Dr. Edward Marcase plopped down onto the bench in the airport waiting room with a groan. "If I ever get home Iím never leaving again."
Beside him Kimberly Shiroma laughed. "You say that every time. But give you a couple of nights sleep and youíll be pacing the floor ready to go."
Marcase gave his companion a weary smile. "Youíre right but four cities in six days is a little much, even for me."
For once Kimberly had to agree with her partner. The last two weeks had been exhausting. They had been assigned to track down the source of an unknown illness that had struck four major cities simultaneously. Working with the local health authorities they had worked round the clock to identify the microbe responsible for the outbreak and to devise an anti-microbial regiment to treat those affected with the bug. Discovering that the infective agent was a new stain of Ecoli they were able to help the authorities track the source of the outbreak to the meat packing plant that serviced the four infected cities. Turning the clean up of the site over to the health authorities they had spent the next six days instituting the treatment protocol for the new bacteria in all the infected areas. Now tired but satisfied with a job well done they were finally heading home.
Unobserved by the two weary physicians a pair of hostile eyes studied them from across the room. Soon the unseen watcher promised they would pay for their crimes. Soon he would send them both to their just reward...in hell. Turning he left the waiting room. He knew where they were headed and he would be waiting for them when they arrived. He would insure them a warm homecoming. As the watcher left the lounge, a shadowy figure stepped from behind a column and trailed after him. The hunter was now the hunted.
"Thanks Frank, good job. Bring your team in." Hanging up the phone Michael Hailey turned to find his boss, Daniel Cassian, watching him intently. Theyíre on the plane and heading home. The plane was clean but they did pick up an observer at the airport. Unfortunately he gave my men the slip before he could be apprehended. Whoever this guy is, heís a pro."
"Michael this is crazy. Who would send an assassin after a pair of doctors? Are you sure itís not The Dawn? Theyíre none to fond of us at the moment."
"Positive. The Dawn has no need to rifle through half the databases in the country looking for info on Marcase and Shiroma. Iím sure they already have dossiers on all of us. If they did need intelligence they have operatives in place that could obtain the information without arousing suspicion or leaving a trail. No whomever weíre dealing with, heís spent a lot of time and trouble gathering every scrap of data available on Drs. Marcase and Shiroma. I had flags going up across the board from the DMV to John Hopkins to the WHO."
"So our mystery man is not well acquainted with his targets?"
"Not in the beginning but after all the information heís gathered, Iíd say he knows them pretty well by now. Well enough to plant a very sophisticated bomb in their apartments."
"And thereís been no further activity since the bomb?"
"No, Iíve had the apartments under twenty-four hour guard and operatives watching Marcase and Shiroma round the clock for the last two days. I doubt our bomber knows that his toys have been found. He was at the airport to monitor their movements. It looks like he has been tapping into the airlines passenger manifests to track them. My guess is that he wanted to confirm that they were returning home."
"Straight into his trap. And they would be if you hadnít been paranoid enough to check their places for hidden surprises."
"Hey, paranoid is my middle name. Besides something just didnít feel right. All this sudden interest in the good doctors made me nervous. I didnít think it would hurt to make sure the home front was secure. And itís a good thing I did. Whoever this guy is heís an artist with explosives. If I hadnít been expecting trouble Iíd have walked right into oblivion."
Cassian leaned back in his chair and considered his security chiefís words. A professional assassin was stalking Marcase and Shiroma. He needed a way to get the two out of the way for a while. Hailey needed to be free to concentrate on tracking this killer down and he could not do that if he had to keep a constant guard on the two doctors. Rummaging through his desk Cassian pulled a crumpled memo out of one of the drawers. Rereading the note he began to smile. Marcase was going to love this. But if all went well it would solve two problems at once. He could help out a friend and keep the two doctors out of harms way while Hailey eliminated the assassin. Looking up from the paper he found Hailey watching him intently. "So you believe that our mad bomber will not make a move until he realizes that his traps have been sprung?"
"Thatís my guess."
"Good, then weíll just have to hide the two away where he canít find them. Pick Marcase and Shiroma up at the airport and bring them directly here. Iíll make the arrangements. With luck by the time our killer realizes that something is wrong Edward and Kimberly will be out of his reach."
With a nod Hailey left to carry out his assignment. He wasnít sure what Daniel had in mind. But from what he knew of Cassianís style, it would be both brilliant and unexpected. And once Shiroma and Marcase were safe he had a score to settle with their mystery assassin. Hailey took his job very seriously. No one threatened those under his care. He would personally see to it that this bomber never threatened anyone ever again.
"All right Cassian, whatís going on?" Edward Marcase crossed his arms across his chest and gave his boss his Ďyouíre up to something and Iím not buying it stareí. He had been suspicious when Hailey had picked them up unexpectedly at the airport and whisked them straight to the Mansion. The only explanation they were given was that Cassian wanted to see them. But this went beyond the bounds of believability. He glanced over at Shiroma and saw that his skepticism was shared. Turning back to Cassian he continued. "You really expect us to believe that the government is sending us on a cruise?"
"Itís not a vacation, Dr. Marcase but an assignment." Cassian handed him a crumpled memo. "As you can see the request is legitimate. Besides, the change of scenery will do you both good."
Marcase read the memo then passed it to Shiroma. "OK, so a doctor has bought a cruise line. I still donít see what that has to do with us."
"Itís very simple. Dr. Bartlett served on the committee, which drafted the laws governing medical care on cruise ships. He believes the current guidelines are not sufficient to handle gross emergencies such as an outbreak aboard ship. He has redesigned his new vessel, The SEA STAR, to be the safest and best equipped ship afloat. He wants a professional evaluation of the medical facilities."
Shiroma handed the memo back to Cassian. "I agree with Edward, why us? Wouldnít the Navy or Coast Guard be a better choice?"
"No, Bartlett wants people well versed in epidemiology and the handling of mass outbreaks under less than ideal conditions. I believe the two of you qualify. Youíll spend a week evaluating the shipís facilities and serving as ship board doctors." Cassian held up his hand to forestall the protest he knew was coming. "This is not a request. This is your next assignment. Youíll leave for Miami immediately. Mr. Hailey has arranged transport."
"What?" Marcase glanced at Shiroma then turned to Cassian. "Donít we at least get to go home and pack?"
Cassian looked at the luggage sitting on the floor beside them then back up at Marcase. "It appears that you are already packed. The ship has an excellent laundry facility and anything extra you might require can be purchased from the shops aboard ship. The cruise line has given you both a line of credit for purchases. Now if there are no further questions, the shipís captain is expecting you. Youíll have a day to acquaint yourselves with the shipís facilities before sailing. Have a good trip, Iíll expect you back in eleven days."
Shiroma studied Cassian intently for a moment. Like Marcase she did not buy Cassianís story for a moment. Something was up. Finally she came to a decision. If Cassian wanted them out of the way he must have a good reason. She would trust him. Picking up her suitcase she walked to the door. "Iíll meet you at the car Edward." Then she was gone.
Marcase stood silently for a few moments then bent to retrieve his own luggage. "All right Cassian, weíll play this your way. But when we get back I want an explanation." Then he turned and followed Shiroma from the room.
Cassian leaned back in his chair and allowed the tension to slowly ease from his tensed muscles. "Well that went well." Hailey would see the two safely to the ship and out of harms way. The question now was who wanted the two doctors dead and why?"
"Damn it, where the hell are they?" The dark-haired mercenary paced furiously around the living room of the lavish penthouse apartment. Everything had been perfect. Marcase and Shiroma should be dead by now instead they had disappeared. Overnight the two doctors had vanished without a trace. Jacob Pagit was a careful man. In his business there were no second chances. He had studied his targets for weeks. He knew their moves and had planned well. So why werenít they dead?
"You are fortunate that your scheme failed, Jacob. You were told to bring them in alive."
Pagit turned to face the woman watching him impassively from the living room couch. There was something about Monica that made him uneasy. Philip might have loved her but there was a cruelty, a ruthlessness in her that Jacob didnít trust. But for now he needed her help. "They murdered my brother Monica and for that they are going to die. I donít know how they escaped my trap this time but I wonít fail again. I am going to kill them both and there is nothing you can do to stop me."
Monica studied the irate man calmly. After Philipís death she had taken her employerís fortune and returned here to the US. She had left everything behind except for a certain rare statue, which was presently concealed in the next room. She needed Jacobís help to accomplish her mission but she was uncertain how best to convince this practical man of action to go along with her plans. The decision was taken from her hands as she detected a rustling from the adjoining room. Knowing what was expected of her she rose from the couch to await the coming of her master.
At the first unfamiliar sound Jacobís instincts took over. Pulling his gun he turned to face the adjoining bedroom. "What the hell was that?" A gray-white mist was slowly emerging from under the closed bedroom door. Mesmerized he watched in shock as the mist slithered across the floor and began to rise up into a column in front of the waiting woman. His shock turned to horror as the column resolved into the form of a giant serpent. "Monica get back! " He started forward then froze as the serpent turned to stare directly into his eyes. His mind screamed for him to do something but his muscles refused to respond. He could only stand by helplessly as the monster turned and dived for the patiently waiting woman. As he watched the giant snake seemed to flow into her body.
Monicaís body stiffened briefly as the serpent entered then relaxed. Opening her eyes she smiled at the stunned mercenary. Walking over she gently removed the gun from his hand. "Really Jacob thatís no way to greet your brother."
Jacob stiffened. The voice was familiar and definitely not Monicaís. "Philip?"
"Yes, Jacob itís me."
"What... how? I need a drink." Crossing to the bar Jacob poured himself a stiff drink. As the liquor burned its way down his throat he felt some of the numbness fade from his body and his mind began to clear. When he at last felt in control he turned to face the woman who he knew as Monica but who now was something more. "All right, Iíd like some answers. Starting with just who or what are you?"
"Jacob you know who I am. Philip, your brother, remember?"
"My brother is dead."
"Yes and no. Itís true I did die but death has many forms. This is not the first time I have walked this road."
"What are you talking about, and cut the mystic crap Iím not buying."
Monica/Philip chuckled. "You always were the unbeliever in the family. All right hereís the deal. As you know I went to Greece to try and find a cure for my illness. And I did Jacob but I also found more, a lot more. When I slept in the ruins on Delos I was bitten by snakes, I died. I canít begin to describe the experience to you but I found myself in another realm, a realm where the ancient gods were real. The god Aesclepius came to me and offered me a choice. I could die there on Delos or I could choose to become his servant. I of course chose life. In return for bringing souls to Aesclepius I was healed and given the ability to walk in the realm of men. Everything was fine until Marcase and Shiroma. Marcase has been promised to Aesclepius, he must be delivered to him. Shiroma defiled sacred ground by spilling my blood in the temple. The punishment for her crime is death. Until these wrongs are righted I am stuck here in limbo, subject to the godís wrath. If I can deliver Marcase and Shiroma to Aesclepius at the appointed time and place then he will again look on me with favor."
"Youíre nuts. Do you honestly expect me to believe this bull?"
"You donít have to believe me only help me. Iím asking you to save my life. You have always been there for me when I needed you. Iím asking you brother to be here for me now."
"Prove to me you are who you say you are."
With a resigned sigh Monica/Philip rose to stand before Jacob. "Very well Jacob, look at me."
Jacob looked at Monica and froze. Her eyes glowed with an unearthly light and Jacob felt himself falling, spinning into a dark void. Strange images assaulted his mind and he felt a familiar presence. As the presence drew nearer the void dissipated, replaced by a macabre landscape straight out of myth. Slowly a figure materialized in front of him. "Hello, Jacob welcome to my world."
Minutes or hours later Jacob returned to his senses to find himself kneeling on the floor. He rose slowly to his feet then swayed dizzily. "Take it easy." A strong hand steadied him and led him to the couch. "Just rest a moment the dizziness will pass."
As his head cleared he looked up to find Monica, the real Monica, watching him worriedly. "Itís all true isnít it?"
"So what do we do now?"
"We carry out our instructions."
With a nod of agreement Jacob reached for the telephone on the table next to the couch. He had eleven days to find the targets and get them to the proper location. There was no room for failure. His brotherís life depended on his actions. Jacob remembered the hellish world he had just visited and shuddered. He had always looked out for his little brother; he would not fail him now.
