The Judas Strain

Page 60

Gray noted the wavering uncertainty in Nasser's countenance.

Oh, please, God, let Vigor convince him.

Vigor continued. "Once you follow the trail to the end, then make your decision. About them, about us. It would be foolish to destroy hostages or resources until you discover what lies at the true end of that trail."

Nasser sank to his seat. "So then show me where it ends. Convince me, Monsignor."

"And if I do so, as a man of honor, will you keep Gray's parents alive?"

Nasser waved a hand. "Fine. For now. But if you are lying, Monsignor . .."

"I'm not." Vigor lowered to one knee before the table.

Gray joined him.

Vigor shifted forward three sheets of paper: the map of Angkor, the obelisk's angelic code, and the line of three symbols from the keys. The monsignor lifted the sheet of angelic code.

"As Commander Pierce has already related, all the blacked-out diacritical marks—the circles that accent the script—actually represent temple sites that make up Angkor."

Nasser nodded.

"And here again are the three symbols from the keys.

"Now compare these three symbols to the matching circled symbols on the obelisk. What do you see different?"

Nasser leaned forward, as did Gray.

"There's three blacked-out circles on the symbols on the obelisk," Nasser said.

"Representing three temples," Vigor said. "Now, how many blacked-out circles are there among the three key symbols."

"Only one," Gray said. He understood now. He had been so certain he had solved the puzzle earlier that he had failed to look one step further. "One temple. That blacked-out circle doesn't just represent the Portuguese castle—it represents one of the temples!"

Gray shifted the map to him and took a pen to circle the corresponding temple and connected them.

Nasser leaned closer to read the temple marked on the map of Angkor. "Bayon." He leaned back. "But how can you be sure it's significant?"

"The Bayon was the last temple ever built in Angkor," Vigor said. "Built about the time Marco came through the area. The strange thing about the temple is that after it was constructed, all building stopped in the area."

"But what's there?" Nasser asked.

Vigor shrugged. "I have no idea. Perhaps the source of the Judas Strain, perhaps some other answer. All I know is that Marco believed it was important enough to preserve. And even if I'm wrong, after following this trail halfway around the world, why stop when you are only steps from the very end?"

Nasser stared around the room.

Seichan stirred. "We can be there in half an hour, Amen. It's worth at least going there."

Gray feared to agree with them, lest he only stir up Nasser's wrath.

Vigor was not as bashful. "Marco went to much trouble to preserve the location of this temple. The Vatican mystics went through as much trouble to secure it in code. Even the locals here claim the temple still holds many hidden treasures. It bears investigation."

Kowalski raised his hand. "And I have to take a leak. Bad."

Nasser frowned, but he gained his feet. "We'll head over there. To the Bayon. But if there's nothing discovered by noon, it's over."

Nasser lifted the phone to his ears. "Annishen, stay that execution order."

Gray reached and gripped Vigor's knee under the table.

Thank you.

Vigor glanced to him with an expression that read, We aren't out of the woods yet.

Nasser proved it. "Annishen, the one parent you chose. We'll spare their life as per my word to the monsignor. But we'll still need some incentive to encourage the commander's continued and heartfelt cooperation."

Nasser's eyes fixed to Gray. "For every hour in which we don't have satisfactory results, cut off one finger. And since we've stalled here for much longer than an hour due to Commander Pierce's futile attempts to barter, you may take that first finger now."

Nasser snapped his phone closed.

Gray knew silence would serve him better, but the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. "You goddamn bastard. 1 will kill you."

Unperturbed, Nasser turned away. "By the way, Commander Pierce, the parent Annishen chose ... it was your mother."

6:55 P.M.

As the hood was ripped from her head, Harriet knew something was wrong, dreadfully wrong.

She had been dragged from a closet where she'd been locked up and forced to sit on a steel chair. With the hood pulled away, she saw they were in an abandoned warehouse. The space was cavernous, with concrete floors and walls. Steel exposed beams and pipes ran across the ceiling, and chains hung from rusted pulleys. It smelled of motor oil and burned rubber.

Harriet glanced around.

No windows. The only light came from a few bare bulbs, pooling patches in the darkness. A steel staircase rose to one side. Beside it, an old freight elevator stood open.

It all appeared deserted—except for their captors.

A step away to the left Annishen leaned on a table, a cell phone at her ear, standing silent. It appeared she was listening in to some conversation. A pistol lay on the table, next to a pair of bolt cutters and a small blowtorch. Three other men patrolled the basement's darkness.

