The Last Oracle

Page 21

“Agra?” Gray asked.

“The city in India where the Taj Mahal is located. He was there when I called. At the site.”

Gray stared over at the Toyota as it swung from the curb and glided down the streets. What is going on?

Overhead, the helicopters wavered. The birds began to drift in opposite directions, drawn off by decoys.

Gray tried one last time. “Elizabeth, you would be safer staying here.”

“No, I’m coming with you. As you’ll find out, Dr. Masterson is not the most forthcoming. But he knows me. He’s expecting me. To get the professor’s cooperation, I’ll need to be there.”

Elizabeth’s gaze met Gray’s. He read a mix of emotions in her face: determination, fear, and a bone-deep grief.

“He was my father,” she said. “I have to go.”

“And besides,” Kowalski called over from the driver’s side of the car. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”

A shadow of a smile dimmed the raw edge of her emotion. “That’s not a good thing, is it?” she mouthed to Gray.

“Not by a long shot.”

He waved her into the car. He didn’t argue too firmly against her coming. He suspected they would need her expertise before this was all over. Her father had specifically gone to her temporary office at the Museum of Natural History. He had gotten her that position at the Greek museum. Somehow all this tied back to Delphi—but how?

Luca had joined them by now. He had heard the last part of the conversation. “I am coming, too.”

Gray nodded. Painter had already made that arrangement, to buy Luca’s cooperation with the girl’s escape. Which was fine with Gray. He still had a slew of questions for the man, mostly concerning his relationship with Dr. Polk. The Gypsy leader also seemed dead determined about something. Gray saw it in the shadows behind his dark eyes.

With the matter settled, Gray slid into the front passenger seat. Luca and Elizabeth piled into the back.

“Hang tight!” Kowalski called to them as he hauled the car into reverse, pounded the gas, and sent them squealing out of the driveway and into the street.

Overhead, the thump-thump of the helicopters receded into the night.

Gray’s thoughts drifted to questions about the girl.

Who is she? Where did she come from?

Monk followed the three children. They were trailed by another who joined them at the lower hatch.

But she was not a child.

Monk felt those dark eyes on his back.

As a group, they climbed a spiral staircase drilled through raw limestone. The rock walls dripped with water, making the steps slippery. The stairway was narrow, utilitarian, plainly a service stair. It had proved to be a long climb. Monk half carried Pyotr now.

Earlier, while the siren blared, the kids had led Monk down a path that skirted the cavern and ended up at a small hatchway. The door opened into the stairway they were now climbing. Down below, Monk had been introduced to the last and strangest member of their party.

Her name was Marta.

“Here!” Konstantin called from ahead, bearing their only flashlight. He had reached the top of the stairs. Monk gathered the other two children and joined him. The older boy folded his lanky form and crouched beside a pile of packed gear. Ahead, a short tunnel ended at another hatch.

Konstantin pushed a pack into Monk’s arms. Monk carried it toward the hatch and placed his palm on the door. It felt warm.

He turned as the last member of their party climbed into the tunnel from the stairs. Weighing eighty pounds and stooped to the height of three feet, she knuckled on one arm. Her body was covered in soft dark fur, except for her exposed face, hands, and feet. The fur around her face had gone a silvery gray.

Konstantin claimed the female chimpanzee was over sixty years old.

The reunion between the children and the ape at the lower hatchway had been a warm one. Despite the siren’s blare and the wincing sensitivity of the children, the chimpanzee had taken each child under her arm and given them a reassuring squeeze, motherly, maternal.

Monk had to admit that her presence had helped calm the kids.

Even now, she shuffled among them, leaning, subvocalizing quietly.

The youngest, Pyotr, was the one who got the most attention. The pair seemed to have a strange way of communicating. It wasn’t sign language, more like body language: gentle touches, posturing, long stares into each other’s eyes. The young boy, exhausted by the climb, seemed to gain strength from the elderly ape.

Konstantin crossed to the hatch. He held out a small plastic badge toward Monk and showed him how to attach it to his coverall.

“What is it?” Monk asked.

Konstantin nodded toward the sealed doorway. “Monitoring badge…for radiation levels.”

Monk stared over to the door. Radiation? What lay beyond that door? He remembered the heat he’d felt when he’d laid his palm on the hatch. In his head, he painted a blasted landscape, a terrain turned to ruin and slag.

With everyone ready, Konstantin crossed to the hatch and yanked hard on the lever that secured it. The door cracked and opened.