The SEA STAR floated serenely in her slip at the Miami docks while dozens of crewmen swarmed over her decks readying her for the two thousand plus passengers that would be making her their home for the next ten days. Standing at the head of the cargo ramp Chief Officer Dirk Ramsey made a note on his clipboard as another crate was hauled aboard and carefully stowed away below. A gentle breeze ruffled his brown hair and he absently used his fingers to push it back from his face. He appeared to be too young for his current post as third in command of the SEA STAR, that is unless you looked into his eyes. The gray eyes held a hard glint that belied his youthful appearance. The look in those eyes spelt danger and only a fool dare cross him. Making a notation on his list Ramsey shook his head in amazement, it was astonishing just how much stuff it took to keep the SEA STARís guest in the luxury they expected. The sound of cursing followed by a loud bang suddenly echoed over the dock. Ramsey jerked his head up just in time to see a large crate labeled Ďengine partsí slam to the deck.
"Careful you idiot!" Ramsey eyes flashed dangerously as he turned on the crewman. " Thatís valuable cargo youíre throwing around."
"Sorry sir, it just slipped."
"Then see that it doesnít slip again."
As the crewmen quickly carried the crate below Ramsey heard a chuckle and turned to find Jenkins one of the engineering officers standing behind him. "Take it easy sir. Itís only engine parts."
Dirk gave a wry smile. The fair-haired engineer was one of the few men on board he couldnít intimidate. "Well those engine parts are extremely hard to replace. Everything stowed below?"
"Yes, that was the last one. Allís secure and no oneís the wiser."
"Good, see that it stays that way. We have too much riding on this deal for stupid mistakes."
"Aye, aye sir." Jenkins gave a sloppy salute. "Hey whatís that?" Suddenly serious Jenkins pointed to the dark limo pulling onto the docks. "I thought we werenít getting passengers Ďtil tomorrow."
The limo pulled up in front of the SEA STARís loading ramp and a large dark suited man emerged from the front passenger seat. He paused to give the dock area a through scrutiny before moving with cat like grace to the limoís rear passenger door.
"Thatís no tourist." Jenkins studied the dark suited man carefully. "Heís packing."
Ramsey nodded in agreement. Everything about the man screamed professional soldier. FBI, CIA, Military Intelligenceóthe list was endless. It didnít matter who he was. The question now was why was he here?
Dirk shook his head. "I donít know, but you better spread the word. If the feds are snooping around we donít want them stumbling onto our operation."
"Wow, if thatís a fed, she can arrest me anytime."
Ramsey turned his attention back to the limo. From the backseat a lovely oriental woman emerged followed by a tall dark-haired man. They were the opposite of their escort. Where their companion exuded danger these two appeared harmless. They didnít look the type to rate a professional bodyguard. "Curiousier and curiouser."
Spying Giovanni, Staff Captain and second in command, hurrying toward the gangplank Ramsey moved to intercept him. "Hey Matt whereís the fire?"
Tall with the dark hair and olive complexion of his Italian ancestors, Giovanni was usually the epitome of the calm, collected officer. To see him in a hurry spoke volumes about the importance of the new arrivals. "Sorry Dirk I donít have much time to talk. Our new doctors have arrived. The Captain wants them to have the VIP treatment. Seems they came all the way from Washington just to check out the new sickbay. Theyíre part of some government crisis team; itís a big coup for the Old Man to get them here. "
When he was sure that Giovanni was out of earshot Ramsey turned to Jenkins. "Now what are two government "specialist" doing serving on a cruise ship? Keep your eyes open and make sure everyone stays calm. With luck theyíll treat a few bumps and bruises, have a little fun in the sun then be gone, none the wiser."
"And if they get curious?"
"Then theyíll have an accidentÖa fatal one."
"What about the body guard?"
"Hopefully he wonít be staying. If so then weíll have to find a way to get him out of the way. Heís too dangerous to let roam around loose."
"Wow," Edward Marcase dropped his suitcase on the dock and gazed at the massive ship that would soon become his home. "Thatís not a ship thatís a city that floats."
"Donít worry Iím sure weíll be able to find you a map somewhere." Shiroma teased. "Besides itís harder to get seasick on large ships."
A soft chuckle greeted this observation and they turned to find a dark-haired man wearing a white officerís uniform heading their way. "We havenít lost a passenger to seasickness yet." He held out his hand. "Sorry to eaves drop on you. Iím Mathew Giovanni, Staff Captain of the Sea Star. Welcome aboard."
Marcase shook the proffered hand. "Edward Marcase and these are my associates Dr. Kimberly Shiroma and Agent Frank Dalton."
"A pleasure to meet you both. Mr. Dalton our security chief is looking forward to meeting you."
Marcase and Shiroma looked at Frank in confusion.
"The boss thought that since I was here I might as well give the security staff a few lessons in counter terrorism. A cruise ship is an easy target for terrorist activity. Iíll be sailing with you."
"I see." Marcase and Shiroma exchanged looks, things were getting stranger by the minute. First Cassian packs them off on a bogus mission and now Haileyís second in command was sailing with them. Just what the heck was going on?
Oblivious to the undercurrent of tension among his three guests, Giovanni continued. "The Captain sends his compliments. Iíve been instructed to give you the grand tour. Weíre all very proud of the Star, I think youíll be impressed by her accommodations. Iíll have your luggage sent to your cabins. If youíll follow me?"
Turning their bags over to a waiting crewman the three followed the officer up the gangplank. Stopping at a desk he handed them each a map of the ships layout. "Here you might need these. The Sea Star is one of the largest cruise ships afloat. We have a maximum passenger compliment of 2650 plus around 1000 crewmembers. There are 12 decks, which are easily accessed by the 13 elevators scattered around the ship. There are dining rooms on this deck, Lobby Deck, and the Atlantic Deck, thatís one deck up. Dinner is formal. The ship has 4 swimming pools, the longest water slide afloat, a library, a movie theater, a fully equipped gym and a casino. There are also a number of clubs and lounges, be sure to check out the Chinatown Lounge, the smoking dragon is rather novel. And for those who like to shop we even have a shopping mall. Which reminds me here are your ID cards."
"Picture ID?" Marcase studied the badge in disbelief. "How did you get these made up so fast?"
"Dr. Cassian sent along photos when he confirmed your arrival. You each have been given a line of credit aboard ship. Just show your ID when making any purchase."
"Thatís very generous of the cruise line." Shiroma clipped her ID to her shirt.
"Just donít buy out the stores on the first day, Kim."
Shiroma gave Marcase her best withering look, which as usual had no effect on her colleagueís exuberance. Giving it up as a lost cause she turned her attention back to Giovanni. "So Mr. Giovanni you mentioned something about a tour?"
The next few hours the three trailed along after their tour guide marveling at the sheer opulence that was the SEA STAR. But of all the splendors that the ship boasted one stood out in Shiromaís mindÖThe Atrium. Enclosed in glass and spanning 7 decks, the room was a fantasy for the senses. Filled with plants, sparking chandeliers and the largest sculpture she had ever seem; it was something out of a fairy tale.
Once the tour was complete Giovanni led them down to the lower decks where only crew were allowed. The lower deck held not only engineering and crew quarters it also housed sickbay. Leaving Frank at the security office Giovanni ushered the two doctors down to what would be their domain for the next ten days.
Marcase and Shiroma moved about the room, taking note of everything. When Cassian had said that the SEA STARís owner took medical care at sea seriously he had not been kidding. The sickbay was a marvel of modern medical design. Besides an office and treatment area, it contained a small surgery, a fully equipped lab and a six-bed ward.
Marcase stood in the center of the treatment area and shook his head in wonder. "Iíll admit it, Iím impressed. Youíre equipped better than some emergency rooms I know."
"Or some research labs." Shiroma added as she studied the electron microscope set up in the lab area.
"Dr. Landis was given free reign in designing this place." Giovanni smiled pleased by their reactions. "It was the price of acquiring his services."
"Dr. Geoffrey Landis?"
Giovanni glanced at Marcase in surprise. "Yes, do you know him?"
Shiroma and Marcase glanced at each other in surprise. "Everyone knows of Dr. Landis." Shiroma explained. "He is one of the leading experts in infectious and tropical diseases. But I thought he retired."
"He did, sort of." Giovanni shrugged. "The owner wanted the SEA STAR to have a competent doctor available, one who could handle the unexpected. Dr. Landis is no longer practicing but he still does consulting work and of course he is in much demand by scientific journals and textbook publishers. The SEA STAR gives him accommodations to do his work and we get a qualified doctor on board. He also serves as a consultant to some of the local clinics at our port of calls. From what I hear the WHO was thrilled to have an expert in tropical diseases in the area."
"Iíll bet." Marcase glanced around the room. "Not a bad set up."
"We have all the comforts of home, plus a full array of communicationís gear and Internet access. Those requesting the doctorís help can send him case reports and other materials to study. If a more hands on approach is needed blood samples can be sent to the local clinics for pick up or in extreme cases the patient can come to the clinic in person for examination."
"I donít think I would want to do much work on infected blood in this setting." Shiroma frowned. "There are no facilities for handling highly contagious substances."
"Mostly only the paperwork and routine blood testing is done aboard ship. Anything more dangerous is handled at the clinics. Cruise ships are an enclosed environment, the risk of something getting loose is too great to take chances."
"I must say." Marcase waved his hand to indicate the room at large. " This is not exactly what I expected."
"The SEA STAR is unique. Dr. Bartlett wanted a team such as yourself to be able to come in here and find everything they would need to handle an outbreak or epidemic at sea."
"Well," Shiroma smiled. "I think he succeeded."
Giovanni looked pleased. "If youíre ready Iíll show you to your cabins."
As they followed the officer down the narrow corridor Marcase thought of another question for their guide. "What type of staff do you normally run? Our briefing didnít mention if any of the regular medical staff would be on board this cruise."
"Presently we have one nurse, Gail Bennett, and Dr. Landis. The doc is attending a conference and Gail is out with the flu. Dr. Cassianís call could not have come at a better time. Oh, I almost forgot. We have pagers for you both. Itís not necessary for you to stay locked away in sickbay. An officer will page you if an emergency arises or if a passenger needs medical care. We usually try to treat the passenger in their cabins when possible. When you receive a page go to the area indicated and a crewmember will meet you there with the portable med kit."
"Very efficient." Shiroma was not only impressed but also relieved. She had not been looking forward to spending a twelve-hour shift stuck in sickbay.
"We try. Now Iím sure youíd like to get settled in. There will be a buffet set up for crew at seven on The Lobby deck."
"I take it dress is informal." Marcase indicated his current attire.
"Yes, we donít bring out the fancy duds until the passengers arrive. Here we go Dr. Shiroma. Youíre in Gailís cabin. Dr. Marcase youíre two doors down in Dr. Landisís cabin. Mr. Dalton has the middle cabin. Now if youíll excuse me I have to leave you now. Iíll see you both upstairs at seven."
As the officer left to carry out his duties Marcase and Shiroma entered their cabins to begin unpacking. Marcase had to admit that the SEA STAR was an interesting ship and this assignment didnít appear to be the dull duty he had feared. Yet for some reason he could not shake the feeling of unease that plagued him. His instincts were telling him trouble was near. He hoped he was wrong.
Cassian looked up as a small metal object plopped onto the desktop in front of him. Picking up the object he gave it only a cursory glance before turning his attention to the weary man lowering himself into the chair before his desk. Without preamble Michael Hailey got down to business. "Weíve got a major problem. When the demolition boys tore apart the bombs left in Marcase and Shiromaís apartments they found that."
"And this would be?"
"Part of a triggering mechanismÖVery high techÖItís custom work, sort of a signature. Whoever he is our boy has passed the expert stage, weíre talking artist here. "
"Why do I get the feeling thatís not the worst?"
"Maybe because itís not. I made the rounds of the mercenary hangouts and checked with my military and intelligence sources. The signature matches the MO of a mercenary, code-name The Phantom. Unfortunately thatís about all anyone seems to know about him. Heís a real ghost. Even his employers never see him. He uses drop boxes and email to do business, no personal contacts whatsoever."
