clutching his forearm. "The first clue! In the Tower of Winds."

Vigor frowned—then his eyes widened. "Which holds the Vatican's astronomical observatory. . . where Galileo proved the earth moved around the sun!" Vigor tapped the sheet. "These are stars!"

Gray took his pencil. He had been staring hard at the sheet and recognized a familiar pattern. "This is a constellation." He drew it in.

Vigor recognized it, too. "That's the constellation for Draco, the dragon."

Seichan cocked her head as she stared down. "Are you saying it's a navigational star map?"

"It looks that way." Gray scratched his head with his pencil's eraser. "But how does one constellation tell us where to go?"

No one answered.

"It can't," he finally conceded.

Gray's heart pounded in his throat. They were running out of time. Had he just taken them down the wrong path?

Vigor sat back. "Wait," he mumbled. "Remember Marco's story. The last stanza. Marco said he drew a map of the city, not a map to the city."

"And?" Gray asked.

Vigor took the paper, spun it around. "This can't be stars. It has to be the layout of the City of the Dead. That's what Marco's text stated. Possibly the Vatican made the same mistake we just did. They misinterpreted Marco's map in the same manner. They also thought it was navigational star map."

Gray shook his head. "That's a rather strange coincidence that a city should be laid out in the exact pattern of the Draco constellation. If I'm not mistaken, even the stars outside the dragon line mark the placement of real stars."

Vigor nodded. "But remember, from my study of ancient civilizations . . . from the Egyptians through Mesoamerica, many civilizations built their monuments and cities patterned after the stars, made to mimic them."

Gray remembered a similar lesson. "Like the three Egyptian pyramids are supposed to represent the stars of Orion's belt."

"Exactly! Somewhere in Southeast Asia is a city patterned after the Draco constellation."

Seichan suddenly swung around. "Choi mai!" she swore under her breath. "1 remember something . . . something I heard about. . . some ruins in Cambodia. My family has roots in the region. Vietnam and Cambodia."

Seichan rushed to her pack, pawed through it, and pulled out her laptop. "There's an encyclopedia program on here."

Seichan squatted down between the knees of Vigor and Gray. She called up the program and typed rapidly. She double-clicked on an icon and a digital map filled the screen.

"This is the temple complex of Angkor, built by the Khmer people of Cambodia in the ninth century."

"Notice the layout of the temples," Seichan said, "where each one lies. 1 had heard stories of how these ruins were supposedly laid out in a starlike grid."

With his finger Gray drew a line connecting the temples in a pattern and tapped the remaining temples. He held up the first star map and placed it next to the open laptop.

"They're an exact match," Vigor said, awed. "Marco's City of the Dead. It's the ancient city of Angkor Wat."

Gray leaned down and hugged Seichan's shoulders. She tensed, but didn't pull away. Gray owed everyone a debt of gratitude, even Kowalski, whose simplistic overview had broken the way to the solution.

Gray checked his watch.

Not a minute to spare.

He held out his hand toward Vigor. "Your phone. It's time to make a deal."

Vigor passed him the cell phone and battery.

Gray snapped the battery in place, praying for some measure of good fortune. He dialed Nasser's number, supplied by Seichan. Vigor reached over and gripped Gray's hand, offering support.

The phone rang once and was picked up.

"Commander Pierce," a cold and furious voice answered.

Gray took a steadying breath, struggling not to lash out. He needed to be deliberate and firm.

"My plane is about to land," Nasser continued, not even waiting for acknowledgment. "For your treachery, 1 will allow you to decide which of your parents will die first, your mother or your father. I will make you listen to their screams. And that parent, I promise, will be the luckier of the two."

Despite the threat Gray took some solace. If Nasser wasn't lying, both of his parents were still alive.

Taking comfort in that, Gray kept his voice even, his jaw muscles aching with the restraint. "I will offer you a trade for their lives."

"There is nothing you can offer," Nasser barked back.

"Even if 1 told you that I'd solved the obelisk's angelic code?"

Dead air answered him.

