The Judas Strain

Page 59

Jennings tapped the screen, noting one spot crossed by the crab's trajectory. "Angkor Wat."

Painter straightened. "Are you suggesting—?"

"A rather odd coincidence. It makes me wonder if this crab had been rewired to march itself straight over there."

Painter stared at the screen, picturing Gray Pierce, reminded of the deadly bluff being played out there. "If you're right, then Marco's trail might not be such a dead end after all. Something must be there." Jennings nodded, hands on his hips. "But what?"

5:32 A.M. Siem Reap

Vigor reminded himself never to play poker with Gray.

The commander sat in a rattan lounge chair in the hotel's bar. The facility was closed at this hour, but Nasser had rented the space out for privacy. The Elephant Bar gained its name from the pair of large curved tusks near the entrance. Continuing the motif, the lounge was appointed with bamboo furniture upholstered in zebra and tiger prints.

Gray sat across a glass coffee table from Nasser, playing a cautious game.

Seichan had sprawled herself across a sofa, ankles crossed. Kowalski sat at the long bar, staring at the gemlike spread of bottles. But Vigor also noted how the large man continued to spy upon Gray and Nasser in the bar's mirror.

Not that there was much any of them could do.

Nasser's men stationed themselves at all the exits and lined both walls.

With a clank of metal on glass, Nasser returned one of the gold paitzus to the tabletop. Before he even entertained any discussion about cures, Nasser wanted to verify that the ruins of Angkor were indeed where Marco Polo had first encountered the Judas Strain. Gray had laid it all out, decoding the entire story as he had aboard the seaplane.

Vigor stood over the table, studying the angelic script, the star chart, the map of the ruins. He had again listened to the complete decipher.

Nasser finally accepted the truth. He leaned back. "And this cure?"

Vigor fought against flinching. On the flight here, Gray had explained his take on the last story of Marco Polo: his theory of vaccination through cannibalism. It was intriguing, but in the end, it offered no real cure.

Because of the risk of this bluff, Gray had attempted to shuffle Vigor onto a different flight when they changed planes in Bangkok.

"It's too dangerous," Gray had warned. "Go back to Italy."

But Vigor had refused. Besides the fact that Nasser had ordered all of them to Cambodia, Vigor had his own reasons for continuing. Somewhere among these ruins, Friar Agreer had vanished, a fellow brother of the cloth, sacrificing himself to save Marco and the others. Vigor could not turn his back on such selfless bravery. But he also had a more important argument to offer Gray.

"The natives who had offered the cure recognized something in Friar Agreer, some commonality," Vigor had explained. "Why did they seek him out? If there is some answer beyond where Marco left off, it might take another brother of the cloth to find it."

Gray had reluctantly agreed.

Still, Vigor had one last reason for continuing, one he left unvoiced. Something he had noted in the young man's eyes. Desperation. As these last cards were being played out, Gray was getting reckless. Like this risky bluff, walking into a trap with no secondary strategy. All Gray's hopes lay with Director Crowe, trusting that his boss would find some way to secure his parents in time, freeing Gray to act.

But was Gray up to the game being played here, especially plagued by the worry for his parents? Plainly some of the sharp edge of his mind had been dulled.

Vigor stared down at the spread of maps and angelic scripts.

For example, how had Gray missed seeing this earlier?

"The cure," Nasser persisted, pulling Vigor's attention up. "Tell me what you know."

Across the table, Gray remained cool and calm, not a bead of sweat on his brow. "I will give you an airport locker number. Back in Bangkok. Tell you where to find the key to confirm what I'm about to say. We stashed the third and final scroll in that locker. In that last document, Marco describes the cure. It is in two parts. I will tell you the first part, free of charge."

Nasser shifted, one eye narrowing.

"Once I'm done, as a mark of good faith, you'll release one of my parents. And I will expect satisfactory confirmation. With that, I will tell you the locker number and location of the key. You can verify my claim. Is that satisfactory?"

"It depends on what I hear."

Gray merely stared, not blinking.

Vigor knew it was all a stalling tactic, stretching out the reveal for as long as possible. The scroll had indeed been secured in an airport locker in Bangkok, but it was a wild-goose chase. There was no second half of the cure.

Gray sighed, as if relenting. "Here then is the story found within the third scroll. According to Marco .. ."