"There has to be a record of him somewhere. Skills like his have to be learned. Whether he was taught by the military, an intelligence agency or a terrorist group, this guy wasnít born a bomb expert. Someone made him one."
"Iím sure someone did but whoever they are, they arenít talking, at least not to me. The CIA did admit to having heard of him but they deny any contact with him."
"You donít believe them?"
Hailey shook his head. "Letís just say my gut tells me otherwise."
"OK, Michael. Get some rest Iíll see what I can do."
As Hailey left to get some much needed sleep. Cassian made a quick phone call. Ten minutes later he was on his way to rendezvous with someone who he hoped could shed some light on the mysterious Phantom.
Frank Dalton sat before his laptop in the Security Office typing furiously. The SEA STARís security staff had been a pleasant surprise. Headed by an ex-SEAL, security was run with clockwork precision. Once he had explained his reason for being here, Bob Fraser, the Security Chief, had been friendly and helpful. He had supplied Frank with complete crew and passenger manifests. Pushing a button on the keypad Frank began the process of running the lists through the federal database. By morning he would know if anyone among the crew or passengers were something other than the honest upright citizens they claimed to be. Tomorrow he had arranged to take photos of the embarking passengers with a miniature digital camera that would be hidden across from the boarding ramp. By cross-checking the photos against those obtained from passport registrations, federal records and the DMV he would soon know if all of the passengers and crew were who they claimed to be. Satisfied that he had done all he could for now. Frank went in search of his charges. Knowing Marcaseís propensity for finding trouble he wanted to be nearbyÖjust in case.
The small park was deserted at this time of day. Cassian checked his watch. His contact was late. He was just about to order his driver to leave when a car pulled up along side the limo. Exiting the limo Cassian waited for the carís dark-suited driver to join him. Neither man spoke; instead they began walking away from the vehicles, deeper into the sheltering trees of the park. When they were no longer visible from the parking lot they stopped.
"So do you have what I asked for?" Cassian was the first to break the silence.
"You donít ask for small favors do you. Dan?" Cassian just stared saying nothing. "All right here." The man handed Cassian a manila folder marked Confidential and Top Secret. "If anyone asks Iíve never seen this before."
"Of course." Cassian studied the other man carefully. "Weíre even."
With a curt nod the dark-suited man turned around and headed back to his car. Slowly Cassian followed. His contact was gone by the time he reached the limo. Cassian made no move to open the folder until he was safely back at the Mansion. Dismissing the limo he went immediately to his office. Sitting down at his desk Cassian opened the folder. "Now Mr. Phantom let us see who you really are?"
Marcase and Shiroma joined the rest of the SEA STARís passengers on deck as the large ship slowly pulled away from the dock. Standing beside them Frank scanned the festive crowd. In a few hours he would know if an assassin lurked among them. Until then he was taking no chances. From the upper deck two sets of unfriendly eyes studied the trio.
"Heís getting too close." Jensen nodded toward Frank. "I hear heís running security checks on passengers and crew."
"I think itís time our guest met with an unfortunate accident." Ramsey faced his colleague. "Before he can share what he knows."
Jensen nodded. "Iíll see to it."
"Just make sure it looks like an accident. We donít need to arouse suspicion."
Nodding Jensen left to carry out his orders.
Hailey entered his bossís office to find Cassian already there deeply engrossed in a large manila file.
"Youíre up early."
"Good morning Michael. Actually I havenít been to bed." He tossed the file he had been reading across the desk to Hailey. "Take a look at this."
"Hailey picked up the file and began reading. He suddenly stopped reading and glanced up at Cassian. "How did you get this?"
"Letís just say someone owed me a favor."
Michael glanced back down at the file. "So whatís the big secret? We already knew he was an assassin."
"The Phantom is not just an assassin Michael. Heís the CIAís solver of problems, both foreignÖand domestic."
"So why would a CIA operative be targeting two doctors?"
"The Phantom is not strictly speaking a CIA operative. Heís a freelance mercenary. The CIA use him for those jobs that are too sensitive for one of their own operatives. The kind of jobs no one talks about or admits happened."
"Such as killing off a congressman or maybe one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if they are causing problems. The Phantom doesnít limit his contracts to enemies of the state."
Hailey gave a low whistle. "No wonder they didnít want to admit knowing the guy."
"Indeed, the purpose in hiring an outsider is full deniability."
"I still donít get it. Why would The Phantom or the CIA want to kill Marcase and Shiroma? I could understand if it was you but them, they are hardly experts in espionage."
Taking the folder from Hailey, Cassian turned the pages Ďtil he found the section he wanted then handed the file back to Michael. "I believe this will explain things."
Hailey dutifully read the indicated page then looked up at Cassian in disbelief. "Pagit?"
"Yes, Jacob Pagit. Philip Pagit was his younger brother."
"So this is a personal vendetta?"
"Yes, Iíve been doing some checking. All of Pagitís assets as well as Monica are missing. There has been no sign of Philip Pagit and his body was never found. The general consensus is that Philip is dead and Monica escaped with his fortune. I believe that The Phantom is here to avenge his brotherís death. We have to stop him before he succeeds."
"Easy to say harder to do. He could be anywhere."
"Find Monica. Iím sure that The Phantom would have tried to contact her. We donít have much time Michael. We have to stop Jacob Pagit before he discovers where Marcase and Shiroma are hiding."
Closing the file Hailey placed it on Cassianís desk. "Iíll do my best."
As Hailey left to begin the search for Monica, Cassian picked up the discarded file and began reading. The information in this folder was all that they knew about Jacob Pagit. Somewhere within its pages was the key to locating him and Cassian was determined to find it. Time was running out.
Shiroma dug through her makeup case until she found the small gold necklace. Clasping it around her neck she stood and checked her appearance in the cabinís mirrorÖnot bad. The black sheath dress clung to her body ending at mid thigh. The small gold necklace and small diamond stud earrings were her only adornments. Shiroma fingered the necklace. It was a small gold heart set with a diamond. She had not worn it in years. It had been a birthday present form Allen. After his death she could not bear to wear the momento although she always carried it with her. A lot had changed in the last few years. She had made piece with her demons. Now the necklace reminded her of love and joy instead of death.
Satisfied with her appearance Shiroma began transferring her id and beeper to the small black clutch that matched her outfit. Today had been their first full day at sea. So far the only medical emergency had been when a young hypoglycemic had passed out at the water slide. She had been having so much fun she had forgot to stop and eat. The rest of the day had been spent lounging by the pool and shopping. She and Marcase had been invited to dine at the Captainís table tonight. The invitation had resulted in a hasty trip to the shipís mall resulting in the dress she now wore. Neither she nor Marcase had brought anything suitable for such a formal event in their sparse luggage. Shiroma smiled as she remembered Marcase trying to find a suit that Ďdidnít make him look and feel like a stiffí. Marcase would face the deepest, darkest jungle without fear but just the mention of a suit and tie and he ran for cover. As if conjured up by her thoughts a knock sounded on her cabin door. Opening it she found her colleague waiting to escort her to dinner.
Marcase stared at the vision of loveliness that opened Shiromaís door and let out a low whistle. "Wow, Kim, that dress should be registered as a lethal weapon."
"Thank you I take that as a compliment. You donít clean up so bad yourself."
It was true the simple black suit and white linen shirt suited him. He looked stylish and comfortable. Shiroma grabbed her bag and followed her colleague from the cabin. Why was it men could look good and be comfortable? She on the other hand had to wear heelsÖuncomfortable heels at that. Watching the heads of various crewmen and guest turn to watch as she passed by Shiroma smiled, maybe having to wear heels was worth it after all.
Frank Dalton stared at the information on his computer screen and tried to decide what course of action to take. The information was disturbing but not necessarily a part of his present assignment. His investigation had unearthed some surprising results. Some of the Sea Starís crewmen were not who they claimed to be. What were a group of soldiers of fortune and smugglers doing on a cruise ship? And more importantly did it have a bearing on his mission here? Shaking his head he shut down the computer and stood. It was time to bring Bob Fraser into this. He doubted any of the men were the assassin but they could still cause trouble. His job was to insure Marcase and Shiromaís safety. Heíd feel a lot better once he knew what the infiltrators were up to. The security chief was making his rounds of the ship. He should be arriving in engineering within the next few minutes. Deciding the walk would do him good. Frank left the office and headed toward engineering.
Engineering was a huge room filled with the massive machines that moved the great ship. It was strictly off limits to anyone but engineering personnel and ship officers. A catwalk circled the room allowing movement through the area without the need of venturing into more dangerous territory. Seeing no sign of Fraser, Frank stood on the catwalk watching the ordered chaos below. Glancing at his watch he realized that Fraser was late. He had just decided to return to the security office when he sensed movement behind him. Before he could turn he felt hands grasping him. A sudden push and then he was falling toward the deadly machinery far below. He had one moment to curse his carelessness then his body impacted with a hard unyielding surface. Blinding pain engulfed his body then there was only blackness.
The quiet upscale restaurant was known for its good food and discreet staff. It was the kind of place where politicians and shadowy government officials met to plan the fate of the world. The future of more than one nation had been decided here over cocktails. All of the restaurantís employees were well trained, food and drink arrived and dirty dishes disappeared without undue fuss or conversation. Cassian came here often to escape the madness of his office and just sit in the tranquil environment and think. The staff was well acquainted with his habits. They kept his coffee cup filled and left him alone. So he was surprised and more than a little annoyed when the waiter approached with a gray suited man in tow.
"Dr. Cassian, excuse me sir but this gentleman insists that he must see you. I tried to explain that you did not wish to be disturbedÖ"
"Itís all right. Iíll see him." Dismissing the harried waiter, Cassian turned to his uninvited guest. "Want you have a seat MrÖ."
"Carter, Nathaniel Carter."
"Very well Mr. Carter, what can I do for you?"
"Rumor has it that you have been causing quiet a stir on Capitol Hill, Dr. Cassian."
"Oh?" Cassian gave an arrogant smile. "Have I now, and how does this concern you?"
"My employers are nervous. Questions are being asked, questions whose answers could be embarrassing."
"So what do your employers suggest?" The hard tone in Cassianís voice sent a chill up the agentís spine. He never wanted to run afoul of this man. Fortunately, this time they were on the same side.
"A compromise, weíve lost contact with one of our investments. I believe you are acquainted with the one I mean?" At Cassianís nod he continued. "It is imperative that the existence of this particular property not become known."
This time Cassianís smile was mocking. "So Pagit has slipped his leash and you want my help in finding him before your fellow government agencies find out what youíve been up to."
Something like thatÖhereís the deal. Pagit has been sanctioned. You have authority to kill or capture on siteÖno repercussions, no questions asked. But if you choose to bring him in alive, you turn him over to usÖno one else."
"And what do I get in this deal?"
Cassian kept his expression neutral, not betraying his surprise. "What do you know about Monica?"
"A great deal actually. After that little fiasco of yours in Mexico some damage control was called for. We made a deal with Monica. We helped her transfer Pagitís assets to a Swiss account and she smoothed the way with the Mexican government. We know where she is."
"Do we have a deal?"
"Very well Carter you have a deal."
Carter slid a thick file across the table to Cassian. "Everything we know about Pagit and Monica is in here." He stood. "Good hunting Cassian." Without another word he turned and left. Cassian watched until the agent was out of site then picked up the file. Signaling to the waiter to refill his coffee cup he opened the thick folder and started reading.
It did not take long for Marcase to remember why he loathed formal events. True to advertising the Sea Starís food was excellent, it was the company that was giving him a headache. He and Shiroma faced each other across the long dining table. He watched with some amusement and a great deal of admiration as Kim deflected the latest amorous advances from the two gentlemen seated on either side of her. Edward had to admit she was good. She refused all overtures but did so in such a way that neither man could take offense. Marcaseís attention was brought back to his own dining companions, two spinster aunts, as they once again regaled him with the virtues of their dear niece, Sarah. If he lived to be a hundred, he would never understand this driving need that matronly women had to marry him off. He was quiet capable of looking after himself, thank you very much. Yet for some reason every married female, whether she was 20 or 90, seemed to have it as their lifeís work to see him married and settled. Gathering all of his patience and tact he firmly but politely once again assured the two kindly aunts that he had no desire or intention of settling down at this time. He glanced up to find Shiroma watching him and trying to hide her amusement. In spite of himself he couldnít help sharing her humor at the situation. If their table companions knew what they really did for a living they would be heading for the hills. After all, global conspiracies and stopping the world from Armageddon were not exactly polite dinner conversation.
