Lisa did not argue. She was no fool. Despite what Devesh claimed, Lisa knew the Guild's operation was not motivated by altruistic reasons. Their search for a cure was not to save the world. They had plans for this virus, but before they could utilize it, they needed to fully understand it. To develop an antidote or cure. And in this regard, Lisa was not at cross-purposes with the Guild. A cure needed to be discovered. The only question: How to find it without the Guild's knowledge?
Devesh turned on a heel and headed toward the door. "You've made excellent progress, Dr. Cummings. I commend you. But tomorrow is another day. And we'll need more progress." He glanced back at her, one eyebrow raised. "Is that understood?"
"Most excellent." He paused again. "Oh, and our cruise ship's esteemed owner, Sir Ryder Blunt, has invited everyone for afternoon cocktails in his suite. A small celebration."
"Celebration for what?"
"A welcome as we come into port," Devesh explained, gathering up his cane. "We're almost home."
Lisa was in no mood to toast such an event. "I have much work here."
"Nonsense. You'll come. It won't take long, and it will help recharge your batteries. Yes, the matter is settled. I'll have Rakao escort you. Please wear something appropriate."
He left, Surina trailing in his wake.
Lisa shook her head as they departed.
She glanced back to the bed.
To Dr. Susan Tunis.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled.
For the woman's husband and for what was to come.
Lisa remembered her earlier comparisons to the patient, how their two lives had followed similar paths. She pictured Susan's husband, wild-eyed and feral. Reminded of her own love, she hugged her arms around herself and wished for the thousandth time that she was back home with Painter.
She had spoken to him again this morning. At another of their assigned debriefings. She knew better than to attempt any subterfuge this time, reporting all was well. Still, she had been in tears by the time she was yanked from the radio room.
She wanted his arms around her.
But there was only one way to make that happen.
To be useful.
She crossed to the tray of examination tools and picked up the ophthalmoscope. Before she proceeded to the cocktail party, she wanted to follow up with an aberration, something she had kept from Devesh.
Something that was surely impossible.
2:02 A.M. Washington, D.C.
One step behind.
Painter descended the stairs two at a time toward the lobby of the Phoenix Park Hotel, too impatient even to wait for the elevator. A Sigma forensic team was still a floor above, sweeping room 334. He had left a pair of FBI field agents arguing with the local authorities.
A pissing contest for jurisdiction.
This was insanity.
Either way, Painter doubted any solid evidence would be found.
An hour ago he had been woken from a catnap in the dormitory of Sigma Command. One of their tracers had finally hit. An order for a prescription refill for Jackson Pierce. The Social Security number had matched. It was the first hit since Gray and company had fled the firebombed safe house. Painter had tagged all of Gray's aliases, along with his parents' names, coordinated through NSA's tracking network.
Painter had sent out an emergency response team to the pharmacy while joining another team headed to the delivery address on the prescription. The Phoenix Park Hotel. The pharmacy had confirmed the order, but the delivery person had not yet returned. An attempt to reach him by cell phone had so far failed. The pharmacy had even tried calling the hotel, but no one picked up at the extension for the room.
Upon arriving here, Painter learned why. The room was deserted. Whoever was here had already bolted. The register was signed under Fred and Ginger Rogers, an elderly couple according to the desk clerk. They had checked in alone. And paid cash. Gray was apparently not with them. Besides which, Gray would not have made such a blatant mistake, ordering a refill, triggering an alert.
And if so, what made his parents make such a risky move? Harriet was a bright woman. The need must have been dire. So why didn't they wait? What made them cut and run? Was it meant merely to misdirect? To send them all along a false trail?
Painter knew better. Gray would not use his parents like that. He would get them to hole up anonymously and lay low. Nothing more. Something was wrong here. No one had seen the elderly couple leave.
And then there was the question of the missing deliveryman.
Painter shoved through the stairwell door and into the lobby.
The night manager nodded to him, wringing his hands. "I have the security footage from the lobby pulled and waiting."
Painter was led into the manager's back office. A television with a built-in VCR stood atop a filing cabinet.
"Key it to an hour ago," Painter said, checking his watch.
The manager started the tape and fast-forwarded to the time-stamped hour. The lobby was deserted, except for a lone woman behind the desk, seated doing paperwork.
