With the sword still poised over his parents' heads, Gray had refused to elaborate on his second bombshell—the cure for the Judas Strain. Not until Nasser was face-to-face with him and supplied concrete evidence that his parents were released and safe.
So they had agreed to rendezvous here.
Information for his parents' freedom.
But Gray was no fool. He knew Nasser would never release his parents. This was all a trap by Nasser—and a pure delaying tactic by Gray. Both men knew this. Still, they had no choice but to continue this dance of deceptions. All Gray could do was keep Nasser strung along, to keep hanging that carrot in front of him, in order to buy Director Crowe as much time as possible to find his mother and father.
Gray had risked a short call Stateside after hanging up with Nasser, using Seichan's disposable phone. Fearing that Nasser might quickly tap the cell towers in the remote region, Gray had to keep their talk short as he updated Painter. The director had only grim news in return. Sigma had no new leads on his parents, and there continued to be no word on Monk and Lisa's whereabouts. Gray had heard the frustration and fury in the man's voice.
Add raw terror to the mix, and it matched Gray's mood.
Painter had again offered to send assets to support Gray out here, but until his parents were safe and secure, he dared not accept them. As Seichan had warned, this was Guild home turf. Any mobilization would only reveal that Gray was still secretly in communication with Washington. It was a small advantage, but one Gray did not want to risk losing. But more importantly, if Nasser got a whiff that a line of communication was open between Gray and Sigma command, he would immediately kill his parents. Gray needed Nasser to feel fully confident that his team was cut off.
Still, Gray had taken one small risk and had asked for a tiny concession from Painter. Afterward, with the matter settled, all Gray had to do was keep extending that time frame.
He still had another two hours.
The elevator door chimed open behind him. He heard the old wrought-iron door ratchet back. "I see you all arrived safely," a voice spoke calmly behind him.
Nasser stepped out of the cage and into the lobby, dressed in a dark suit, no tie. "It looks like we can get this meeting started early."
Men in khaki uniforms and black berets appeared from the halls to either side. Behind him, Gray heard the pound of boots on the porch outside. A score more soldiers clambered down the curved stairs ahead. Though no weapons were in sight, Gray did not doubt they were all armed.
Kowalski must have sensed this, too. He already had his hands in the air.
Seichan merely shook her head. "There goes my hot bath."
Vigor stepped back to Gray's side.
Nasser joined them. "So it is time to discuss this cure."
6:18 p.m. Washington, D.C.
"From what you just told me," Dr. Malcolm Jennings said, "Gray has nothing to offer the Guild. Nothing of real value."
Painter listened quietly, letting the man run through his thought processes. He had summoned Jennings, the head of Sigma's research-and-development department, up to his office to get his input. Luckily, Jennings had already been on his way up here.
"From the details in Marco's story," Jennings said, pacing in front of Gray's desk, "Polo and a handful of others were protected against the Judas Strain by consuming blood and sweetmeat, a delicacy derived from the thymus gland. And according to the story, the blood and gland were harvested out of another man."
"Or as Gray had read into the text—and I believe he's correct—it could represent a crude form of vaccination. The thymus gland is a major source of white blood cells, the body's cellular defense against disease. And the blood is a major way antibodies against infections are distributed. By consuming such tissue, you could theoretically confer the equivalent of an immunization."
Painter agreed. "That's what Gray believes protected Polo's companions."
"But such a revelation is meaningless," Jennings argued. "It offers no real cure. Where did the blood and gland come from? Not from one of the sick. You'd just get infected. There is a missing piece of this puzzle. For such a cure to work, you'd need to harvest cells and antibodies from someone cured, someone who survived the Judas Strain. It's just circuitous logic. It takes a cure to find a cure."
Painter sighed. "And you can't think of anything in the story that might offer some elaboration."
The doctor slowly shook his head.
As Painter feared, Gray was running a dangerous bluff. Amen Nasser was not a fool. The bastard would also recognize the lack of any real answer. All Gray's bluff could hope to achieve was to buy time. And with the trail gone cold after the raid on the butcher shop, it seemed a wasted effort, a needless risk. Painter had hoped Jennings might have some new insight.
But no such luck.
Painter resigned himself. "So it seems Marco's story leads to a dead end."
