The Judas Strain

Page 76

She tumbled in a tangle with one of the loading ropes used by the demolition team. A hand snatched out, instinctively catching herself. But she had no strength. She slid down the rope, too fast. The caustic acid of her skin flared in the shaft's direct sunlight, triggering some chemical reaction in the synthetic rope. It smoked and melted as she slid along it. Susan twirled as she plummeted, almost in free fall.

No one dared catch her.

Gray swung to the side and dragged the cloth tarp from the stone face. He whipped one end to Kowalski. His partner understood.

Overhead, the rope snapped, burned through where Susan had grabbed.

She dropped in a limp, boneless fall.


Gray and his partner caught her, but her weight still ripped the tarp from their hands and she struck the floor hard. Using the tarp, Gray swung her out of direct sight, only her legs visible from above. He dropped beside her.

Nasser screamed down to them. On hands and knees. His cheek still smoked, flesh blackened. His bare arms looked like seared steak, weeping and bleeding. "I want that bitch!"

Gray stumbled back into view. "Neck's broken! She's dead!"

A war of emotions played across Nasser's face. It settled on a near-mindless rage. "Then you'll all burn!" He rolled back. "Blow it all up!"

Gray waved to everyone. "Back .. . out of sight."

Lisa obeyed, stumbling from the light and into the shadows.

A few bullets sparked, chasing them.

Lisa stared toward the rigged explosives. The electronic detonator was beyond their reach, out in the open. They would be shot if they dared approach.

Gray dragged the tarp, hauling Susan's limp form. "Behind the foundation pillars! They may offer some protection. Crouch low, find anything to cover your head and face!"

They scattered.

Four pillars, six of them.

Gray took Susan with him.

Lisa found herself huddled with the monsignor behind one of the sandstone pillars. He pulled her down, shielding her with his body.

Lisa placed her palm on the pillar. It was three feet across. She had no idea of the strength of the blast to come. She turned to Vigor.

"Father, will this protect us?"

Vigor stared down at her face and didn't answer.

For once Lisa wished a priest would lie to her.





The Gateway to Hell

July 7, 11:17 a.m. Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Gray cradled Susan, keeping her wrapped in the tarp.

She moaned and stirred. She had taken a good crack to the head when she struck the ground, but Gray had lied to Nasser about her neck being broken. The bastard, in his agony, had not questioned it, maybe had even hoped for it.

Gray had hoped to use the woman's body as a bargaining chip.

But that was not going well.

Up above, Nasser shouted, maddened by the pain. From the look of his blackened skin, he had sustained third-degree burns across large swaths of his body. And now he wanted them to suffer in kind. An eye for an eye. But apparently the demolition team hadn't been prepared for such a sudden order. They were scrambling, giving Gray's party a minute or so of a reprieve.

Taking advantage of it, Gray shifted Susan's weight, seeking to better protect her behind the pillar. If she was the potential cure, she had to be preserved. He tugged the tarp more thoroughly over her head. It parted briefly, revealing the soft glow of her naked skin beneath. Away from the bright sunlight, the sheen to her skin had begun to dim. He paused for a beat, amazed at the strangeness. As he drew the drape closed again, he noted the wall ahead of him.

The scrollwork of angelic script shone with an exceptional brilliance, fluorescing under the weak glow. The light emanating from the cyanobacteria in her skin must shed wavelengths in the ultraviolet range, igniting a fluorescent compound etched into the carvings.

It reminded Gray of the Egyptian obelisk, glowing with angelic script, a miniature and rudimentary version of this display. Had Johannes Trithemius had deeper revelations during his meditations? A vision of all this?

Gray opened the tarp wider, casting a broader beam of her glow. More of the script ignited, swirling off through the darkness in either direction, as if he had set flame to oil.

Gray sat higher. He noted a spot of darkness off to the far left, barely discernible, at the edge of the glow's reach, a dark rock in the shining stream of glowing script. The angularity of it caught his eye.

Could that be. . .

He turned Susan in his arms, letting more of the tarp fall away, keeping enough between the woman's skin and his own. The glow was still not strong enough to reach that far. He had to move Susan closer. He struggled with her weight, tangling the tarp, sensing the seconds ticking away.

He needed help.

"Kowalski! Where are you?"

A voice answered out from the pillar to his right. "I'm hiding! Like you said to!"

Gray hauled up. "I need you over here!"

"What about the bomb?"

"Forget about the bomb. Get your ass over here!"

