The Judas Strain

Page 80

He croaked at her, coughing.

She understood.

"Kowalski's got her."

"Right here, boss," the man said behind him. "That was some run. Made it to three steps shy of the goal line. Not a touchdown, but that's why you have a goddamn team."

As they fled around the lake, away from the central tempest, Gray's vision cleared. He finally found his feet.

Seichan still supported half his weight.

"Thank you," he whispered coarsely in her ear.

Her cheek was badly blistered, one eye swollen shut.

"Let's just get the hell out of here," Seichan said, sounding more irritated, than relieved.

"Amen, sister," Kowalski said.

Gray glanced back to the pool. He watched something drop through the hole in the roof, dangling from a line like a baited hook. It swung back and forth a bit.

A thick, heavy satchel.

"Bomb . . ." Gray whispered.

"What?" Kowalski asked, incredulous.

"Bomb," he said louder.

Nasser was not done with them yet.

"Aw, hell, no .. ." Kowalski scrambled closer with Susan over one shoulder, plainly trying to outrun them. "Why do people keep trying to blow me up?"

I2:10 P.M.

Shouting erupted below, flowing up the stairs from the cavern.

Lisa wanted to go down. She had hated abandoning the others, but Vigor needed her help, too.

"Keep turning!" Vigor said, sweat pouring down the sides of his face. He glanced to the stairs—then back to Lisa. "From their shouting, 1 think we'd better hurry."

Between their palms, they had been unscrewing a large bronze bolt. Its platter-size head bore a crucifix, presently twirling as they spun the screw. By now, the greased bore protruded a full two feet from the arched top of the door.

How much more did they have to go?

They turned faster.

Vigor quoted the bottom inscription on the door, huffing as he labored.

" 'An angel of the Lord descended from the sky, and came and rolled away the stone from the door.' At first, I tried rolling the door itself, and gave that up pretty quickly. Then I remembered the last line. 'Let only one strong in the spirit of the Lord dare open it.' Plainly a nod toward the crucifix. I should've picked up on that from the outset."

Feet pounded on the lower stairs, coming up.

Kowalski yelled to them. "Bomb . .. door . .. hurry!"

"A man of few words, our Mr. Kowalski."

With a final twist, the bronze screw fell free of its socket. The weight caught them both by surprise, and the screw tumbled to the steps with a ringing clatter.

Kowalski came barreling up from below, carrying Susan. She hung limp. Kowalski's face sank when he saw the door still closed. "What have you been doing?"

"Waiting for you," Vigor said, and shoved the slab.

No longer screwed tight, the door toppled outward, crashing to the stone. Sunlight burst forth, reflecting off the stone all around. Lisa could barely see as she stumbled out with Vigor, making room for Kowalski and Susan.

Kowalski groused as he ducked through. "I thought Seichan said she tried pushing. Damn those scrawny arms of hers."

Straightening, Lisa blinked away the glare, realizing that they were at the bottom of a deep stone well, ten feet wide. The sheer walls stretched two stories high. No way up.

Kowalski lowered Susan to one side of the door. "Doc, 1 don't think she's breathing."

Reminded of her duty, Lisa rushed to his side. She'd had her fill of death for one day. She dropped beside Susan and checked for a pulse. She didn't find one. Still, Lisa refused to give up.

"Someone help me," she called.

Gray and Seichan fell through the door next, hobbling together. Gray noted her examination. "Lisa . . . she's dead."

"No. Not without a fight first."

"I'll help you," Seichan mumbled.

As she hobbled over, Lisa noticed blood seeping through the woman's blouse, through her pants, fresh and wet.

Seichan noted her attention. "I'm fine."

Gray warned them to keep as quiet as possible—in case any of Nasser's men were nearby. He also waved everyone away from the doorway. His face and arms were blistered and raw. The whites of his eyes were a solid blood red.

On the other side of the doorway, Lisa began cardiac compressions while Seichan performed mouth-to-mouth. Vigor stood nearby, crossing a blessing over Susan.

"Those better not be last rites," Lisa whispered, keeping her elbows locked as she compressed.

Vigor shook his head. "Just a prayer for—"

The bomb blasted with a clap of thunder, shuddering the ground underfoot. A wash of foul air shot out from below, a poisonous exhalation still ripe with caustic fumes and a blast of heat.

Lisa leaned over Susan.

The worst of it all plumed up the shaft and away.

"That wasn't too bad," Kowalski said.

Gray continued staring high. "Everybody hold tight."

Lisa glanced up as she pumped her arms on Susan's chest.