"Not necessarily." Jennings waited a breath. "Director, there is something else I wanted to discuss. It was why I was headed up here. It may even relate to this topic. In fact, if you have an extra minute, perhaps you'd better see this for yourself."
Painter truly didn't have that extra minute. He stared at the pile of papers in front of him, a plethora of reports. Down the hall, Monk's wife, Kat, had taken over minding the satellite recon of the Indonesian islands. With her background in the intelligence services, Kat had proved skilled at enlisting foreign aid and orchestrating cross-satellite platform surveys. But still, hampered by the local storm, they'd had no success locating the cruise ship.
Anxious and short-wired, Painter wanted to get back down there himself. But he trusted Jennings not to waste his time with trivialities. "What do you want me to see?"
Jennings waved to one of the office's plasma wall monitors. "I'd like to conference with Richard Graff in Australia. He's expecting my call, if you're willing."
"Graff?" Painter asked. "The researcher who had been working with Monk at Christmas Island?"
It was Dr. Graff who had radioed a tanker passing Christmas Island and had alerted the world about the hijacking of the cruise ship. The oceanogra-pher was currently sequestered and quarantined in Perth.
"You've read his debriefing with Australian authorities?" Jennings asked.
"But there is something odd that the researcher has discovered since then."
Painter waved to the monitor. "Okay. Show me."
Jennings came around his desk and quickly established a live conference feed. "Here we go."
The monitor went dark, flickered, then a jittery image of the scientist appeared. Dr. Graff wore blue hospital scrubs and his arm was in a sling. He blinked behind his glasses at Painter and Jennings.
Introductions were made—though Jennings passed themselves off as researchers associated with the Smithsonian Institution.
"Can you demonstrate what you found?" Jennings asked. "What you showed me earlier? I think my colleague should see it."
"1 have the specimen waiting right here." Graff slipped offscreen. The camera angle widened and shifted to reveal a white conference table.
Graff reappeared, carrying a large red object in one hand.
"Is that a crab?" Painter asked, sitting straighter.
"Geocarcoidea natalis, "Jennings explained. "The Christmas Island red land crab."
On the screen, Graff nodded and settled the crab to the tabletop. Its large pincer claws were rubber-banded closed. "The little bugger—or rather a horde of them—helped save my life back on the island."
Curious, Painter stood up and approached the screen.
Graff put the crab on the table and released it. It immediately scrabbled across the surface, aiming in a determined straight line. Graff hurried around to the table's far side to catch it.
Painter shook his head. "1 don't understand. What are you trying to show me here?"
Graff explained. "Dr. Kokkalis and I found it strange that these crabs were not killed off by the toxic exposure, but their behavior certainly was affected. They were attacking and tearing each other apart. So I had hoped to study the behavior to see if it offered any insight into the toxicity."
While narrating, Graff had settled the crab twice more to the table, but no matter where he placed it, no matter which way he faced the creature, the determined crustacean would turn and make a beeline, hitting the same corner of the table before almost toppling off.
He demonstrated it a few more times.
Graff explained his supposition. "The Christmas Island land crab has a finely attuned nervous system that guides its annual migration pattern. Most crustaceans do. But the toxic exposure seems to have rewired the crab's nervous system, turned it into the equivalent of a fixed compass. The crab always crawls in the same direction, the same compass heading."
Graff collected his crab and deposited it in a tank. "Once things calm down over at the island," he finished, "I'd like to test other crabs to see if they are similarly rewired to the same setting. It's a fascinating study. I would be happy to write up that grant proposal you mentioned earlier, Dr. Jennings."
"It certainly is an intriguing anomaly, Dr. Graff," Jennings said. "My colleague and I will consult and get back to you. I appreciate your time."
The call was disconnected, and the screen went blank. But Jennings continued typing at Painter's computer station. A new image appeared on the plasma screen, fed from the computer, a globe of the world.
"When I heard about this anomaly," Jennings said, "I went ahead and collated Dr. Graff's data and tracked the crab's trajectory." A dotted line appeared encircling the globe. "I didn't think my results proved anything until you sent down the update from Commander Pierce."
The globe spun and zoomed large on the screen.
Painter leaned in close. The view swelled with the image of Southeast Asia. The dotted line traversed Indonesia, spanned the Gulf of Thailand, and ran straight across Cambodia.
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