Marcase glanced toward the head of the table where Captain Stein engaged his guests in polite conversation. He had to admire the man. Tall with salt and pepper hair and the bearing of a soldier, he would have made one hell of a politician or maybe an ambassador. With consummate skill he kept bickering spouses apart and steered the conversation to safe waters when trouble threatened to brew. He made sure each diner was included in discussions, no one at his table would ever feel left out or overlooked. Marcase had liked the manís forthright manner. The Captain took his job seriously. If trouble raised its ugly head on the Sea Star, he had no doubt that Captain Stein would handle it. Marcase toyed with his food. The feeling of foreboding that had been plaguing him all day intensified. Something bad was going to happenÖand it was going to happen soon.
The soft beep of his pager caused a cold knot to settle in his stomach. Glancing across the table he saw Shiroma had also been called. A summons for both of them could only mean one thingÖsomeone was in big trouble.
Cassian closed the file and sat back to digest what he had learned. It was all there detailed information on the life of the woman that he knew as Monica. After Pagitís disappearance she had wasted no time in taking control of her loverís empire. Pacifying the Mexican government with bribes and payoffs sheíd carved a place for herself in that countryís power hierarchy while ingratiating herself with the CIA. And she had not stop there, a great deal of Pagitís fortune now resided in numbered Swiss accounts freeing Monica to change residence and country at will. Given the CIAís paranoia it did not come as a surprise to Cassian that the Agency had continued to keep tabs on Monica for a few months after their business dealings were concluded. The CIA loathed publicity; they would want to make sure that Monica kept her part of the bargain and her silence. The file contained detailed records of her movements and more importantly to Cassian phone logs, credit card numbers and a listing of people and contacts Monica had made since leaving Mexico. Phone listings showed a number of calls to an unlisted party in the Middle East. Pagitsís last assignment had been in that area. Cassian did not believe in coincidence. His gut told him that the two were in league. Monica had the money and she knew the targets by sight. Pagit was a skilled killer. They made a perfect team and they both had a grudge against Marcase and Shiroma. Hailey had traced Monicaís credit card to an upscale hotel here in Washington. Hopefully, he would have some answers for them soon.
Turning off his pager Marcase glanced across the table to see his concern mirrored on Shiromaís face. Projecting an outer calm he didnít feel, Marcase made their excuses to the Captain and their dining companions. Then moving as quickly as possible without drawing undue attention the two doctors made their way to the nearest exit where they were met by an agitated Giovanni.
Steering the two doctors toward the nearest stairway he filled them in on the crisis. "Thereís been an accident in engineering. Someone fell from one of the catwalks, it looks bad."
"Weíll need the trauma kit." Marcase immediately went into crisis mode mentally reviewing the supplies and equipment they would need. "Weíll also need the stretcher and back board."
"Already on itís way."
"What about secondary exits?" Shiroma was busy compiling her own list. She remembered the large turbine rooms lined with catwalks. The only access to the floor had been metal ladders running down from the catwalk. "Any way out of the room that doesnít involve ladders?"
"There is a service corridor that connects to the main hallway."
As they reached the engineering section. Giovanni opened a hatchway and led them onto a metal catwalk. Looking down they saw the still body of a man amidst the thundering machines filling the room. A large pool of blood covered the area beneath the body. Glancing around Marcase spied the metal ladder leading down. Nearby two crewmen waited with the emergency medical gear. Grabbing the medical kit Marcase slipped the carrying strap over his shoulder and started down the ladder. Shiroma paused only long enough to shed her heels before grabbing the defibrillator case and following Marcase down the ladder.
Giovanni signaled to the crewmen and they followed with the rest of the gear.
Blood streaked the sides of the nearest turbine telling the grim tale. The man had fallen from the catwalk struck the turbine then slid down its side to where he now rested. Kneeling at the manís side Marcase gasped as he recognized his patient. "My god, itís Frank."
Careful not to move the head Marcase felt for a pulse. Relief flooded through him when he felt the faint beat.
"Heís alive, pulse weak and thready. " Carefully he checked for fractures. " Blunt trauma to the head but the spine appears intact." Grabbing the cervical collar from the bag Marcase eased it around the manís neck.
Leaving the head injury to Marcase, Shiroma moved to the chest. "Multiple broken ribs, left lung is punctured, possible internal bleeding."
"His left legís fractured, looks like it nicked the artery." Marcase slapped a compression bandage over the wound to slow the bleeding. Grabbing a bag of Ringers, he inserted an IV line and turned the flow wide open. "Heís lost a lot of blood, we need to get him to sickbay now."
Removing the blood pressure cuff from Frankís arm Shiroma nodded in agreement. Glancing over at the crewmen she signaled for the backboard. With the crewmenís help they managed to get the injured man secured to the board. "BPís dropping letís go."
As the crewmen rushed the injured man to sickbay Marcase turned to Giovanni. "Contact the Coast Guard, we need an airlift to the nearest hospital." Then he was gone. Giovanni stared at the pool of blood that still stained the engine roomís floor then went in search of the Captain to arrange the airlift.
Once in sickbay Marcase and Shiroma wasted no time. By mutual agreement they had decided to work on Frank in the small surgery instead of the exam area. If the patient went sour there would be no time to move him later. With the crewmenís help they transferred the injured man to the operating table in the small surgery then went to work. Quickly they inserted an airway and began ventilation with oxygen. Monitors fed them information on heart rate, respiration and body temp. Insertion of a chest tube relieved the pressure in the chest cavity from the punctured lung and eased breathing. A second IV was started and a Foley catheter inserted. Rechecking vital signs they were relieved to find the pressure low but improved.
Rolling the portable x-ray machine over to the table, Marcase took shots of the head, chest and thigh while Shiroma began examining the head wound more closely. A deep laceration split the skin just above the left eye. Cleaning the wound Shiroma closed it with a row of neat stitches.
"Looks like you were right KimÖfour broken ribs and theyíre not clean breaks."
Shiroma studied the x-rays. "Weíre talking major internal damage here Edward. He needs immediate surgery. How long before the airlift?"
"Excuse me." The two doctors turned to find Giovanni standing at the surgery door. "We have a problem."
"What kind of problem?" Shiroma glanced at her patient. "We donít have time for problems."
"How long before the chopper gets here?" Marcase had that uneasy feeling again and with a sinking sensation in his stomach he guessed what Giovanni would say.
"At least two hours."
"What!" Shiroma was stunned. "This man doesnít have two hours, he needs immediate surgery, and he needs it now."
"Iím sorry thereís been some kind of disaster at sea. A tanker and freighter collided. All resources are tied up in the rescue attempts. Theyíll send a chopper as soon as oneís available. Iím sorry."
As the Staff Captain left Marcase and Shiroma turned to stare at their patient and friend. "Weíll have to do it ourselves, Kim. Thereís no other alternative; he wonít make it another two hours. We have to stop the bleeding."
With a reluctant nod Shiroma began to prep the patient for emergency surgery. Changing the IV bag Marcase frowned. Fluids had helped elevate Franks blood pressure but what he really needed was blood. His blood loss was too extensive to be replaced by fluids alone. They were a long way from a blood bank. He doubted Frank could survive surgery without a transfusion. Glancing over he saw the same concern in Shiromaís eyes. Giving her a reassuring smile he glanced down at Frank. "Heís a fighter Kim, heíll make it through this."
Being a pathologist and therefore the better cutter Shiroma took the chest area while Marcase concentrated on the leg wound. The left femur had snapped driving one of the jagged edges of the bone upward through the skin of the thigh, grazing the femoral artery on the way. Cleaning and debriding the wound Marcase searched the area until he felt the small rip in the artery wall. Pressing the edges of the tear together he sealed the rent with tiny stitches. Releasing the artery he studied the area for leakage. Once assured that the stitches would hold he set the bone into place and turned his attention to closing the hole in the thigh. When he had finished he splinted the wounded area then turned to help Shiroma.
While Marcase tended to the leg Shiroma tackled the lung. Opening the upper abdominal cavity she began removing bone fragments from the tissue. Removing the bone splinter from the lung and suturing the tear proved relatively minor. She had just begun the more laborious chore of exploring the body cavity when Marcase joined her. Even with two pair of hands the task was slow going. Every area of the upper abdominal cavity had to be searched. Bone fragments had to be removed and blood vessels repaired. They found damage to the liver, spleen and diaphragm but fortunately the intestines and stomach were not punctured. The internal bruising was pronounced. But the kidneys and remaining organs were intact.
"That looks like it Kim. Howís his pressure?"
Shiroma studied the monitors and frowned. "Itís still fluctuating. We must have missed something."
"OK, letís take another look just to be sure." The shrill alarm of the heart monitor cut off any further thoughts. "Heís coding!"
As Marcase began CPR, Shiroma grabbed the defibrillator paddles and hit the charge button. "Clear." Marcase backed away from the bed as Shiroma touched the fully charged paddles to Frankís chest. The body arched as the current jolted through it then fell back to the bed. Nothing.
"Again." Marcase resumed CPR while Shiroma recharged the paddles.
"Clear." Once again the body spasmed as it was hit by the powerful current, but this time they were rewarded by the sound of a faint beeping which grew in strength. Sinus rhythm.
"Too close." Marcase released the breath he had not been aware he was holding. "Heís weakening Kim. Heís lost too much blood. Heís not going to make it without a transfusion."
"Look around Edward. Blood is the one thing this ship doesnít carry."
Marcase studied the still body fighting for its life and made a decision. "If we donít get him stabilized weíre going to lose him."
"What are you doing?"
Rummaging through a drawer Marcase pulled out a transfusion set. "Getting Frank the blood he needs. Help me move that gurney over here."
Pushing the gurney next to the table Shiroma stared at Marcase in disbelief. "Edward you canít be serious, you donít even know if your blood is compatible. You could kill him."
"Stop arguing an help me. Iím type o negative, the universal donor. We just got back our monthly tests. Iím disease free that makes me the best candidate around. Iíll play blood bank, you find that bleeder."
Giving in to the inevitable Shiroma motioned for Marcase to lie down on the gurney then quickly used the transfusion set to begin transferring blood from him to Frank. "I must be out of my mind."
"Well youíre in good company. Iíll watch the monitors. You get to work, I can only do this for so long."
With a nod Shiroma began the painstaking task of rechecking the abdominal cavity. She had completed about half the process when Marcase gave her a welcome piece of news. "Pressure is stabilizing. Itís working Kim."
Shiroma didnít waste time answering but continued searching for the source of bleeding. Finally she spied it. Tucked behind the liver a small artery leaked life-giving blood. Their earlier repair work on the liver had weakened the vessel and it had finally given way. Quickly she stitched the tear closed. Suctioning out the area she searched for any sign of bleeding. Once assured that all was well, she inserted a drainage tube and closed. Done.
Verifying that Frank was stable Shiroma turned to Marcase. He was pale but gave her a broad grin. "Nice work doc."
Removing the transfusion set Shiroma returned the smile. "Youíre not so bad yourself. How do you feel?"
"Fine, IÖ" Sitting up Marcase clutched the sides of the gurney as the room tilted.
"Iím fine Kim, just moved a little too fast." He glanced over at Frank. "Howís he doing?"
"Heís stable for now. If we can get him to a hospital soon he has a chance. Thereís still the head trauma to worry about. But at least he has a chance now."
Michael Hailey took a sip of his cold coffee and sighed. This was the part of surveillance work that he hated - waiting. He was parked a few blocks from the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel where Monica was registered. The Willard was a first class hotel that catered to the rich and famous. They were especially tight lipped when it came to giving out information about one of their guests. Hailey had spent an exasperating hour waving around his official ID and making threats about national security and what happened to those who refused to cooperate before finally getting the hotel staff to admit that Monica was indeed a guest. On further questioning it was confirmed that Pagit was a frequent visitor to Monicaís suite but no one had seen him in the last two days. A search of Monicaís hotel room had revealed little. Except for a number of suitcases and a large packing crate the room contained no clues. After bugging the phone and room Hailey had retired here to wait and listen. According to the desk clerk Monica was leaving tonight. If Pagit were going to contact her it would have to be soon. This was their last chance to get a line on the slippery Phantom. If this failed it would be back to square one. Hailey had practically every cop in town out beating the bushes for Pagit, but the Phantom was a master at concealment. They needed a break badly. The ringing of a phone interrupted Haileyís musings. A few taps on his laptop and he was ready to tape and trace the call.
