"Even if that were the case, I'd recommend firebombing that island and cordoning off the surrounding seas for several years." He faced Painter. "And if this threat proves in any way transmissible, we're talking about the potential for a global environmental meltdown."


Painter gaped at the pathologist. Jennings was not one to cry wolf.


The doctor continued. "I've compiled all the necessary data and written a brief abstract to summarize. Read it and get back to me. The sooner the better."


Jennings left his folder on Painter's desk.


Painter placed a palm atop it and pulled it toward him. "I'll do it now and get back to you in the next half hour."


Jennings nodded, grateful and relieved. He turned to leave, but not before adding one last warning. "Keep in mind ... we still don't know for sure what killed the dinosaurs."


With that sobering thought, the pathologist left his office. Painter's eyes settled to the gruesome photographs still on his desk. He prayed Jennings was wrong. In all the commotion of the past hours, he had almost forgotten about the situation out in the Indonesian islands.


Almost.


All night long, Lisa had never been far from his mind.


But now new worries flared, ignited by the pathologist's urgency. He tried not to let it rule him. Over the course of the morning, Lisa had not reported in again. Apparently nothing had escalated over there enough to warrant another emergency call.


Still. ..


Painter tapped the intercom button. "Brant, can you ring up Lisa's satellite phone?"


"Right away."


Painter opened the file folder. As he began to read the report inside, a cold dread edged up his spine.


Brant came back on the intercom. "Director, it just keeps ringing through to voice mail. Do you want me to leave a message?"


Painter turned his wrist, checking his watch. His call was hours early. Lisa could be involved in any number of duties. Still, he had to force down a rising panic.


"Just ask Dr. Cummings to call in as soon as possible."


"Yes, sir."


"And, Brant, check in with the cruise ship's switchboard."


He knew he was being paranoid. He attempted to return to the folder, but he found it hard to concentrate.


"Sir . . ." Brant's voice returned a moment later. "I've reached the sea-band operator. They're reporting communication troubles shipwide, drops in satellite feed. They're still working out some of the bugs in the new ship."


Painter nodded. The Mistress of the Seas had been on its maiden voyage, also known as a shakedown cruise, when it had been commandeered for this medical emergency.


"They report no other major problems," Brant finished.


Painter sighed. So he was indeed being too paranoid. He was letting his feelings for Lisa cloud his judgment. If this had been any other operative, would he have even called?


He returned to his reading.


Lisa was fine.


And besides, Monk was with her. He would keep her safe.


 


 


 


 


6


Pestilence


July 5, 3:02 p.m. Aboard the Mistress of the Seas


What the hell was going on?


Lisa stood with the other three scientists. They were all gathered in the ship's presidential suite. A uniformed butler poured single-malt whiskey into a row of tulip-shaped snifters, lined atop a silver tray. As a result of Painter's appreciation for malt whiskey, Lisa recognized the bottle's label: a rare sixty-year-old Macallan. The butler's hands trembled, jostling his aim, splashing the expensive whiskey.


The butler's poor stewardship could be blamed on the pair of masked gunmen, armed with assault rifles. They stood guard at the double doors that led into the suite. Across the room, French doors opened onto a balcony wide enough to park a municipal bus, where another gunman patrolled.


Inside, teak cabinetry and leather furniture appointed the grand suite. Vases of miniature island roses decorated the room, while a Mozart sonata whispered softly from hidden speakers. The scientists clustered in the room's center. It could have been the beginning of any university cocktail party.


Except for the raw fear in everyone's faces.


Earlier, Lisa and Henri Barnhardt had obeyed the summons to climb to the ship's bridge. What else could they do? Up in the bridge, they found the WHO leader, Dr. Lindholm, already there, wiping blood from his nose, plainly clubbed in the face. Benjamin Miller, the infectious-disease expert, arrived shortly thereafter.


They had been met by a towering figure, the leader of the pirates. He was the size of a linebacker, heavily muscled, with thick, cruel hands. He wore a khaki uniform, jungle-camouflaged pants tucked into black boots. He did not bother with a mask. His hair was the color of wet mud, clipped short, his skin polished bronze, except for a green-and-black tattoo across the left side of his face. It was of a Maori design known as Moko, all swirls and windblown lines.


He had ordered them to this suite, to wait in seclusion.


Lisa had been happy to abandon the bridge. A pitched battle must have been waged atop the ship, evidenced from the bullet-pocked windows and equipment. She had also noted the wide smear of blood across the bridge's floor, where a body had been dragged away.


Herded over to the presidential suite, Lisa had been surprised to discover one last captive caught in the net.