Gray continued, "Nasser, I know where Marco's City of the Dead lies." Fearing even this might not be enough to sway the bastard, Gray spoke the next words slowly, so there was no misunderstanding. "And I know how to cure the Judas Strain."

Vigor turned to him, startled.

Silence continued on the phone.

Gray waited. He stared at the digital map of Angkor Wat on the laptop. He sensed that the two arms of the Guild operation—the one following the scientific trail, the other following the historical—were about to slam together.

But who would be crushed between them?

Nasser finally answered, his voice a trembling rage.

"What do you want?"

13 Witch Queen

July 7, Midnight Island of Pusat

The drums pounded louder than the rumbles of thunder overhead. Lightning spattered, flashing the jungle into stark greens and blacks, limned in silver by the reflection off the wet leaves.

Bare-chested, Monk pulled Susan by the hand up a steep turn in the jungle path. They'd been following the trail for the past two hours in the dark, sometimes waiting for lightning to show them where to step next. Rain continued to pour through the canopy. The switchbacked trail had become a running stream. But the remainder of the jungle was a dense tangle of grappling vines, heavy leaves, thorny bushes, root-choked trunks, and sopping mud.

So they kept to the trail, heading up, always up.

Ryder climbed behind them. He had their group's one pistol. A 9mm Sig Sauer P228 with a Teflon finish. Unfortunately he had no spare magazines. Only the thirteen rounds already in the gun.

Not good.

Monk knew that once the storm broke, the jungle would be scoured by Rakao's men. This island was their base of operation, giving them the home-field advantage. Monk did not delude himself into thinking he could escape being tracked and captured.

He glanced back through a break in the jungle. They were about three hundred feet up. The giant cruise ship sat in the center of the lake, a quarter mile out. Somewhere on board was his partner, pulled alive from the black waters, out of the grip of some nasty calamari.

But was she still alive?

Until he knew for sure, Monk would not give up hope.

Not for Lisa, not for himself.

To that end, Monk needed allies.

Drums continued their perpetual beating, louder and more urgent, as if striving to drive the typhoon away. They had climbed high enough that each pound of leather drum now reverberated against his rib cage, down to the bone.

Monk pushed through a drape of branches, waterlogged and drooping low. He spotted a glow ahead, flickering.


He took another two steps and stopped.

Only now did he realize they weren't alone. To either side of the path, sentinels stood, half hidden by the dense foliage, but plainly in the open, wanting to be noted. Men stood, bare-chested, wearing wide grass hats tied to their heads. Their faces had been painted with oil and ash, turning their countenances pitch-black. Polished white boar tusks and yellowed rib bones pierced noses. Brilliant feathers and snail shells were threaded around upper arms.

With a shout, Ryder lunged forward, his pistol raised.

The sentinels were unimpressed.

Monk shoved down Ryder's arm and stepped forward, holding up his hands, palms forward. "Don't spook the natives," he whispered to Ryder.

One tribesman shifted onto the trail. He wore a breastplate of bone braided together by leather. His waist was circled by a kilt of long feathers. His legs and feet were bare, painted with grease and ash, too. He carried a sharpened shoulder blade of some animal.

At least Monk hoped it was an animal.

Monk heard a rustle behind him, knowing their back trail was already being closed off. Drums pounded ahead. The firelight spat momentarily brighter.

The man on the path turned and led the way toward the glow.

"Looks like we're invited to the party," Monk said, putting his arm around Susan.

Ryder followed, pistol in hand.

If things went awry, they might need the billionaire's remaining thirteen rounds to blast their way to freedom. But for now, Monk knew their best bet was to cooperate.

The path ended at a cliff face in the volcanic rock. A natural coved amphitheater had been carved out of the reddish-black rock, roofed over with thick palm thatching. The downpour drained in a sheet of rain off the roof's front edge, creating a watery curtain.

Beyond the flow, lit by a massive bonfire within, Monk spotted lines of drummers along both walls, working hard, pounding away. Two massive drums, as wide as his outstretched arms, hung from the rock walls and were struck with bone hammers. Each stroke shook the thin waterfall that cascaded from the thatched roof to the rock floor.

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