The Judas Strain

Page 77

A voice barked back, only steps behind Harriet's hiding spot, startling her.


"If the dogs don't find her," the woman called back to Jack, "I'll make sure your screams draw her out."

Annishen's legs stepped into view beyond the grate. The woman whispered into a radio, ordering her men to sweep wide and pin Jack down.

Then the woman stiffened, turning slightly.

Another noise intruded.

It sounded like the rush of a strong wind.

Across the roof, a black helicopter shot into view from below, angular, waspish in shape. Plainly military. A ripping chatter of automatic fire chewed across the roof. Men screamed. Feet pounded. One man ran past and had his legs cut out from under him, sprawling face-first.

Sirens erupted from the dark streets leading toward the warehouse.

A bellow of a megaphone from the helicopter ordered weapons to be dropped.

Annishen lowered into a crouch beside the HVAC grate, preparing for the short dash to the nearby roof exit. Harriet instinctively crouched away from her; her elbow bumped the unit's side with a hollow thud.

Annishen flinched—then cocked her head, peering inside. "Ah, Mrs. Pierce." She shifted, poking her pistol through the grate, in point blank range. "Time to say good—"

The gunshot jolted through Harriet.

Annishen's body crashed against the grate, then sank to the tar paper.

Harriet caught a glimpse of a blasted eye socket.

As the woman collapsed, Jack hopped into view. He tossed aside his smoking pistol.

His last shot.

Harriet shoved the grate open. She scrambled over Annishen's legs, across the roof, and back into Jack's arms, sobbing. The two of them sank in a grateful huddle on the tar paper.

"Don't ever leave me again, Jack."

He hugged her tight. "Never," he promised.

Men in military uniforms dropped to the roof from the helicopter on snaking lines. Harriet and Jack were guarded as the roof was cleared. Sirens pulled up below. More gunshots and cries rose from the warehouse.

A figure stepped over to them, strapped in rappelling gear. He dropped to a knee.

Harriet glanced up, surprised to find the familiar face. "Director Crowe?"

"When will you start calling me Painter, Mrs. Pierce?" he asked.

"How did you find—?"

"It seems someone made quite a commotion on the street outside the butcher shop," he explained with a tired smile. "Vigorous enough to be remembered."

Harriet squeezed her husband's hand, thanking him for his earlier acting.

Painter continued. "We've been canvassing the street since this morning, and then forty-five minutes ago, one of the patrolling officers discovered a nice gentleman with a shopping cart. He recognized your picture and had been suspicious enough—or maybe paranoid enough—that he wrote down the van's license number, along with make and model. It didn't take long to track the van's GPS. I'm sorry we couldn't get here sooner."

Jack wiped at one eye, keeping his face turned away so no one could see his tears. "Your timing couldn't be better. I owe you a big bottle of that fancy single-malt whiskey you like."

Harriet hugged her husband. Jack might have trouble remembering people's names, but he never forgot what they liked to drink.

Painter stood up. "I'll take you up on that sometime, but right now I have an important call to make." He turned away and mumbled under his breath, but Harriet heard him.

"That is, if I'm not already too late."

11:22 A.M.

Lisa stumbled down the dark stairs, following the monsignor. She had to stay ducked low, running a hand along the damp wall. The air smelled of mulch, like decaying leaves in a wet forest. It was not unpleasant, except for a slight burn to the nostrils.

Ahead, a weak light drew them onward, flowing up from below.

Their goal.

The stairs finally ended, dumping them out into a wide cavern. Their footsteps echoed. Overhead, the dome of the cavern arched up five stories, dripping with a few blunt stalactites. The space was ovoid in shape, seventy yards across at the widest point. Where they entered, the roof spread up into a natural flowstone archway. A matching arch could be discerned across the cavern.

"It does look like a turtle shell," Vigor mumbled, his voice echoing hollowly. "Even the way it flares here and across the way. Like the front and back end of a turtle shell."

Kowalski grumbled, hauling Susan inside with Gray's help. "So which is it? Are we're climbing down the turtle's throat or up his ass?" But as he straightened, the large man whistled softly between his teeth.

Lisa understood his reaction.

Ahead, a circular lake of black water rested as still as a mirror, edged around by a stone rim. From the roof above, two straight beams of sunlight shot down and struck the center of the water, coming through the eyes of the stone idol above.

But where the sunlight struck the black water, a milky pool spilled outward, glowing, as if the sun had turned to liquid and poured down from above.

