Gunfire rattled behind them. Rounds tore into carpet and walls. One of the guards fell back as if punched. Blood coughed out his nose and mouth as he crashed to the floor. The other guards flattened to all sides, returning fire. The Somalian dragged Devesh behind him, crouching and blasting with a pistol in his other hand.


But no one was there.


A door to one side popped open. A bone ax chopped down, cleaving deep into another guard's skull. Then the door slammed closed again. The guard crawled, an ax handle protruding from the back of his head, then dropped flat.


Another man fired into the door. Rounds pounded through it.


But Devesh read the door's sign: employees only. It led to the cruise ship's inner passages. The killer had surely fled.


Another cannibal.


The ship was under attack, its defenses breached.


Flurries of gunfire erupted elsewhere on the ship, echoing hollowly down to them. They were losing control of the ship. The Somalian leader stepped to Devesh's side. The remaining guards stood ready, half facing forward, half backward, wary of all doors.


"Sir, we must get you somewhere safe," the Somalian growled.


"Where?" Devesh half moaned.


"Off the ship, We can take a tender over to the island town and secure you there. I'll gather another hundred men, along with stiffer armaments, and return to clean out the ship."


Devesh nodded. Until matters were settled, he wanted off this boat.


The Somalian led them swiftly back to the stairwell. Alarm bells and rattling blasts accompanied them. They hurried down. They passed four bodies, fellow pirates.


When they reached the level of the tender dock, Devesh paused.


"Sir?"


"Not yet." Devesh had grown angrier with each level he had descended. He would not abandon the ship without some reprisal. And he knew what to do. He headed down the stairs again.


Toward the ship's bowels.


To where he maintained a special set of locked wards.


Before he left, he would make matters more difficult for those who sought to take his ship. To fight fire with fire.


The island was not the only source of cannibals.


5:22 A.M.


Susan stood at the fringe of the jungle, staring toward the Mistress of the Seas. Alarm bells rang across the water, along with muffled blasts.


The assault was under way.


She held her hands clenched to her belly, scared, praying.


She heard stealthy noises in the forest around her: the slip of a wet leaf, the squelch of mud. Her escorts closed around her, drawn to protect their queen, but also curious, coming to watch the fireworks.


Just ahead, pulled up on the beach, a dugout canoe rested in the sand, ready to ferry her swiftly to Ryder's boat.


If it should ever arrive.


The knuckles of Susan's fingers ached as she squeezed.


Please let them come. . .


5:23 A.M.


Buried in his poncho, Rakao waited in his hidden blind. He stared through his infrared goggles, watching his team cinch the snare tighter.


He no longer had to wonder where the other escaped prisoners had gone. Minutes ago, another of his guards had spotted suspicious movement atop the cruise ship. Rakao had diverted his attention on his target long enough to roll aside and survey the ship. While he failed to spot any movement atop the ship, he did make out what appeared to be storm-loosened strands of the net weeping down toward the helipad.


Ropes.


With a silent curse Rakao knew what had happened.


An assault over the canopy's bridge . . .


Rakao had lived on this island for a decade, rising through a series of bloody coups to assume the leadership of the pirate clan there, whose history stretched back a full century. But he had larger ambitions. Beyond even the spoils of a cruise ship and black-market slaves. There was a wider world to plunder, and the doctor offered him access to it, through an organization that stretched back far longer than a century. Where ambition and ruthlessness were recognized and rewarded.


So when he had discovered he'd been outmaneuvered, Rakao seethed, but he knew better than to lash out. He had the dried tongues of his predecessors nailed to the lintel above the door to his village house. He hadn't climbed to his position by reckless actions.


Staying focused, Rakao had his radioman retreat thirty yards so as not to be heard, then contact the ship, to warn them of an impending attack. But as Rakao waited, shots rang out—followed by alarm bells. His warning had reached the ship too late.


So be it.. .


Rakao maintained his position.


If the sneak attack aboard the ship failed, his radioman would let him know. If not, Rakao knew where the victors would end up.


The true prize was here.


Rakao watched his target, standing at the edge of the jungle.


It should not be long.


 


5:33 a.m.


Monk raced down the last flight of stairs. Lisa followed with a pair of WHO scientists: a Dutch toxicologist and an American bacteriologist.


At the bottom of the stairs a pair of pirates lay tangled in a widening pool of blood. A cannibal stood a step away, motioning for them to leave the stairwell.


