Monk felt a momentary misgiving at abusing their superstitions in this regard. Many of them would die. But if Lisa was right, the whole world was threatened. He had no choice but to use the resources at hand.
They had to reach Ryder's boat. Get Susan out of here—and hopefully rescue Lisa. Monk refused to believe his partner was not still alive.
Monk pulled himself up the ladder.
He climbed through the whipping tangle of camouflage. Even in the eye of the storm, the gusting winds sought to kite him from his perch. He beached himself out onto a narrow ribbon of planking, bolted atop the net. It was a crude utility bridge. The span offered a means to crisscross the net, to maintain it, to refresh its camouflage as needed.
Already the forefront of his army headed across the bridge, on its belly, clinging to the bridge's slats.
With rain sweeping down in stinging sheets, Monk scooted after them. Occasional winds thrummed through the net, jumping and rolling it under him. Like riding Aladdin's flying carpet.
Monk craned around. Overhead the cloud cover had thinned enough to reveal a few stars, but all around dark clouds churned in a continual whirl. The eye of the storm was smaller than Monk had hoped. To all sides, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled.
Monk hurried onward. He and his army had to be off the net when the storm's eye swept away from the island. He recalled earlier lightning strikes, the cascades of electricity ripping across the metal skeleton.
It would be death to be up here then.
Slowly, they inched toward their goal.
As he followed, Monk stared below, between the slats. At least, Susan was out of harm's way.
Her face greased with ash to hide her glow, Susan sat on a boulder, buried in the jungle, not far from the lagoon. She had spent the past hour trekking back down to the beach, to await Monk there.
But she was not alone.
A dozen tribesmen, her royal escort, stood guard in the jungle, buried in the forest. Only a woman, whose name was Tikal, kept her immediate company, knelt beside the rock, her forehead pressed to mud. She had not moved since they had stopped.
Susan had attempted to engage her, but the woman only shivered.
So Susan waited, seated on her rock. She wore a cloak of dried pigskin, draped with feathers, shells, and polished stone beads. Her head was crowned by a circlet of rib bones, tied to her forehead by bark fiber. All the bones splayed outward, like some macabre flower. She was given a polished staff, topped by an impaled human skull.
All fitting apparel for the witch queen of Pusat.
And despite the ghoulish ornamentation, the cloak was warm and her staff proved useful in climbing down from the highlands and back to the beach. Her escort had also woven a temporary shelter of thatched palm leaves overhead, keeping their mistress dry.
Susan stared up toward the vast netting. She had known she was too weak to attempt to cross with the others. So she had not argued when Monk ordered her down to the beach, to keep hidden, to await the outcome of the cannibal assault upon the cruise ship.
But she knew it would be a long vigil.
Abandoned, she began to absorb the full impact of all that had happened after waking aboard the cruise ship. Though alive herself, those closest to her heart had not survived.
Her husband flooded back to her: his crooked grin, his galloping laugh, his dark eyes, the musky scent of his skin, the taste of his lips ... on and on.
He filled her up.
How could all that be gone?
Susan knew she was still far from fully comprehending her loss. But she knew enough. Her body felt physically bruised, all the way down to her core. Her throat closed up, and she began to tremble. Glowing tears swelled and ran over her ash-blackened face.
She rocked in place for a long stretch, merely letting her grief rack through her. It was impossible to stop it. The surge of sorrow was a tidal force, as inescapable as the pull of the moon.
But after a stretch of time, even a tide must ebb. In its aching wake, another primal sensation remained, washed up from even deeper shoals, something she had again avoided acknowledging until now. But it was there, as inescapable as her grief.
Susan extended an arm from her cloak, staring at the breadth of her skin, glowing because of the cyanobacteria in her perspiration, in her pores. She turned her hand, palm up. The glow did not heat the skin, but there was a strange warmth—it harkened more to fever than sunlight.
What was happening to her?
As a marine biologist, Susan knew all about the organism. Cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as blue-green algae, were as ubiquitous as the sea itself. They grouped into myriad formations: thin filaments, flat sheets, hollow balls. They were instrumental to evolution, being the predecessors of modern plants. Early in the earth's history, cyanobacteria also generated the planet's first oxygen atmosphere, making the world livable. And since then, they had adapted to millions of ecological niches.
So what did the colonization of her body mean? How did it relate to her exposure to the Judas Strain virus? It made no sense.
Despite all her questions, Susan knew one truth.
Something was still coming.
She sensed it deep inside, a welling sensation that defied any description.
As unstoppable as any rising tide.