"Hello." Monicaís voice carried clearly through the headset.
"Itís me." The voice was male. Hailey felt a stirring of excitement. This could be it.
"I havenít heard from you lately. I was worried."
"Iíve decided to lay low for awhile. Too many people are looking for me. Iíd just as soon not make it easy for them. When are you leaving?"
"Tonight. I have a lot of arrangements to make. You will deliver the goods on time?"
"Of course. You take care of your part and Iíll take care of mine. Have a good flight Monica. Iíll see you when the moon is full."
Click. Hailey quickly typed commands into his laptop and studied the results. The call had been too short for a trace but if the new equipment workedÖyes. Hailey smiled, he didnít have the Phantoms exact location but he now knew the general area to search. Hailey gave his computer a friendly pat. Pagit would have expected the call to be traced. He had purposely kept the call short to avoid detection. But Pagit did not know about the new system that the military had been developing. Fortunately Hailey had friends in secret places and had been allowed to field test the device. Shutting down the system Hailey smiled. "Iím coming for you Pagit and this time you wonít escape."
Dr. Hodges had seen many bizarre sights during his stint as an ER doctor at Miamiís Jackson Memorial Hospital. But for all his experience the sight of a beautiful, bare-foot woman in a blood stained evening dress trailed by two Coast Guard pilots carrying a stretcher containing a critically injured man who had already had emergency surgery was enough to give him pause. He was further stunned when the beautiful lady walked up, handed him a set of x-rays and a number of pages covered in neat notes detailing the treatment the patient had received. Quickly he scanned the notes and gave a low whistle.
"This man is lucky to be alive. I take it you are either Dr. Shiroma or Marcase?"
The woman gave a tired smile. "Iím Dr. Shiroma temporarily assigned to the Sea Star."
"Welcome to Jackson Memorial Dr. Shiroma, Iím Dr. Hodges. Letís get Mr. Dalton settled and then Iím afraid you have a ton of paper work to fill out." Turning to his staff he began issuing orders. "Letís get a full blood work up stat and have them do a type and cross match as well. After that we need a complete cranial and spinal series. Call neurology for a consult and letís get him started on antibiotics."
Leaving Frank in Dr. Hodgeís capable hands Shiroma turned to thank the two coast guard pilots for their help. Assured that their services were no longer needed the two said their farewells and headed back to duty. Now that the crisis was over she felt tired. When one of the nurses suggested that she might like to change out of her ruined dress she gladly accepted. A hot shower and a clean set of scrubs went a long way toward restoring her. Now if she could only get through the paperwork.
Hospital administrations were all the same, a sea of never ending paperwork. Shiroma answered their questions as best she could and referred them to Cassianís office when she couldnít. Once released by the hospitalís administration office Shiroma returned to the ER to enter her comments into Franks chart. Again there were forms to fill out detailing her status as a doctor and her right to perform the procedures she had as well as a detailed record of those procedures. It was exhausting work.
"Excuse me Dr. Shiroma?" Looking up from her writing Shiroma saw a blond-haired man standing next to the desk, behind him stood a second dark-haired man. Checking out the dark suits and military bearing she was not surprised when the blond continued. "Iím Sam Kincaid." He nodded toward the second man. "This is my partner Dave Guthery. Dr. Marcase called the office to tell us about Frank. Dr. Cassian sent us to help."
"Nice to meet you both, Iím just sorry it has to be under such circumstances."
Shiroma smiled. "Heís holding his on. Thereís no sign of a skull fracture. Baring complications he has a good chance of recovering."
"Has he been conscious at all?"
"Only briefly. It will probably be some time before heís awake and coherent enough to make any sense. Theyíre keeping him drugged for the pain."
Sam sighed. "I was hoping he would be able to tell us what happened."
"What do you mean? He fell from a catwalk? It was an accident."
"Yes, of course." The two partners exchanged a quick glance and Shiroma had an uneasy feeling that there was more to this than they were telling her. Before she could question them on the matter Sam changed the subject. "Dr. Cassian instructed me to see that you get safely back to the Sea Star as soon as possible." Hoping to ward off the explosion he knew was coming he hurried to explain. "Dave is going to stay here and keep an eye on Frank. Cassian has a specialist on the way to take over the case; there is really no reason for you to stay. Frank will be getting the best of care. Besides, Dr. Marcase needs your help on the Star. Itís too big a job for one person."
Part of Shiroma wanted to stay until Frank was once again well but another part of her just wanted to go back to the Sea Star and sleep. Frank was in good hands and there was nothing she could do to speed his recovery. There really was no need for her to stay. If any problems arose Dave was here. He could contact Cassian and handle things. "All right Sam, you win. So just how are we going to get back to the ship? I seem to have lost my ride."
"All taken care of, we have a chartered plane standing by. Weíll be in Cozumel before the Star sails."
"Cozumel, wonderful." At Samís puzzled look Shiroma smiled. "Itís a long story. Letís just say I donít have very good memories of my last trip there. When do we leave?"
"As soon as youíre ready."
"I just have a few more notes to make. Letís say 15 minutes?"
"15 minutes it is." Leaving Shiroma to finish her charting Sam called the airport to alert them to ready the plane. Then dialed Cassianís office number.
"Kincaid. Weíre not going to be able to get anything from Dalton for a while. Guthery will stay with him. Iím accompanying Dr. Shiroma to the Sea Star. Any further word from Fraser?"
"No, whoever attacked Frank destroyed his computer and notes. Whatever he discovered is lost."
"If Frank suspected trouble he would have made a backup of his data and hidden it."
"Then it will be your job Agent Kincaid to find that data. Keep a close watch on Marcase and Shiroma we still have an assassin on the loose."
Hanging up Kincaid briefed Guthery on their orders than sat down to wait for Shiroma.
Fifteen minutes later Shiroma finished the last of her paperwork and prepared to leave. After thanking Dr. Hodges and his staff for all their help and checking on Frank one last time, she finally allowed herself to be whisked away to the airport. A few minutes later she was winging her way to sunny Cozumel.
Jacob Pagit paced the length of his dingy hotel room deep in thought. He was running out of time. The full moon was in five days time and he was still no closer to locating his prey. Maybe he was going at this the wrong way. It was obvious that Cassian was onto him and had sent his people into hiding. The question was where? Hacking into the Mansionís database had proved an exercise in futility. Whoever had set up the system was good, no question about it, he had little hope of breaching the safeguards. But maybe he didnít have to. Pagit stopped pacing as he followed the train of thought to its logical conclusion. Even top secret organizations used conventional phone lines and where there were phones there were records. Opening his laptop Pagit began a search for Cassianís phone records. It was not as easy as it sounded, the calls were bounced through fake addresses and other such blinds to obscure the true owner of the number but at last he found what he sought, a listing of all calls made to and from Daniel Cassianís office. The list was long; it seemed that Cassian was a very busy man. Starting with the most recent calls and working backwards, Pagit began the tedious task of tracking the phone numbers to their source. Two hours later he had his answer. Most of the calls were from sources that one would expect a man in Cassianís position to deal with. But two of the calls were intriguing. One was from a ship at sea and the second was from a Miami hospital. Hacking into the hospitalís database proved relatively easy. A few moments later Pagit sat back from his computer and smiled. Two nights ago the US Coast Guard had flown a patient from the cruise ship, Sea Star, to the emergency room of Miamiís Jackson Memorial Hospital. The admitting physician was listed as Dr. Kimberly Shiroma. A quick phone call to Miami verified that one Frank Dalton had been admitted and was doing well. Dr. Shiroma was no longer at the hospital having returned to her duties aboard the cruise ship, Sea Star. "Very clever Dr. Cassian, but not clever enough." Turning back to his laptop Pagit began searching for information on the Sea Star. "It wonít be long now Philip. Soon you will be free."
Shiroma looked up as Marcase dropped onto the lounge chair next to her. "I hate to admit it but Cassian might actually have been right for once. Maybe we really did need a vacation."
Seeing his relaxed posture and the humor sparkling in his eyes, Shiroma had to agree. In spite of the rocky beginning the cruise had turned out to not be so bad. The Grand Caymans had been lovely and they were due to arrive in Jamaica in a few hours. "Can I get that in writing? Edward Marcase agreeing with Cassian and admitting to needing time off, no one will believe it."
Marcase chuckled. "Come on Iím not that bad." Shiroma just raised one eyebrow and looked at him. "Ok, ok I am that bad. But Iím not the only workaholic in this group."
"Point taken. So are you and Sarah going to take in the sights?" The two matchmaking aunts had finally cornered Edward into meeting their niece, who just happened to also be on the cruise. Fortunately for Marcase Sarah had turned out to be intelligent, witty, and charming. Best of all she also had no desire to settle down. Marcase had been spending a great deal of his free time with her, much to her auntsí delight.
"No, she promised the day to the aunts, so it looks like Iím on my own. What about you, are you and Sam going ashore?"
After returning to the Sea Star Sam Kincaid had taken over Frankís job as security consultant and unofficial watchdog of the two doctors. Much to her surprise Shiroma had found herself liking the agent and the two had become good friends. He still wouldnít tell her why he was really here but he was funny and charming and she had found herself enjoying his company in spite of the secrets. Shiroma shook her head. "Not this time, he has to work."
"Looks like weíre both on our own. So what do you say want to tour the lovely isle of Jamaica with me Dr. Shiroma?"
Kimberly smiled. "Sounds like fun. Maybe we can find a present of two for Cassian and Hailey."
"That only seems fair since they are responsible for sending us to this lovely paradise." Marcase rose languidly to his feet and stretched. "Iíll let the bosses know weíre both going ashore. Meet you at the purserís desk after docking, donít forget your beeper."
Shiroma checked her watch she still had a couple of hours before she needed to go and change. Snuggling deeper into her chair she let the warmth of the sun leach all the energy from her body. Yes, she could definitely get use to this.
The Sea Star docked right on schedule and her passengers disembarked for a day of fun and adventure. Dirk Ramsey scribbled his name at the bottom of the disembarkation list and made his way down the gangplank. A few minutes later Jenkins joined him. Without a word the two men headed for a waterside café favored by the local fishermen. Grabbing a beer the two men settled at a table toward the back of the room. A few moments later a third man approached the table and sat down.
"You have the goods?" The man kept his voice low.
"As requested. The money?"
"Transferred to your Swiss account, as usual."
"Excellent." Ramsey reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, which he handed to the man. "These are the drop coordinates. Make sure you give us time to clear the area before moving in. "
"Of course." Placing the slip of paper in his pocket the man rose and left.
Their business concluded, Ramsey and Jenkins finished their beers and returned to the ship. Everything was going according to plan. Daltonís accident had raised suspicions but that was all Kincaid and Fraser had Ėsuspicions. Without Daltonís information they would never figure out what was going on until it was too late. By the time they uncovered the truth Ramsey and his people would be long gone.
Ocho Rios was one of the most picturesque cities on Jamaica. From the coral beaches bordering the blue Caribbean waters to the 600 ft water fall at Dunnís River Falls the area held a treasure of natural wonders just waiting to be explored. It was rare that Marcase and Shiroma found themselves free from responsibility. Both of them were use to being on the front line where lives hung on their actions. A day free from those cares and responsibilities was precious and they both determined to make the most of it. After touring the lush botanical gardens at Shaw Park Gardens they sampled the islands cuisine at a popular restaurant then Shiroma announced it was time to go shopping. For the next two hours they browsed the many shopping areas of the city stocking up on Blue Mountain coffee and picking up a bottle of Jamaican rum for Cassian and a couple of Reggae music CDs for Hailey as well as other things. They were on their way back to the ship to drop off their purchases before heading out to the green Grotto, a subterranean lake a few miles outside the city, when Marcase heard someone call his name.
"Did you hear that?" At Shiromaís nod they both began looking around for the source of the call.