As Gray related what the embroidered scroll revealed, Vigor studied the documents on the table, only half listening. The commander kept to the truth, knowing that more time would be bought with the facts than lies. After Gray was finished, Nasser would make the necessary calls, arrange to have the scroll recovered from the locker, then translated. All of it would take time. The discovered scroll would verify Gray's story and make it more likely Nasser would buy any fabrication to follow. And even if Gray's lies failed to convince, at least one of his parents would be saved by then.

That was the plan.

Gray finally finished his narration, laying out the science. "So clearly the cannibalism served some means of vaccinating against the disease. But exactly how that was achieved will wait until I know one of my parents is safe."

Gray folded his hands in his lap.

Nasser sat silent for a moment, then spoke slowly. "So we really just need someone who is cured of the Judas Strain, someone who survived. Then we can construct the vaccine from their white blood cells and antibodies."

Gray remained silent, offering only a slight shrug of his shoulders, quietly stating that any further answers would wait until one of his parents was free.

Nasser sighed, reached to a pocket, flipped open the phone, and pressed a button. "Annishen," he said. "Pick one of the hostages. Your choice."

Nasser listened.

"Yes, that's fine ... go ahead and kill them."

5:45 P.M.

Gray lunged across the table.

He had no plan, reacting on pure instinct.

But Nasser must have signaled one of the men. Gray's head exploded with pain, clubbed from behind, his vision blew away into brightness, then collapsed into momentary darkness. His body struck the cocktail table and rolled with a thump to the floor, jarring back his sight.

Five guns now pointed at Gray.

More at Seichan and Kowalski.

Vigor stood with his arms crossed.

Nasser had not moved, his phone still lifted to his ear. "Hold, Annishen. For the moment." He lowered the phone, half covering the receiver with a hand. "It seems this is the end, Commander Pierce. Of many trails. Polo's last scroll only confirms what I've heard from the Guild contingent in Indonesia. The scientific team has come to the same conclusion. A potential cure does reside within the body of a survivor. One who happens to glow, like revealed in Polo's story."

Gray shook his head. Not in denial, he just had difficulty comprehending what Nasser was saying. Blood pounded in his ears, deafening him. His plan had failed.

Nasser lifted his phone again. "So it seems our historical trail has run full circle back to the scientific trail. This is the end of the proverbial road. For you. For your mother and father."

Gray sensed the world closing in on him. Even his vision narrowed, voices sounded more hollow. Until Vigor stepped closer.

"Enough," the monsignor snapped out with the command of a professor in an auditorium.

All eyes turned to him. Even Nasser paused.

Vigor stared at their captor. "You make many assumptions, young man. Assumptions that will not serve you, or your associates."

"How so, Monsignor?" Nasser kept his tone civil.

"This cure. Have your scientists tested it yet?" Vigor stared at Nasser, then a small snort escaped him. "I wager not. All you've come up with are theoretical conjectures, supported perhaps by Marco's story. But that is a far cry from certainty. And I'm sorry to discount your statement that the historical trail has ended. It may indeed have run into the scientific trail, but rather than ending, I believe the more accurate description is that the two trails have merged here. Do not be too quick to ignore history. Not yet, young man. The historical trail continues."

Gray's mind sought to work through what the monsignor was saying. Was he lying, bluffing, or telling the truth?

Nasser sighed, apparently weighing the same. "1 appreciate your attempt, Monsignor. But I see nothing here to warrant further investigation. The scientists can handle it from here."

Now Seichan snorted. "That is why you will never rise higher in the Guild hierarchy, Amen. Pawning off your responsibility to others. I suggest you listen to the monsignor."

Nasser glared, but he did glance back to Vigor. "Marco's map points here to the ruins. It ends here."

Vigor bent down and lifted the map of Angkor's extensive complex of ruins. "This covers over one hundred square miles. That's a lot of territory. Does this strike you as an end?"

Nasser's eyes narrowed. "Do you propose we search all one hundred square miles? To what end? We have the cure."

Vigor shook his head. "There is no need to search the entire complex. Marco pinpointed the most significant site for us."

Nasser turned to Gray, ready to threaten, his eyes dark on him.

Vigor stepped between them. "Commander Pierce has not held anything back. He does not have this answer. This 1 swear on my soul."

Nasser frowned. "Yet, you do."

Vigor bowed his head. "I do. And I will tell you. But only upon your sworn word that you'll allow Commander Pierce's parents to live."

Nasser's features hardened, suspicious.

Vigor lifted a hand. "I'm not asking for you to release them. Only to hear me out, and 1 think you'll understand the need to follow the trail to its end."

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