The owner of the cruise line, Ryder Blunt, stood beside his butler and gathered up a handful of the crystal snifters. Dressed in jeans and a rugby shirt, he looked like a young, sun-bleached Sean Connery.


He crossed over and passed around the snifters of whiskey. "I think we can all use a little of this Macallan heat," he said, puffing around the smoldering stump of a cigar. "If only to steady our nerves. And if not that, at least we'll drink through my best stores before the bloody bastards discover it."


Like most people, Lisa knew Ryder's story. Only forty-eight, the Aussie had earned his fortune during the silicon boom, developing encryption software for downloading copyrighted material. He then parlayed his profits into a series of wildly successful real estate and commercial ventures, including the cruise line. A lifetime bachelor, he was also renowned for his maverick ways: swimming with great whites, helo-skiing to remote parts of the world, base-jumping off buildings in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. Yet he also had a reputation for his generosity, joint-venturing a slew of philanthropic pursuits.


So it was no wonder he lent his ship to assist during this medical crisis. Though in hindsight, he might now regret his generosity.


He offered a snifter of whiskey to Lisa. She shook her head.


"Lass, no offense," he growled at her, still holding out the crystal snifter. "Who knows when we'll ever get another chance?"


She accepted the glass, more to get him to move away. His cigar smoke stung her eyes. She sipped the amber liquid. A fiery smoothness flowed into the belly, warming through her. She exhaled a bit of the warmth. It did help steady her.


Once the glasses were spread, the billionaire sank into a neighboring chair. He leaned his elbows on knees, glaring toward the armed guards, puffing on his cigar.


At her side, Henri finally asked the question that had been plaguing all of them. "What do these pirates want with us?"


Lindholm sniffed, his eyes red, already bruising from the punch to the face. "Hostages." He glanced sidelong toward the seated billionaire.


"Perhaps in the case of Sir Ryder," Henri agreed, lowering his voice, using the man's knighted title. "But then why even bother with us? Our net worth combined wouldn't even equal the man's pocket change."


Lisa wafted cigar smoke from her face. "They clearly wanted all the main scientists here. But how did they know whom to summon?"


"They could have obtained a manifest from the ship's crew," Lindholm said sourly. He cast a second sidelong glance toward Ryder. "No doubt some of his crew were in league with the raiders."


Ryder heard and mumbled to himself, "And if I ever find out who they are, I'll have them strung up from the yardarms."


"But wait... if they wanted all the main scientists here, why wasn't Dr. Graff summoned with us?" Benjamin Miller asked, naming the marine researcher who had left to collect samples with Monk. He turned to Lisa. "Or your partner, Dr. Kokkalis? Why summon us, but not the others?"


Miller sipped from his glass, his nose crinkling at the potency of the single malt. The Oxford-trained bacteriologist was not an unhandsome man, with thick auburn hair and green eyes. He stood barely over five feet, but he appeared even shorter due to the roll of his shoulders and hunched posture, possibly earned from decades of crouching over a microscope.


"Dr. Miller is right," Henri said. "Why weren't they called?"


"Maybe the bastards knew they weren't on board," Lindholm said.


"Or maybe they'd already been captured." Miller glanced apologetically in Lisa's direction. "Or were killed."


Lisa's chest hollowed out with worry. She had hoped Monk had escaped the trap, was even now summoning help, but she placed little faith in this dream. Before the assault, Monk had already been late getting back to the ship.


Henri shook his head and downed his drink in one swallow. He lowered his glass. "No use speculating on their fate. But if our captors knew our colleagues were out in the field, then that suggests whatever is going on here is more than a hostage situation."


"But what else could they want?" Miller asked.


The thumping of an approaching helicopter drew all their gazes toward the open balcony doors. It was too throaty for the smaller Eurocopter that had added air support to the sea battle. As a group, they moved to the doorway. Ryder stood up with a fierce exhalation of smoke and joined them.


A fresh breeze blew off the sea, smelling of salt and the barest hint of chemical bitterness, the aftermath of the toxic expulsion or perhaps it was just from the oil burning on the water. Nearby, the Australian Coast Guard cutter, gutted by a rocket blast, still smoked and foundered on its side, half sunk.


From over the top of the ship, a gray helicopter with double rotors, front and rear, military design, canted into view. It veered out over the water, stirring the smoke. It passed toward the seaside township, aflame in several spots now—then swung around, satisfied with whatever it had surveyed. It sped back to the ship and disappeared out of sight. From the path of its roar, it settled to the helipad atop the ship.

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