"There." Shiroma pointed to where a tall Jamaican man was hurrying toward them. "Do you know him?"
"Iím not sure." As the man drew closer Marcase was finally able to put a name to the face. "Henry? Henry Parker?"
The man had reached them by now and broke into a broad smile. "In the flesh mon, itís good to see you Edward. "
"Kim Iíd like you to meet Henry Parker, heís in charge of keeping track of any outbreaks that may occur on the island. Henry this is Dr. Kimberly Shiroma, a colleague of mine."
"A pleasure Dr. Shiroma. So what brings the two of you to these parts? Is there something I should know about?"
"No, Kim and I are temporarily serving aboard the Sea Star." Marcase studied his old friend closely. "Whatís up Henry, you didnít chase us across the square to ask about our vacation."
All pretense of levity disappeared from Henryís face. "I need your help." He glanced around at the crowded street. "Not here letís go somewhere a little less public."
Marcase glanced over at Shiroma then without another word they turned and followed Henry. The vacation was over.
At Haileyís signal the six-man assault team moved into position. The dingy four-story hotel was not the kind you would let your mother stay in but according to his sources it had been Pagitís home for the last two days. Stationing a man to watch each side of the building Hailey and the remaining two SEALs entered the hotelís shabby lobby and made their way to the stairs. According to the desk clerk Pagit was staying on the fourth floor and was currently in his room. The three men silently approached the room weapons at ready. Hailey was under no illusions. Pagit was a trained agent, one of the CIAís best. He was both smart and dangerous. There would be no room for error. Checking to make sure everyone was in position Hailey gave the signal. Within secondís the hotel room door was kicked open and the three SEALs were in the room. Moving in unison they quickly canvassed the room for any sign of their quarry. The clothes scattered across the bed, a cup of coffee still steaming resting on the nightstand and the unplugged phone told Hailey all he needed to know. Pagit had left in a hurry and not long ago.
"All posts check in. The bird has flown."
Hailey listened as posts one, two and four gave the all clear. "Post three report." Silence. "McBride come in."
A low moan sounded over the headset. "McBrideÖthe bastard jumped me from behind. I never saw him coming."
"All right get back to the van. The rest of your check the area. Heís probably long gone but check it anyway."
Leaving his men to carry out the search Hailey turned his attention back to the room. Pagit had been forced to leave unexpectedly maybe just maybe he had left a clue behind.
"Sir," One of the SEALs picked up a small monitor from the floor beside the bed. "Take a look at this."
Glancing at the monitor Hailey swore as he saw the image displayed on its screen. There for all to see was a perfect view of the hotelís lobby. "Well that explains how he knew we were coming. Heís got the place wired."
Setting the monitor on the floor Hailey turned his attention to the two crumpled bits of paper resting on the bottom of the roomís metal trashcan. Thankfully, Pagit had not had time to burn the scraps before making his escape. A telephone number had been hastily scribbled on one of the pages. Plugging in the telephone Hailey dialed the number.
"Jackson Memorial Hospital, how may I help you?" The switchboard operatorís cheerful voice confirmed Haileyís fears. Telling the operator that he had the wrong number he hung up the phone and reached for the second scrap of paper. In the same messy handwriting was a listing of a shipís itinerary and at the bottom of the page were the two words Hailey least wanted to see Ė Sea Star. Pagit had found his targets.
The taxi ride to the Sea Starís berth was mercifully brief. Henry had refused to say anything more about his problem during the short ride. After signing in with the deck watch and obtaining clearance for Henry the three retired to the privacy of sickbay. Once safely behind closed doors Marcase could no longer contain his impatience. "All right Henry whatís going on? Why all the cloak and dagger?"
Henry smiled. Marcase had changed little since he had last seen him. He could be as patient as Job when dealing with his patients but he hated being kept in the dark and had no tolerance for bureaucratic red tape and feet dragging. "I came to Ocho Rios hoping to find Dr. Landis instead I found you. A most fortuitous event as it turns out. I am badly in need of your particular expertise Edward." Reaching into his shirt pocket Henry pulled out a Polaroid snapshot and handed it to Marcase. "I think this will explain things."
Marcase stared at the photo for a moment then handed it to Shiroma. "Haemorrhagic fever, I can see why you wanted to keep this quiet. Do you know the strain?"
"Not yet, this photo was sent to me by a Dr. Farrow in Ewarton. One of the big bauxite mining companies runs a small clinic there. A few days ago this man reported to the company clinic with a high fever and sore throat. The doctor thought it was just a bad case of flu and prescribed the usual bed rest and fluids. When he continued to worsen malaria was suspected. It wasnít until he went into convulsions and started hemorrhaging that they began to suspect the truth. Since then nine other workers have reported to the clinic with similar symptoms. Dr. Farrow is afraid he has an epidemic on his hands and so do I."
"What steps have been taken to contain the disease?" Shiroma handed the photo back to Henry. "Have you determined the vector of transmission?"
"The Ministry wants to pretend nothing is amiss and the mining company is trying to suppress the news of the outbreak." Henry shook his head in frustration. "They believe if they do nothing everything will just go away."
"Thatís insane," Shiroma couldnít believe what she was hearing. "They canít just let an outbreak go unchecked. You have to contact the CDC. If this is haemorrhagic fever it has to be contained immediately."
"I agree." Henry glanced at Marcase. "But itís not that simple. The Ministry wants no outside involvement. The risk of panic is too great. If word of this leaks out the tourist trade will plummet and all exports could be frozen. The consequences would be financial ruin for the island. We have to handle this carefully."
"But the longer the disease is left unchecked the higher the infection rate." Shiroma glanced at Marcase. "There must be some way to force the Ministry to act."
"I believe thatís why Henryís here." Marcase smiled. "You need someone to scare the Ministry and the mining executives into giving you the authority to act."
Henry nodded. "Haemorrhagic fever is out of my league. Itís virtually unknown in the islands. We have no one with the expertise to handle the crisis. I came here to enlist Dr. Landisís help." He smiled. "But youíll do nicely I think."
"Thank you for the vote of confidence." Marcase turned to Shiroma. "I have to try and help. If I canít convince the Ministry to call in the CDC, I can at least organize the medical community and stop the spread of the disease. Can you take care of things here for a few days?"
"Are you sure you wonít need my help?"
"Iíd love your help but someone has to stay with the Sea Star. We canít leave her without medical personnel."
"All right, Iíll stay here." Shiroma smiled. "But keep me posted. If the Ministry refuses to cooperate, Iíll give Cassian a call. Maybe he can make them see reason."
"Now thereís a thought." Marcase turned to Henry. "Looks like youíve got yourself a virologist."
At 5 PM the Sea Star set sail minus one doctor. The passengers had all trudged back to the ship exhausted but happy from a day of shopping and sightseeing. Shiroma made the rounds treating the usual mixture of sunburn, headache, and the occasional case of Montezumaís revenge. Tomorrow would be spent at sea giving the passengers a chance to rest and recover before putting in to St. Thomas the next day. The crew bustled about making sure everything was ready to entertain their guests. On the lower decks supplies were tallied and the extra stock brought aboard at the last stop was stowed away. During the shuffling of containers a crate atop one of the supply stacks tilted and crashed to the deck. Fearing the worst it was hurriedly inspected for damage. The wood on one corner was cracked but otherwise it appeared to be intact. Fortunately the crate contained paper products and not something more fragile. Returning the crate to its place the crewmen finished stowing the supplies. Satisfied that all was secure they left the compartment and headed for their next assignment. Behind them a white mist began to seep from the damaged crate and drifted upward toward the ventilation ducts above.
Marcase found the clinic at Ewarton to be small but well staffed. Dr. Farrow welcomed the help and gave him full access to his patients and records. It did not take him long to confirm his worst fears. Marcase put down the chart and sighed. Dr. Farrow and Henry watched him expectantly. "No question about it. Itís Lassa Fever."
"I had hoped we were wrong." Henry studied the empty coffee cup in front of him for a few moments as the implications of Edwardís pronouncement sunk in.
"So just how much trouble are we in?" Dr. Farrow looked from Henry to Marcase. "Whatís the prognosis."
"Not good but not as bad as it could be. Fatality rate is about forty percent. The highest rates among those ages 15 to 29 years of age. The good news is that ribavirin can greatly increase the odds of survival and can deter the spread of the disease. We need to start treatment of all known cases with ribavirin immediately and start inoculating those who have been exposed. Quarantine of infected persons should be implemented immediately. Lassa is spread through bodily contact. All nursing staff should wear full barrier protection. "
"Iíll instruct the staff." Farrow nodded. "What else do you need?"
"As much information as you can get on our Patient X."
"Dan Parway, " Farrow glanced at Henry. "The man whose picture I sent you?"
"Yes," Marcase nodded. " Heís the first reported death and therefore most likely the source of the infection. I need to know where heís been and who heís had contact with. Once we know that weíll know who to treat and how wide spread the outbreak is." He turned to Henry. "In the meantime I need you to round up all the ribavirin you can lay your hands on. We may end up having to inoculate this whole parish."
"I doubt there is that much of the drug on the island."
"Then contact the CDC and the WHO. They can have a shipment here within 24 hours."
"Thatís not my call, Edward. I canít make those kind of decisions."
"Then put me in touch with those who can. If we donít stop this now weíre going to be looking at a lot of dead people. That wonít be very good for tourism."
"Iíll see what I can do."
As Henry left to arrange a meeting with the Ministry and mine officials Marcase and Farrow set out to learn all they could about Parway. The news was not very good. Dan Parway, his three brothers and their families had just returned from visiting relatives in Sierra Leone, an area known for its high incidence of Lassa Fever. The brothers all lived and worked in the parish of St. Catherine. Dan worked at the alumina plant in Ewarton. The other three were scattered across the parish. One worked in the local sugar factory, one the textile mill and the third in the citrus processing factory. All had close contact with co-workers and their children all attended school. Two of the wives also worked. Dr. Farrow put the word out to the other doctors and clinics in the parish. Soon reports started coming in of other cases. It was confirmed they had a full scale Lassa Fever epidemic on their hands.
Marcase met with a panel consisting of officials from the Ministry of Health and the local manufacturing companies and informed them of the situation. At first they refused to believe, then came the fear. "Dr. Marcase in lieu of your expertise in this matter we have no choice but to accept your claims. But you must realize our position. In going to outside sources for aide we risk wide spread panic."
"And if you donít act now you are going to have a lot of dead citizens and it doesnít end there. Let me be clear Mr. Chairman. Lassa fever is a killer. And the death is not a pleasant one. Itís slow and itís painful. Let me tell you a story. One day you wake up with a headache, youíre running a fever and your throat is sore. You think you have the flu. You try to shrug it off but it doesnít go away, in fact as time progresses you start to get worse. Your headache becomes almost unbearable and you donít have the energy to get out of bed. But lying down gives you no relief from the pain. By now it feels like every cell in your body is hurting. Fever is your constant companion. Youíre chilled one minute and burning hot the next. As the days pass your temperature starts to climb and the pain gets even worse. Your temperature rises to 107; youíre literally burning up from within. Youíre thirsty but itís impossible to get anything past the pain in your throat. Now you also have to deal with vomiting and diarrhea. Then your world goes silent as the virus renders you totally deaf. Next you start to convulse and blood begins pouring from every orifice in your body. Only then do you die. And if you are one of the lucky oneís to live through this you will be deaf for life. So gentlemen what kind of response do you think you are going to get when the people of St. Catherineís parish start seeing this happen to their neighbors, their familiesÖtheir children. You can stop this. You can keep the disease from spreading and greatly increase the chance of survival but not without ribavirin."
The officials were silent then the owner of the local bauxite mine spoke up. "How much of this drug do you need doctor and where do I get it?"
The Chairman glanced at the miner then gave in to the inevitable. "That wonít be necessary. Iíll contact the WHO and the CDC. They will have a response team and the drug here within 24 hours. Until then weíll start dispensing what stock we have." He turned to Marcase. "Dr. Marcase we would appreciate it if you would coordinate the handling of the epidemic until the response team arrives."
"Iíll need full authority to institute quarantine and track the outbreak."
The Chairman glanced around the table. Receiving agreement from all those present he turned to Marcase. "You have it. This meeting is adjourned."