To the left, the top half of the Bayon's center spire could be seen. Stone faces gazed back down at them. All of them were shaking.

"It's coming down!" Gray said.

I2:l6 P.M.

Nasser fled with six of his men, racing across the second tier's courtyard. Every step was agony. His entire body continued to burn, as if the hellish woman were still clutched to him. But he had a more immediate concern.

He glanced back as he ducked behind a gallery wall.

The Bayon tower trembled—then in an oddly slow fashion, it collapsed in on itself, imploding and dropping a quarter of its height with a rumble of stone. The death rattle of a hundred bodhisattvas. Stone dust flumed around the collapsed pile, shooting high. More rocks continued to bounce and roll, chattering down the mountainside.

His demolition expert had warned against the size of the charge, warned this might happen. But Nasser could not risk Commander Pierce escaping with the prize.

As he turned away he noted a second plume of smoky dust, rising off to the side. It twisted up like a gray smoke signal.

Nasser's eyes narrowed.

Did it mark another exit to the cavern?

12:17 P.M.

Gray choked on the dust, barely able to see anyone else in the confined space of the well. The tower had crashed, collapsing into its foundations and crushing the cavern below. An acidic wash of smoke and dust jetted outward, spiraling up the well's throat.

Gray wiped his eyes and twisted around. He searched back through the doorway. Boulders filled the steep stairway, its ceiling collapsed.

Gray leaned his shoulder against the wall and stared up. The north wall of • the well leaned precariously outward. They'd been lucky it hadn't collapsed and crushed them all. A few of the blocks stuck out like buckteeth.

More coughing echoed around the well.

The dust cleared enough to reveal one of the sufferers.

Lisa helped Susan sit up. The woman covered her mouth with a fist and continued a racking jag.

Welcome back to the world.

Maybe their luck was turning.

A voice, calling down from above, dismissed that possibility.

"Who do we have here?" Nasser yelled down. "To use a quaint American colloquialism, I'd say we've found a bunch offish in a barrel."

Rifles circled the well on all sides, pointing down at them.

Gray slid along the wall, bumping into Kowalski.

"What now, boss?" he asked.

Before Gray could answer, a cell phone rang out sharply. It came from above, but the ring tone was familiar. Nasser reached to a pocket and removed Vigor's phone. He had confiscated it from the monsignor after they had been captured at the hotel. They'd all been thoroughly searched before their sit-down at the Elephant Bar.

Nasser checked the caller ID. "Rachel Verona." He held the phone over the pit, leaning out. "Your niece, Monsignor. Would you care to say good-bye?"

The phone rang a third time, then went silent.

"I guess not," Nasser said. "A shame."

Gray closed his eyes and held his breath.

Nasser continued. "Or maybe, Commander Pierce, you'd like to call my partner, Annishen. I did promise you'd hear your parents' screams before you died."

Gray ignored him. His hand slipped behind Kowalski's back and under the man's long duster jacket. The interrupted call from Vigor's niece was a prearranged signal, from Painter, to let Gray know when his mother and father were safe.

Or dead.

Either way .. . beyond Nasser's control.

Gray's fingers wrapped around the butt of the pistol lodged at the base of Kowalski's back. The large man had almost yanked the gun out earlier, startled by a monkey. Luckily Gray had stopped him.

Gray pulled the pistol free and lowered it to his side.

Nasser continued. "Or maybe I'll just leave your parents' fate a mystery ... leave you forever wondering, something to take to your grave."

"Why don't you go first.. ." Gray stepped forward, snapped his weapon up, and fired twice.

He clipped the man in the shoulder and the chest. The impacts spun Nasser sideways. He fell into the well, arms flailing, spraying blood against the stone walls.

Gray twisted on a heel, strafing along the well's rim. He struck three more men while the others fled back. Behind him, Nasser crashed to the stone floor, with a snap of bones and a cry.

Gray scanned above, his weapon ready. The 9mm Metal Storm pistol was an Australian design, the ultimate in power, firing off multiple rounds in fractions of a second. Propellant-driven, no moving parts, all electronic.

"Lisa, check Nasser for Vigor's phone! Get Painter on the line!"

She shuffled behind him.

As he slowly turned, guarding the well, Gray noted Nasser out of the corner of an eye. He lay on his back, one arm twisted under him, broken at the shoulder. Blood bubbled from his lips. Shattered ribs. But he still lived. Eyes tracking Gray, full of dismay and confusion.

Die wondering, you bastard.

Nasser finally obeyed, sighing out his last breath, eyes going blank.

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