"Louise," the manager introduced, tapping the screen. "She's quite shook up by all this."
Painter ignored his commentary, leaning closer to the screen.
The lobby door swung open, and a figure in a white smock strode to the front desk, presented an ID, and stepped toward the elevator bank.
Louise returned to her work.
"Did your night clerk ever see the delivery person leave?"
"I can ask . . ."
Painter paused the tape as the figure adjusted the smock.
Not the pharmacy's man.
The security footage was grainy, but the woman's Asian features were evident. Painter recognized her. He had seen her on the video surveillance back at the safe house.
One of Nasser's team.
Painter punched the eject button and grabbed the tape. He swung around so fast that the startled manager backed away a step. Painter held up the security tape.
"No one knows about this," he said firmly, fixing the manager with a steady stare, doing his best to look threatening, and considering his mood, it wasn't hard. "Not the police. Not the FBI."
The man nodded vigorously.
Painter headed out the door, clenching a fist, wanting to pound something.
Painter understood what had happened here.
Nasser had snatched Gray's parents.
Out from under their noses.
The bastard had beat Sigma by only minutes. And Painter could not blame any mole for losing this particular race. He knew the reason. Bureaucracy. Seichan's background as a terrorist had everyone on full alert, which meant everyone was stepping on everyone else's toes. Too many goddamn cooks in the kitchen . . . and all of them blindfolded.
All day long Painter had been running into roadblocks, mostly due to bureaucratic territoriality. With Sigma under a government oversight review, other agencies tasted the blood in the water. Whoever could nab the Guild turncoat, the big fish amid all the chum, could almost guarantee some security. As such, there was little true cooperation, more a nod in its general direction.
If Painter had any hope of thwarting Nasser, he needed to cut the red tape binding his wrists. There was only one way to do that. He pulled out his cell phone. To hell with diplomacy.
He pressed a button and speed-dialed to Central Command.
The line was picked up by Painter's aide.
"Brant, I need you to patch me through to Director McKnight at DARPA. On a secure line."
"Certainly, sir. But I was just about to call you in the field. Communications just patched up some strange news. About Christmas Island."
It took a moment for Painter to switch gears. "What's happened?" he asked after a steadying breath. He paused before the hotel's revolving door.
"Details are sketchy. But it appears the cruise ship used to evacuate the island was hijacked."
"What?" he gasped out.
"One of the WHO scientists was able to escape. He used a shortwave radio to reach a passing tanker."
"Lisa and Monk .. . ?"
"No news, but details are flooding in now."
"I'll be right there."
His heart pounding, he signed off, pocketed the phone, and pushed through the revolving door. The cool air did little to take the heat out of his blood.
Lisa. . .
He ran over his last conversation with her in his head. She had sounded tired, maybe a tad on edge, wired from lack of sleep. Had she been forced to make those calls?
It made no sense.
Who would have the audacity to hijack an entire cruise ship? Surely they must know word would get out. Especially in the age of satellite surveillance.
There was nowhere to hide a ship this size.
3:48 P.M. Aboard the Mistress of the Seas
Monk gaped at the sight.
Sweet Jesus . . .
Monk stood on the starboard deck, alone, waiting for Jessie. A mist-shrouded island rose directly ahead. Cliffs climbed steeply out of the ocean, offering no beach or safe harbor, topped by jagged peaks. The whole place looked like an ancient stone crown, draped in vine and jungle.
It appeared especially ominous backlit by the black skies behind it. The cruise ship had been outrunning a storm. Off in the distance, patches of dark rain brushed from the low clouds and swept the whitecapped ocean. The winds had picked up, snapping flags and gusting with shoves to the body.
Monk kept one hand clamped to the rail as the large boat rolled in the rising storm surges, taxing the ship's stabilizers.
What the hell was the captain thinking?
Their speeds had slowed, but their course remained dead-on. Straight toward the inhospitable island. It looked no more welcoming than the hundreds they'd already passed. What made this one so special?
Ever resourceful and fluent, Jessie had ascertained some details about the island, from one of the ship's cooks, a native of the region, who recognized the place. The island was called Pusat, or Navel. According to the cook, boats avoided the place. Supposedly the Balinese witch queen Rangda was born out of this navel, and her demons still protect her birthplace, beasts who rose out of the deep to drag the unsuspecting down to her watery underworld.
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