A few moments later Henry picked Marcase up and they headed back to the clinic. "Well?"
Marcase smiled. "We have full authority to do whatever is necessary to contain the outbreak. There will be an Epi response team arriving tomorrow with a supply of ribavirin. Until then weíre to start dispensing what we have."
Henry stared at his friend in amazement. "You are a miracle worker. How on earth did you get them to cooperate?"
Marcase shrugged. "I just told them a little story."
Whatever Marcase had told the board was more than a story but Henry decided to it drop for now. It was enough that they had won.
Michael Hailey was frustrated. The elusive Phantom was living up to his name. After leaving his hotel Pagit had simply vanished. He had men covering the bus depots, train stations, airports and every other exit from the city he could think of. He had scores of men combing the area from top to bottom but there was still no sign of Pagit. It was as if the man had never existed and it was beginning to tick him off.
"Relax Michael." Cassian looked up from the report he was reading to watch as Hailey made another turn across the floor. "Wearing a hole in my floor will not help us locate Pagit."
Michael stopped pacing and dropped wearily into the chair in front of Cassianís desk. "Yeah, well nothing else seems to be helping."
"Maybe weíre going about this the wrong way." Cassian leaned back in his chair. "Finding Pagit isnít the issue, keeping Marcase and Shiroma away from him is."
"But he knows where they are."
"True but knowing where they are and getting them into his possession are two very different things." Cassian smiled at Haileyís puzzled look. "When this all began Pagit wanted Marcase and Shiroma dead. But something has changed that. He now has a different agenda."
"I believe so. For some reason Monica wants Marcase and Shiroma alive. Pagit must secure them and deliver them to her before the next full moon. Itís time to change our tactics accordingly. We donít have to find Pagit; heíll come to us. I want blanket coverage on Marcase and Shiroma and a strike team ready to raid the Pagit compound just in case."
"What about clearance? The government wonít exactly look kindly on our incursion into a foreign country."
"Leave the government to me. Just have your people ready to go and get a team to the Sea Star. Sit on them if you have to but make sure you keep Marcase and Shiroma out of Pagitís hands."
As Hailey stood and left to carry out his orders, Cassian reached for the phone. It was time to call in a few markers.
Dr. Farrow walked down the halls of his overcrowded clinic and marveled at how quickly things had changed. Thirty six hours ago he had been the operator of a small clinic trying desperately to find out what was wrong with his patients. Now his clinic was the bio-crisis management center for the entire parish. And he had one man to thank for bringing such chaos to his orderly world Ė Edward Marcase. After receiving approval from the Ministry of Health Marcase and Henry had wasted no time in rally the medical community. Quarantines were established parish wide. The local authorities were briefed and sent door to door informing the community of the outbreak and giving detailed information and instructions concerning the diseaseís symptoms and what to do if they manifested. Marcase personally visited every hospital and clinic in the parish briefing the staff and outlining treatment protocols. Ribavirin was distributed to the centers treating the disease along with detailed instructions on how and to whom it should be given. The local factories, schools and churches were enlisted to help keep an eye out for possible infections. They reinforced the warnings given by the authorities and encouraged their people to comply. Agents from Henryís office were stationed in every clinic, hospital, and quarantine center. They collected as much information as possible from those infected with the disease and transmitted it back here where Marcase and Henry tried to determine the pattern of infection. Farrow had never realized how complicated tracking a disease outbreak could be until he saw all the graphs and charts. Not to mention the maps marked with tiny red circles and colored lines that Marcase had tacked up on the wall. So far they had over two hundred and twenty three diagnosed cases of Lassa fever in the parish and it wasnít going to stop there. It was a waiting game. Who among those exposed would be the next to fall? Marcase had assured them that the ribavirin would help. Those exposed but not yet sick and those in the early stages of the disease could be saved by the drug. Reaching into his pocket Farrow pulled out a sheet of paper. According to this message the response team would be here by 0800 with supplies. Quickening his step he hurried to tell the others the good news.
He found the object of his thoughts in the ward. Whenever Marcase had a spare moment or more likely when he could no longer stand staring at the mound of papers on his desk or answering one more phone call he would make his way here. The patients found his presence soothing. He connected with them in a way that Farrow found fascinating. It was almost as if he knew what they were going through. Presently Marcase was sitting in a chair beside the bed of a six-year old girl. He was slumped back in the chair with his head resting against the wall fast asleep. Farrow smiled even asleep he held the little girlís tiny hand in his gloved one. The nursing staff carefully avoided disturbing the young doctor. More than one paused to stare at the pair and smile. In the past thirty- six hours Farrow doubted that Marcase had slept at all. In fact if not for himself and Henry he doubted that the man would have taken the time to eat either. He always seemed to be on the move. He glanced at the paper in his hand and back at the peacefully sleeping virologist. It could wait. Turning Farrow left the ward as quietly as he had entered.
Fifteen minutes later Marcase started awake and tried to remember where he was. Shaking the sleep from his mind he rose and stretched the kinks from his neck. Checking his watch he saw that and hour had passed. He had not meant to fall asleep. Bending over the bed he quickly checked the little girl. Satisfied that all was well he nodded to the nurses and left the ward heading for the mound of work waiting for him.
Bright light spilled from the Sea Star as she sailed through the black night. Deep in the bowls of the ship a clandestine meeting was underway. While most of the passengers and crew were safely tucked away in their cabins dreaming of tropical islands, a few hearty souls were still dancing the night away in the shipís clubs or busy feeding the slots in the casino. But for the seven men clustered near the rear loading hatch the night was not for sleep or fun but was a time for more sinister deeds.
Ramsey glanced at the eleven crates stacked neatly on the floor and frowned. "Whereís the other crate. There were supposed to be twelve. Oneís missing."
"These were the only ones with the mark." Jenkins walked over to stand beside his boss. "Iíve sent someone to search the storage rooms again, itíll turn up."
"It had better. That crateís worth a lot of money and the people weíre dealing with have a low tolerance for failure." Ramsey checked his watch. "We should be nearing the drop zone. Letís get these ready to go."
Following instructions the men began attaching buoys and transponders to the crates. Each crate was a marvel of engineering design. The twelve boxes had come aboard as parts of the supply crates. They had remained in the shipís stores unknown and undetected until now. A few simple maneuvers had separated the boxes from their parent crate leaving no one the wiser. Each box was watertight and designed to float. In another hour they would be at the drop coordinates. While Ramsey distracted the bridge crew Jenkins would open the hatch and toss out the crates. After the Sea Star cleared the area their buyer would simply move in and fish their merchandise out of the briny blue. The plan was simple and elegant. Ramsey looked at the eleven crates and frowned. Their buyers were expecting twelve crates of weapons and electronics; they were not the kind of people you crossed. A noise at the door signaled the return of the two men sent to search the stores. Ramsey felt some of the tension leave him as he saw they carried a wooden crate between them. His relief was short lived as he noticed the corner of the box was damaged.
"What the hell happened? I told you to handle these carefully."
"We did boss." One of the men looked worriedly at Ramsey. "It was like this when we found it. It had fallen off one of the stacks."
"OK, letís get it open and check the merchandise." Thankful to escape their bossís wrath the two men quickly opened the crate. Five metallic cylinders nestled securely inside. One by one Ramsey lifted the cylinders from their nest and carefully checked them for damage. The first four appeared undamaged by their tumble but the fifthÖRamsey hefted the cylinder in his hands and frowned. It was light. Then he noticed the valve to the tank had loosened. "Oh my god." He looked from the damaged tank to the rest of his team. "Itís empty."
The faces of the six men turned ashen at his words. They stared at the small cylinder, the same thought running through their heads, they were all dead men.
Hailey entered Cassianís office to find his boss deep in conversation with a late night caller. He was just about to turn around and leave when Cassian waved him in. "Yes sir, I understand sir. Weíre always glad to lend a hand. Yes, Iíll be sure to give him your best." Hanging up the phone Cassian stared at the instrument for a moment then looked up at Hailey. "That was the Inspector General of the WHO. He was calling to thank us for our help."
"And just what help might that be?"
"Glad you asked. It seems that there has been an outbreak of Lassa Fever on Jamaica. It was fortunate that Dr. Marcase was on hand to pinch hit until a response team could be summoned. The Inspector General just called to assure me heíll have a team on the island tomorrow morning and apologizes for tying up my people."
"Well that explains the message I just received from Sam. He called to inform me that the Sea Star sailed with only one doctor aboard. He feels itís his fault for not keeping better track of Marcase. No one bothered to clue him in on the change in plans. He didnít even know Marcase was missing until a few hours ago. Shiroma never bothered to tell him what was going on."
"Iím not surprised. They have no idea the danger theyíre in. It would never occur to them to report a medical matter to security. Marcase was only doing his job, whatís to report? No, this is not Kincaidís fault. The only way he would have been able to keep Marcase away from that outbreak would be to shoot him. And as exasperating as Edward can be I wouldnít recommend he try that approach." Cassian shook his head. "I donít know how he does it. I send him to paradise and he manages to find a serpent."
"So what do we do now?"
"I think itís time to come clean. Iíll be accompanying your and your team. Weíll fly out tonight. Both the Sea Star and Marcase should be arriving in St. Thomas tomorrow. Itís time to let everyone know whatís really going on."
Hailey nodded in agreement. "Itíll be a lot easier to protect them if they cooperate."
While Cassian handled the necessary travel arrangements, Hailey went to alert his team. He had hand chosen the men. Whether it was guard duty or search and rescue they would be ready. Pagit was still out there and heíd feel a lot better when both Marcase and Shiroma were safely under lock and key."
Marcase stepped from the plane and shielded his eyes from the tropical sun. Having no luggage, in fact the clothes he was currently wearing were not even his own but borrowed from Henry, he bypassed the baggage claim and headed for the front of the airport. Checking his watch he noted that the Sea Star should have docked here in St. Thomas a few hours ago. Good, heíd catch a taxi to the docks and spend a relaxing day onboard before having to worry about the shipís passengers. As he neared the front of the airport Marcase noticed a small group of people standing near the doors holding cardboard signs. Drivers from the local limo companies and other establishments here to pick up their fares. He envied the lucky passengers who would be spared the necessity of scrounging for a cab. He was almost through the doors when the sight of his name on one of the placards registered. Reversing his steps he approached the driver.
"Iím Marcase. I wasnít expecting to be met."
The driver glanced from the small photograph concealed in his left hand to Marcase. Satisfied that this was indeed the man he had been sent to collect he pocketed the photo and smiled. "Welcome to St. Thomas Dr. Marcase. Iím Raoul, I need you to come with me please."
"Is there a problem?"
Raoul glanced around the busy airport. "Letís not discuss it here. If youíll follow me please?"
Puzzled Marcase followed Raoul to a battered jeep parked out front. His confusion grew as he noticed the government plates on the vehicle. "Just what is this all about?"
"My superiors would like your help with a little problem we have. Iím not at liberty to say more at this time." He pointed to the jeep. "If you will come with me everything will be explained."
With a weary sigh Marcase settled himself in the jeepĎs passenger seatÖso much for relaxing. No matter where in the world you went bureaucracy was always the same. They always wanted your help but they never wanted to tell you anything. Resigned to the inevitable he settled back and tried to control his impatience.
Thankful that his passenger was, at least for the moment, cooperating, Raoul started the jeep and began to deftly maneuver them through the crowded streets of St. Thomas. A few moments later Marcase was surprised to notice that they were heading for the docks. For some reason the sight of the docks filled him with a sense of unease. By the time the jeep pulled up in front of the building housing the Port Authorities Marcaseís feeling of unease had blossomed into full blown dread. There was only one reason for the port authorities to bring him hereÖsomething had happened aboard the Star. Following Raoul Marcase entered the building and stepped into chaos. The front office was filled with people. Some were on phones or radios while others were busy entering data into computers or scrutinizing printouts from those same computers. Marcase followed Raoul through the office to a large conference room. Stepping inside the room Marcase was surprised to see two familiar figures seated at a large table studying a map.
"Ah Edward, good youíre here." Daniel Cassian looked up from the map and motioned Marcase toward the vacant chair to his right. "We seem to have a slight dilemma on our hands."
Shaking off his surprise Marcase moved toward the table. "What kind of dilemma?"