She stared across the forest, across the lagoon, beyond the island. As surely as she could sense the sun rising beyond the curve of the planet, Susan knew she was not done changing.
From a hundred yards away Rakao spied upon his quarry. Hidden in a rain poncho, he held the infrared goggles to his brow. He counted the red glows, body-heat signatures, spread along the edge of the beach. His hunters outnumbered the tribesmen two to one.
With a raised fist, Rakao signaled his team to spread out to either side, to keep their distance. His men knew to move only with each rumble of thunder. The tribesmen had keen senses. He did not want to spook his prey.
Rakao studied Susan Tunis, seated on a rock. He had followed the cannibal party down from the highlands to the lagoon. Where were her companions? They could not be far.
So while he could snatch her up at any time, he was a patient hunter. As his men spread out in a snare, securing the trap, Rakao knew the best use to put the woman.
Ruins of Angkor
July 7, 05:02 a.m. Siem Reap, Cambodia
Six hours of travel deposited Gray in another century and a mishmash of cultures. He climbed out of the taxi into the heart of the old French district of Siem Reap, a small riverside hamlet in the middle of Cambodia, nestled between rice paddies and the great expanse of an inland lake. With dawn still an hour away, the place slumbered, air heavy and humid, buzzing with mosquitoes and hissing with the flicker of gas lamps. From the neighboring river, the lazy chirping of frogs added to the soft somnolence of the early morning.
A couple of low skiffs poled through the river's shallows, oil lamps hanging on extended poles as fishermen in wide bamboo hats checked crab and crayfish traps or stabbed at the unwary frog, fetching fresh catch for the town's many restaurants and cafes.
The rest of Gray's party climbed out of the taxi in various poses of exhaustion. Vigor, hunched and bleary-eyed, looked like someone had washed him and put him away wet in the humid air, whereas Seichan stretched like a waking cat, one hand protecting her wounded side. Her eyes smoldered past him to inspect their accommodations. Kowalski scratched at his armpit and did the same, whistling between his teeth, which set a dog to barking a block deeper into the village.
Nasser had arranged their spectacular accommodations.
It was where they were to await his arrival.
In another two hours.
Across a curved entry road the three-story colonial hotel spread from the river in yellow wings of plaster and timber, roofed in red stone, anchored in manicured French gardens. Its history typified the entire region. The seventy-five-year-old lodge used to be named the Grand Hotel des Ruines, servicing French and British tourists wishing to visit the nearby complex of Angkor ruins, which lay only five miles away. Both hotel and village had eventually fallen into near ruin during the bloody and brutal years of the Khmer Rouge, where millions were murdered in one of the most heinous acts of genocide, annihilating one-fourth of Cambodia's population. Such atrocities put a damper on tourism. But with the fall of the Khmer Rouge, people had returned. The hotel rose from its ashes, meticulously renovated in all its colonial charm and renamed the Grand Hotel d'Angkor.
Siem Reap had similarly been revitalized—if with a bit less care. Hotels and hostels had multiplied in a continual creep out from the river's east and west banks, along with restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, travel agents, fruit and spice stands, and myriad markets selling Cambodian carved curios, filigreed silver, postcards, Tshirts, and trinkets.
But here in the early hours—with neither tourist nor sun yet risen—some of the charm and mystery still remained in its architectural mix of Asian and French culture. An ox-driven cart laden with spiky-skinned durian fruit ambled down the road toward the Old Market, while a manservant in a pressed white jacket slowly swept the hotel's porch.
As Gray climbed the stairs, leading his group, the sweeper smiled shyly, set aside his task, and opened the door for them.
The lobby was bright with marble and polished woods, perfumed by large flowering displays of roses, orchids, jasmine, and lotus. An antique elevator cage, wrapped in intricately twined wrought iron stood beside an inviting curve of stairs.
"The Elephant Bar is around the corner," Seichan explained, pointing an arm. It was where they were to meet with Nasser.
Gray glanced to his watch for the hundredth time.
"I'll get us checked in," Vigor said.
As the monsignor headed over to the reception desk, Gray searched the lobby. Were there Guild agents already here? It was the question that Gray had been asking himself since they landed in Bangkok and switched planes for the short hop here. Seichan had confirmed that the Guild had operatives throughout the region, with deep ties in China and North Korea. It was practically Guild home turf.
Gray did not doubt that Nasser had spies planted along their entire route from the island of Hormuz to Cambodia. To spare his parents' lives, Gray had been forced to reveal where Marco's historical trail ended: the ruins of Angkor. It convinced Nasser to delay any immediate plans to murder his parents. But as Gray feared, it had not bought his parents their freedom.
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