He was another of Ryder's bread crumbs, leading a safe path through the besieged ship. It was a circuitous route down flights of stairs, through a passenger hallway, along the outer deck, even trespassing across a kitchen. Gunfire continued in sporadic bursts of guerrilla fighting.


At least the alarms had finally gone silent.


But was that good news or bad?


Monk led the way across the bloody landing and out into the main starboard hallway. They had reached the lower deck that lay even with the waterline. Ryder's private launch was on this level. Monk took a breath to orient himself. This deck also housed the ship's tender dock, along with a theater, day-care center, video arcade, and the Midnight Blue disco. Ryder's launch was near the ship's bow.


"This way!" He headed to the right, stopped, turned around again. "No, this way!'


They headed off again, trailing tribesmen.


He spotted furtive movement ahead, rising from a middeck stairwell, not far from the opening to the tender dock. He recognized the shabby uniforms.


Pirates.


Both parties spotted each other at the same time.


Monk shoved Lisa into the arcade. "Get down!"


His group scattered into other doorways or behind support pillars. One of the cannibals took a round to the head, flying back. But Monk's party outnumbered the pirates. They laid down a continual swath of return fire, chewing down the passageway. Three pirates fell. The tallest shoved a slender man back into the stairwell and fled away.


Monk led a handful of the cannibals forward. One ripped a fresh weapon from one of the dead pirates' hands and tossed aside his smoking rifle. Another pinched one of the corpses' cheeks. Not in affection. Just testing for tenderness.


"That was Devesh hightailing it out of here," Lisa said, joining Monk and pointing down the stairwell as they passed it. "The Guild leader here."


Monk glanced toward the tender dock. "They must have been planning on crossing over to Pirate Town, to gather reinforcements."


The thought spurred him faster down the hall toward the ship's bow. Monk wondered if reinforcements weren't already headed there, radioed in.


The hallway curved ahead, following the shape of the ship's front end. As they rounded the bend, Monk spotted the open doorway to Ryder's private launch.


They'd made it.


Before he could continue, shrieking cries erupted from the hall behind him.


Monk turned.


From the middeck stairwell, a dozen figures tumbled out into the hallway, scrambling, fighting, agitated, half naked in ripped and soiled hospital gowns. Limbs were blistered and weeping. Bloody lips peeled back in savage snarls. Even from fifty yards away, Monk recognized the sheen of madness shining from eyes caked with pus.


"Patients," Lisa whispered, grabbing Monk's arm and drawing him back. "In a catatonic psychosis. They'll attack anyone. Devesh must have set them loose."


"Bastard." Monk waved the last of his party around the bend, out of sight. He hurried toward the open door to Ryder's launch. More cries arose from ahead, past the door, where the hallway curved around to the port side.


Feet pounded in that direction, running toward them.


Monk lifted his weapon—but a familiar figure raced into view, one hand along the outer wall, keeping him upright. Jessie spotted his group, face brightening with relief. He was followed by a clutch of seven cannibals. The last two supported a third, a man bleeding heavily from a rip to the neck. From his green surgical scrub, he was one of the WHO doctors.


The two groups met at the open door to the launch bay.


"You made it," the young nurse gasped out.


Ryder, drawn by the commotion, appeared at the doorway with his own escort of cannibals. He smelled of gasoline, wiping oil from his hands on a rag. "What's happening?"


Monk nodded. "Is your boat gassed up?"


A nod. "She's ready to fly."


To the side, Jessie allowed Lisa to hug him briefly while nodding to the other two WHO doctors. "Dr. Barnhardt. Dr. Miller." He waved a hand to the man in the green scrub smock. "I need help with him."


The cannibals lowered the wounded man to the floor. Blood, dark and heavy, pumped from his neck wound.


Lisa knelt to one side, the other two doctors on the man's other side. Jessie already had his shirt off and passed it to Lisa. She bunched it and pressed it against the wound.


The man convulsed once, coughing blood. Then he lay still, unmoving, eyes open. Only his chest collapsed a bit deeper, sagging with death.


Still holding the bundled shirt to the wound, Lisa checked for a pulse on the other side of the man's neck. She shook her head. There was nothing they could do for the man.


As she had worked, Jessie had related his story, wiping his brow and smearing blood there. "We rescued him. He was being attacked by one of the patients. We had to shoot her. But others are rising up from below. They're already rampaging through the lower decks and moving up. Hundreds of them."


Punctuating his words, savage cries echoed amid more shooting.


"Time to abandon ship," Ryder said.

***

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