A blinding blaze of light flooded in, like staring into a fiery blast furnace. Monk shielded his eyes with his forearm. It took him another two breaths to realize he was merely facing a rising sun. He stumbled outside with the children.

The landscape had not been blasted to slag, as he had feared.

If anything, the opposite was true.

The hatch opened out onto a ledge of a heavily wooded slope, thick with birches and alders. Many of the trees had gone fiery with the change of seasons. To one side, a creek tumbled over mossy green rocks. Low mountains stretched off into the distance, dotted by tiny alpine lakes that shone like droplets of silver.

They had climbed out of hell into paradise.

But hell wasn’t done with them yet.

From the tunnel behind them, a strange yowling cry echoed out to them. Monk remembered hearing the same howl coming from the walled complex that neighbored the hospital.

The Menagerie.

A second and third cry answered the first.

He didn’t need Konstantin’s urging to keep moving.

Monk recognized what he was hearing—not from memory, but from that buried part of his brain where instinct of predator and prey were still written.

Another howl echoed.

Louder and closer.

They were being hunted.


September 6, 4:55 A.M.

Washington, D.C.

She remained a mystery in a very small package.

Painter studied the girl through the window. She had finally fallen asleep. Kat Bryant kept vigil at her bedside, a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham open in her lap. She had read to the girl until the sedatives had relaxed the child enough to sleep.

The child hadn’t said a word since they’d arrived at midnight. Her eyes would track things, plainly registering what was going on around her. But there was little other response. She spent most of her time rocking back and forth, stiffening when touched. They had managed to get her to drink from a juice box and eat two chocolate-chip cookies. They’d also run some initial tests: blood chemistries, a full physical, even an MRI of her entire body. She still ran a low-grade fever, but it wasn’t as elevated as earlier.

During the physical exam, they’d also found the microtransmitter embedded deep in the girl’s upper arm. The chip would require surgery to remove, so they decided to leave it in place. Besides, the signal was insulated here, blocked. There would be no tracking it.

Kat stirred and stood up. The woman was dressed casually, her auburn hair accented against a white cotton broadcloth shirt that was worn loose over tan slacks. She had been called to central command from home to oversee field operations, but with Gray’s team still in the air, she found herself more useful here. Having a young daughter herself, Kat had brought in the copy of Dr. Seuss. Though the child remained unresponsive, she warmed up to Kat. Her rocking slowed.

Painter was happy to see Kat Bryant back at work. After the loss of her husband, Monk, she’d been adrift for many weeks. Yet now she seemed to be recovering, moving forward again.

Stepping out of the room, Kat closed the door softly and joined Painter in the neighboring observation room. High-backed chairs surrounded a conference table.

“She’s asleep.” Kat sank into one of the chairs with a sigh.

“Maybe you should, too. It will be a few more hours until Gray’s plane lands in India.”

She nodded. “I’ll check with the sitter who’s watching Penelope, then crash for a couple of hours.”

The door to the outer hall opened. They both turned to see Lisa Cummings and the center’s pathologist, Malcolm Jennings, enter the room. The two, dressed in matching white laboratory smocks and blue scrubs, were in an animated but whispered conversation. Lisa had her hands shoved in the pockets of her smock, pulling the coat tight to her shoulders, a sign of deep concentration. She had put her long blond hair up into a French braid. The pair had spent the last hour in the MRI suite, going over results.

From their heated, excited chatter—full of medical jargon beyond Painter’s comprehension—they had come to some conclusions, though not necessarily a consensus.

“Neuromodulation of that scale without glial cell support?” Lisa said with a shake of her head. “The stimulation of the nucleus basalis, of course, makes sense.”

“Does it?” Painter asked, drawing their attention.

Lisa seemed to finally see Painter and Kat. Her shoulders relaxed, and her hands left her pockets. A whispery smile feathered her features as her gaze met his. One of her hands trailed across Painter’s shoulders as she passed and took one of the seats.

Malcolm took the last remaining seat. “How’s the child doing?”

“Asleep for the moment,” Kat said.

“So what have we learned?” Painter asked.

“That we’re moving through a landscape both new and old,” Malcolm answered cryptically. He slipped on a pair of glasses, tinged slightly blue for reading computer screens with less eyestrain. He settled them in place and opened a laptop he’d carried under one arm. “We’ve compiled the MRI scans of the child and my analysis of the skull. Both devices are the same, though the child’s is more sophisticated.”

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