Kowalski swore sharply, then headed over, grumbling under his breath. "Why is it always a goddamn bomb . .."

The large man ran up to him, practically sliding behind the pillar, like he was stealing from third to home.

Gray motioned with his chin to the left. "Help me move Susan down that way.

Kowalski sighed heavily. Using the tarp like a stretcher, they slung her form between them and rushed off along the wall. As they hurried, the curve of script ignited along with them, brightening as they neared, fading again after they passed.

Seichan had been hiding behind the next pillar. She crossed toward them, drawn by the brilliant display and their frantic actions. "What are you—oh my God!"

Gray lowered Susan to the floor, keeping her uncovered, basking her glow on the wall, setting fire to the script. All except for a recognizable patch of darkness.

"Vigor!" Gray called out.

"I'm coming!" he answered. Plainly the monsignor had seen the sight all the way across the chamber. Gray heard the double tramp of steps as Lisa trailed Vigor.

They all stood before the wall, gaping at the sight.

Not at what was glowing—but what wasn't.

"Friar Agreer," Vigor said. "He must have left this marker, by washing down the wall. Cleaned the patch here as a sign."

"A sign of what?" Seichan asked.

"A clue to a hidden doorway," Gray said. "There must be another way down to the cavern."

"But what does the clue mean?" Vigor asked.

Gray shook his head, knowing they were running out of time. If they didn't find the door, get Susan somewhere safe and away from the Guild, it wasn't just their lives. According to Lisa, a pandemic was already spreading.

Nasser called down to them. "Say your last prayers!"

"Jesus H. Christ!" Kowalski blurted out, though it wasn't meant as a prayer. He knocked Gray and Vigor aside, crossed to the wall, and shoved hard in the center of the cross.

The stone door swiveled on a central pivot, revealing a passage beyond.

Kowalski turned. "It's not always rocket science, guys. Sometimes a door is just a door."

They piled through the exit. Gray and Kowalski again slung Susan between them. Once through, Seichan and Lisa shouldered the door back closed behind them.

Ahead, a stairway led down, cut out of the limestone bedrock.

No one doubted where it led.

As they started down, a muffled explosion echoed to them, a single boom of thunder. Gray sent a silent prayer of thanks to Friar Agreer.

He had saved Marco in the past.

And now he had saved all their lives.

Though relieved, Gray could still not escape a horrible dread. While he might be free, his parents were not. When Nasser found his prisoners gone, Gray knew who would be made to suffer for it.

I2:l8 A.M.

Seated on the warehouse rooftop, Harriet drowsed in her husband's arms. It was a warm evening. Overhead, the moon moved imperceptibly across the night sky. Despite the terror, exhaustion had taken its toll. For the first hour, she had listened to the ebb and flow of shouts and barks. Then she stopped caring. Time stretched, long enough that Harriet was startled to find herself dozing when the first shout rose from the other side of the roof.

"They're here," Jack said, sounding almost relieved.

He shifted and motioned for Harriet to retreat inside the hollowed out HVAC unit behind them. There was barely room for two. Once Harriet was inside, she held out her hand toward her husband.

Instead, he collected the door grate from the tar paper.

"Jack?" she whispered out to him.

He lifted the grate between them, pushing it in place.

"No . . ." she moaned.

His lips were at the grate's slats as he snugged it closed over her. "Please, Harriet, let me do this. I can lead them away. Buy you more time. Give me at least this."

Their eyes met through the thin slats.

She understood. For too long, Jack had believed himself only half a man. He didn't intend to die that way. But to Harriet, Jack had never been half a man.

Still, she could not take this from him.

It was her last gift to him,

She reached her fingers through the slats, tears streaming. His fingers touched hers, thanking her, loving her.

Shouts drew closer.

They had no more time.

Jack turned and half crawled over to the roof's raised wall, his pistol clutched in a fist. When he reached the wall, he used its support to hobble away to the left.

Harriet tried to follow where he went, but he was soon out of sight.

She covered her face.

A sharp cry of discovery rose in that direction. She heard the retort of a pistol blast, coming from closer to the left.


Harriet counted his shots, knowing he only had the three rounds left in his gun.

Return fire strafed her husband's position, pinging off metal. Jack must have found some cover. Another shot blasted from his spot.

One bullet left.

In the ringing lull of the brief firefight, Jack called out. "You'll never find my wife. I hid her beyond your goddamn reach."

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