Directly across from her Harriet's husband sat slumped in a similar chair. Like Harriet, his wrists were in handcuffs. One of the three men stood guard over him with a hand on a holstered pistol. But Jack was no threat. His head hung, trailing a rope of drool. They had stripped him of his pants. He had urinated on himself, soaking the front of his boxers. His left leg, from the knee down, was strapped into his prosthesis. The old industrial accident had stripped so much of Jack's pride. Nature had taken the rest.

And not just nature.

Harriet felt the weight of the unused pills in her sweater pocket.

Tears welled up and streamed down her face.

Annishen spoke, finishing her call with a snap of her cell phone. She faced Harriet and motioned to another of the guards. "Undo her cuffs."

Harriet did not object. She lifted her arms to allow the handcuffs to be keyed open. Their weight fell away. She rubbed her wrists.

What was going on ?

Obeying a signal from Annishen, one of the men dragged her in her chair over to the table. The loud squeak of steel on cement drew up her husband's bleary face.

"Harriet. . ." he mumbled. "What time is it?"

"It's okay, Jack," she mumbled tenderly. "Go back to sleep."

Annishen stepped over to him. "I don't think so. He's done enough sleeping. Those little pills you gave him finally kicked in, really knocked him out. But now it's time to wakey-wake." She cupped his chin and pulled his face up. "Hold him like this," she instructed his guard. "He should watch the show."

Jack did not offer any fight as the man pinned his head.

Annishen returned to the table, wiping Jack's drool on her pant leg. She nodded to the guard beside Harriet's chair. He reached over, grabbed Harriet's left arm, and yanked it hard over the tabletop, pinning her wrist against the wood.

Instinctively, Harriet fought back, but the man just dragged her arm farther, stretching her limb until her armpit was jammed against the table's edge. She felt the cold muzzle of a pistol against her cheek, held by the third guardsman.

Annishen sauntered over. "It seems we must teach your son a little lesson, Mrs. Pierce."

She picked up the blowtorch and pulled the trigger on the self-igniter. A blue flame spat out the torch's muzzle with a sharp hiss. She settled it to the table near her hand. "For cauterizing the stump."

"What. . . what are you doing?"

Ignoring her the woman picked up the bolt cutters, pulling the handles wide. "Now which finger shall we cut off first?"

6:01 a.m.

Gray rode in the backseat of a white van. Seichan sat pressed against his side, the pair of them pinned between two armed guards. Nasser faced them from the bench seat ahead, flanked by more guards.

Kowalski and Vigor rode in the vehicle behind theirs. Another two vans followed front and rear, piled in with more khaki-dressed gunmen.

Nasser was taking no chances.

Through the windshield, Gray dully watched the spires of Angkor Wat rise out of the mists ahead, five massive corncob-shaped towers, lit by the first rays of the rising sun. Angkor Wat was the first of many temples spread across a hundred square miles of ruins. It was also the largest and best preserved, considered a Cambodian icon, with its immense jumble of chambers, walls, scalloped towers, carvings and statues. This temple alone covered five hundred acres, encircled by a wide moat.

But it was not their goal.

They were headed to Angkor Thorn, another mile north. And while not as large as Angkor Wat, the walled ruins of Thorn housed the great Bayon temple, considered to be the heart of all of Angkor.

A resounding bump shook the van.

Gray caught his own reflection in the rearview mirror. His cheeks were sunken, shadowed, his lips cracked, the stubble over his jaw and chin looked like a black bruise. Only his eyes still shone flinty and hard, fueled by his anger and vengeance. But deeper in his chest, there remained only grief and guilt.

Seichan, perhaps sensing him sinking into a numbing despair, gripped his hand in her own. It was not a tender gesture. She squeezed hard, nails biting, refusing to let him slip away, dragging him from the edge of that well.

Nasser noted her gesture. A shadow of a sneer appeared, then vanished away again. "And I thought you were smarter than that, Commander," he muttered. "Is she fucking you yet?"

Gray focused back at him. "Shut the hell up."

Nasser laughed, once, sharp, amused. "No? Too bad. If you're being screwed over, you should at least get something out of it."

Seichan slipped her hand from Gray's. "Fuck you, Amen."

"Not anymore, Seichan. Not after I kicked you out of bed." Nasser's eyes turned to Gray. "Did you know? That we were once lovers?"

Gray snapped a glance toward Seichan. Surely Nasser was lying. How could she . . . with the bastard who had just ordered his mother's torture? Just the thought of his mother spilled more acid into his stomach.

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