The milky glow shimmered and streamed, ebbing and flowing.

Looking alive.

Which it was.

"The sunlight is energizing the cyanobacteria in the water," Lisa said.

A few trickles from the idol's eyes struck the pool, hissing slightly. Where they splashed, the milky glow darkened.

"Acid," Gray said, reminding everyone of the danger above. "From the bomb. It's dripping through the eyes. I don't know how long it will take to neutralize the vault, but at least the stone block is holding for now. Still, they'll come down with sledges and jackhammers and finish breaking through here soon."

"So what do we do?" Seichan asked.

Kowalski scoffed. "We get the hell out of here."

Gray turned to Lisa. "Can you run ahead, check the far archway? See if there is another way out. Like Vigor said, a turtle shell has an opening for the head and one for a tail. It's our only hope."

Lisa balked. "Gray, 1 think I should stay with Susan. My medical background—"

A groan rose from the tarp. An arm lifted weakly.

Lisa stepped to Susan's side, careful not to touch her. "She's still the only hope for a cure."

"I can go," Seichan volunteered.

Lisa glanced up, noting a flash of suspicion on Gray's face, as if he didn't trust the woman.

Still, he nodded. "Find a way out."

She set off without a word.

The group followed along the stone bank.

Gray studied the space. "This looks like an old sinkhole. Like in Florida, or the cenotes of Mexico. The sandstone block must be plugging the original hole that once stood open."

Lisa bent near the wall and pinched up a bit of dried matter. It crumbled in her fingers. "Petrified bat guano," she said, confirming Gray's assessment. "This cavern must have been open to the air at one time."

Lisa wiped her fingers and glanced to Susan, beginning to put together what she had already suspected.

Vigor waved an arm to encompass the lake. "The ancient Khmers must have come upon the sinkhole, noted how it glowed, imagined it was the home of some god, and attempted to incorporate it into the temple here."

"But they didn't know what they were doing," Lisa added. "They trespassed where they shouldn't have. Interfered with a fragile biosystem and released the virus. If mankind pushes, nature sometimes pushes back."

They continued alongside the lake.

Ahead, a small spit of stone projected into the water, barely discernible in the darkness. Only the encroaching tide of milky water revealed the small peninsula.

Along with something more.

"Are those bones?" Kowalski asked, staring down into the water alongside their path.

The party stopped.

Lisa crossed to the pool's edge. The soft light penetrated deep into the crystalline water. The stone bank fell away at a gentle angle through the water, then vanished over a steep lip ten yards out.

All across the shallow bottom of the lake, bones lay in mounds and piles: fragile bird skulls, tiny rib cages of monkeys, something with a pair of curled horns, and not far from shore, the massive skull of an elephant, resting like a white boulder below, one ivory tusk broken to a nub. But there was more: broken femurs, longer tibias, larger cages of ribs, and like a scattering of acorns, skull after skull.

All human.

The lake was a massive boneyard.

Stunned to silence, they continued onward.

As they hiked along the stone bank, the glow slowly grew in the lake. The burn to the nostrils that Lisa had noted before grew more intense. She remembered Christmas Island, the tidal dead pool on the windward side.


Kowalski wrinkled his whole face.

And like smelling salts, the sting also stirred Susan. Her eyes fluttered open, glowing in the dark, a match to the shine in the lake. She remained dazed, but she recognized Lisa.

Susan tried to sit up.

Gray and Kowalski lowered her to the floor, needing to rest anyway, stretching their shoulders and kneading their hands.

Lisa sank beside Susan, modestly draping the tarp over her shoulders as she helped the woman sit up.

Susan shied back as Kowalski stepped near.

"It's all right," Lisa assured her. "They're all friends."

Lisa introduced the others to help reassure Susan. Slowly the panicky daze cleared. She seemed to collect herself—until she stared past Lisa's shoulders and spotted the glowing lake.

Susan surged away, hitting the wall with her back and propelling herself up into a teetering crouch.

"You must not be here," she keened, voice rising.

"No fucking kidding," Kowalski griped.

Susan ignored him, her eyes on the lake. Her voice lowered. "It will be like Christmas Island. Only a hundredfold worse . . . trapped inside the cavern. And you'll all be exposed."

Lisa did not doubt it. Already her skin itched.

"You must go." Susan steadied enough to gain her feet, leaning a hand on the wall. "Only I can be here. I must be here."

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