"Well we seem to have misplaced a cruise shipÖthe Sea Star is missing."
"Missing?" Marcase sank into the proffered chair as Cassian's words registered. "How do you misplace a cruise ship?"
"We're not exactly sure what happened." Cassian pointed to a spot on the map in front of him. "They left Jamaica on schedule. All ship's complement were present and accounted for, "He gave Marcase a pointed stare, "Except for one wayward doctor." He turned his attention back to the map. "A few hours later a fishing trawler spotted them here." He tapped another spot on the map. "They were on course and all contact between the two vessels was normal. That was the last anyone has seen or heard from them."
"Something that big just doesn't drop off the face of the earth." Marcase stared at the map trying to assimilate this unexpected turn of events. "Surely someone must have seen them?"
"It's a big ocean." Hailey studied the map and frowned. "Lot's of room to get lost in or to hide."
Marcase glanced from Cassian to Hailey. "You think the ship's been hijacked?
Hailey shrugged. "It seems the most likely scenario. Two thousand hostages would make a good bargaining chip."
"Have there been any demands?"
Cassian shook his head. "None."
"It doesn't make any sense. Why kidnap a ship then make no demands?"
"Edward we're not even sure at this point that it is a hijacking." Cassian leaned back in his chair and studied the virologist. "Any number of things could have happened. Major mechanical failure or even some type of chemical or biological outbreak could account for them losing contact. Speculation at this time is pointless. There is a fleet of helicopters and boats out combing the area for them now. Until they find something all we can do is wait." He studied Marcase closely. "I suggest in the mean time you try to get some rest. You look like hell."
"I'm fine and sleep is the last thing on my mind. I'll rest after we find the Star."
"Edward," Hailey placed a hand on Marcase's shoulder. "We're worried about Kim too but exhausting yourself won't help us find her any sooner. When the Star is located I'll be taking a team aboard. I can't afford to have anyone along who's less than a hundred percent. We have no idea what we'll be facing. Try to get some rest. If we find something you'll be the first to know."
Cassian nodded. "I promise we won't make a move without you."
Giving in to the inevitable Marcase agreed. "OK, you win, but I'm not promising I'll sleep."
"Fair enough." Cassian bit back a smile as he watched the weary virologist follow Hailey from the room. Despite his protest Cassian had no doubt that Marcase would be asleep as soon as he was horizontal. From the reports he had received the doctor had been up for over forty-eight hours straight. He would have need of Marcase when the Sea Star was found. In spite of what he had told Marcase, Cassian did not believe that simple mechanical breakdown accounted for the ship's disappearance. No he feared something much more sinister was at work. The sooner they found the SEA STAR the sooner they would have their answers. He was responsible for Shiroma being in this mess. He would never forgive himself if she were harmed.
Marcase woke to the smell of coffee. Dragging open his eyes he pulled himself into a sitting position and gladly took the cup Hailey handed him. The strong coffee did a lot to clear his muddled thoughts. He had laid down on the couch in one of the back offices intending to rest only for a short while to placate Cassian. Instead he had almost immediately fallen into a restless sleep. His dreams had been filled with images of the passengers and crew of the Sea Star. Only these were not the happy, fun-loving people he remembered. Rage marred their features and violence surrounded them. He shuddered as an image of Shiroma her beautiful face twisted by hatred flashed in his mind. Taking a sip of the hot coffee Marcase struggled to banish the dreams and bring his mind to full wakefulness. Stretching the kinks out of his back he had to admit that he did feel better. Despite the dreams the sleep had done him good. Taking another sip of coffee he was finally able to focus his attention on Hailey. "Thanks for the coffee. Any word on the Star?"
"Word just came in. One of the choppers has sighted her. Cassian wants us in the conference room."
Dreams forgotten Marcase stood and quickly followed Hailey from the room. Finally they would get some answers. 'Hang on Kim,' Marcase thought silently, 'We're coming.'
While Hailey had been waking Marcase, Cassian had requisitioned a TV-VCR setup from the office staff. As Marcase and Hailey took their places at the table he leaned forward and started the tape. "One of the search choppers located the Star about an hour ago. They brought back this tape of their encounter. I think you'll find it interesting."
On the screen a shot of the Sea Star cruising through the waters came into focus. At first nothing appeared out of the ordinary. There were people on all visible decks, which was what one would expect to see at this time of day with the ship at sea. Marcase saw nothing obviously amiss. As the chopper drew closer that opinion changed.
The people on deck ignored the chopper's presence. They wandered aimlessly around deck. Periodically they would stop walking and lash out in uncontrolled violence. Sometimes the violence was directed at each other and at other times it was their surroundings that suffered their wrath. There seemed to be no pattern to the attacks. In an attempt to establish contact the helicopter's crew lowered a transceiver to the deck. It met with an immediate and violent end. There was no sign of any armed intruders and no one challenged the chopper's presence.
Marcase shuddered as he envisioned the same violence being replayed below decks. Two thousand violence mad people locked together in the confines of a ship. As he watched the helicopter flew low over the ship giving them a clear view of the upper decks. "My God," Marcase stared at the sight of bodies floating in the ship's pool. "They're killing each other."
Cassian turned off the tape. "From the evidence I'd say the threat is not an external attack but and internal one. Our goal now is to find out what caused this and stop it."
"There's no way to know how many of the ship's passengers and crew are affected." Marcase tried not to think of Shiroma caught on a ship full of madmen. "It's possible that the whole ship is infected."
"So just what are we dealing with and how did it get loose?" Hailey asked the questions on all their minds. "I've never heard of a disease causing unbridled rage."
"Could be a new strain or it could be chemical." Marcase shrugged. "We won't know for sure what we're dealing with until we examine one of those infected." He turned to Cassian. "We are going in?"
"Yes, you'll be going in with Hailey and his team. For now this operation is classified, I want only our people involved."
"We'll need equipment." Marcase made a mental list of what they would need. "I didn't exactly pack the portable lab in my luggage. We need protective suits and field kits."
"Leave that to me." Cassian turned to Hailey. "You'd better brief your men." He checked his watch. "I made a few phone call and the necessary supplies should be arriving within the next twenty minutes. Now are there any other questions?" Both men shook their heads, no. "Good, Edward I've arranged for lab support in case the ship board lab is inoperable. Establish a satellite link as soon possible and keep me apprised of developments. For now there is a full information blackout on this incident."
Marcase nodded in understanding. "If word of a shipboard outbreak leaked out we'd never be able to get those people off."
"Exactly." Cassian remembered the last time his people were trapped on a vessel with no where to go. This time would be different. As Marcase and Hailey rose to begin preparations for boarding the Sea Star Cassian added one final set of instructions. "Until we know for certain what we're dealing with consider everything contaminated." He fixed his gaze on Marcase. "Take no chances."
"Don't worry, we'll be careful." Marcase followed Hailey to the door. "Just like always."
"That's what worries me." Cassian muttered to the now empty room. Relegating his fears to the back of his mind Cassian picked up the phone and started dialing. Marcase would need backup and then there was hospital care for the injured to consider. He had a lot of arrangements to make.
Marcase shifted, trying to find a comfortable spot on the hard bench. One thing was for sure whomever designed military copters had little regard for comfort. He glanced around the crowded chopper at his companions. He was surrounded by at least a dozen SEALs. Dressed in white protective clothing and carrying enough hardware to outfit a small army they looked like a pack of avenging ghosts. He was still amazed that Cassian had been able to procure the needed equipment and personnel on such short notice. Sometimes the man was down right scary. Cassian never volunteered to explain how he pulled off his miracles and Marcase had the feeling that he was better off not knowing.
"Contact in ten minutes." Hailey's voice carried clearly over the headset. "Team one will secure the control room. Team two will take the engine room. Our first priority is to gain control of the vessel and head it back to a safe port. Remember tranquilizer darts only. We're here to rescue these people not endanger them. Sanchez," he addressed the big burly SEAL on Marcase's right. "You're with Dr. Marcase. Don't let him out of your sight."
"Yes sir, "The SEAL gave Marcase a grin. "Just stick close to me doc and you'll be as safe as if you were home in bed."
"Gee I feel so much better." Just then the pilot announced the Sea Star was in sight. Turning to Hailey, Marcase asked the question that had been bothering him ever since they had left St. Thomas. "Just how are we supposed to get aboard?"
Hailey nodded to the door of the helicopter where two SEALs were busy readying rappelling gear. "We can't risk landing so we're taking the aerial root."
"You have got to be kidding?"
"Don't worry Doc," Phillips slapped Marcase on the shoulder. "We'll lower you down easy as can be. You won't feel a thing."
The SEALs chuckled at Marcase's mournful expression then quickly settled down to work. In an amazingly short time the chopper was empty except for Marcase, Hailey and Sanchez. Giving in to the inevitable Marcase let Sanchez buckle him into the rappelling harness then he was airborne. True to his word Sanchez gently lowered him to the deck where waiting hands quickly stripped him of the harness and rushed him to cover. Hailey had picked an isolated spot well clear of inhabitants as their landing site. With Sanchez and Hailey safely down the chopper moved to a safe altitude and began giving updates on the movements of those on deck.
"All right, "Hailey glanced around at the assembled SEALs. You all know what to do. Let's move out. Use your weapons only as a last resort. We have no way of knowing how tranquilizers will affect them."
While Hailey had been checking his men Marcase had been studying the passengers. The hatch below was close but to reach it they would have to make their way pass a number of very violent individuals. Reaching out he tapped Hailey on the shoulder. "Take a good look at the passengers. Notice anything unusual?"
"Besides the fact they are trying to reduce the ship to kindling?"
"Exactly, whatever is infecting them seems to retard the higher thought processes."
"Meaning there is no planning to the attacks. It's as if they attacked the first thing that caught their attention after being infected. Look at them." He pointed to where two men stood a few feet apart. One was pounding his deck chair with a table leg while his neighbor seemed to take great offense at the ship's rail. They appeared totally oblivious to each other's presence."
"OK, I see what you mean but how does that help us?"
"If I'm right and we do nothing to draw attention to ourselves, no loud noises or sudden movements, we should be able to walk right past them."
"You can't be sure of that."
"There's only one way to find out." Before Hailey could stop him Marcase left their hiding place and started walking slowly toward the hatch.
"Marcase get back here."
"Remember no sudden movements. But you might want to have a dart gun ready just in case."
"If they don't kill you, I will." Hailey muttered darkly. The next few minutes were the longest of Hailey's life. Slowly and calmly Marcase made his way across the deck. With deliberate care he circled around the oblivious passengers making sure he did nothing to draw their attention. Finally, after what seemed liked eons he reached the hatch.
Slipping through the hatch Marcase paused and let out the breath he had been holding ever since he started his walk. "It works," he whispered into the mic. "Come on over the hatch is clear. I'm going to try to make it to sickbay, the lab may still be intact."
"Edward wait," Hailey knew he was wasting his breath. Marcase was worried about Shiroma and every moment they wasted was a moment when someone else could die and that someone could well be Shiroma. Giving in to the inevitable he turned his mind back to the problem at hand. "OK, you all know what to do. Sanchez and I will go first. Remember slow and easy." Taking a deep breath Hailey slipped from cover and began the agonizing slow journey across the crowded deck.
Marcase reached the deck harboring sickbay with little trouble. He had been relieved to find the ship's stairwell free of people. There would have been no way to avoid detection in such close quarters. Cracking the hatch he checked the hallway before exiting. Since this part of the ship was off limits to passengers, traffic here was usually light with most of the crew being either away at their duties or asleep in their cabins. With luck he should be able to reach sickbay without encountering anyone. As he made his way down the narrow corridor the sounds of violence echoed from behind the closed doors but the hallway remained mercifully clear. At last he reached sickbay.
Pressing his ear to the door Marcase listened for any sign of Shiroma's presence. It was possible that she had been in her cabin or elsewhere on the ship when the infection struck. Hearing nothing from within Marcase quietly opened the door and peered inside. Immediately pain exploded in the back of his head as he was struck savagely from behind. Crashing to the floor Marcase struggled to rise but a blow to his shoulder drove him back to the floor, slamming his face against the hard plastic faceplate of his suit, cracking the fragile barrier. Blood oozed down the right side of his face but Marcase ignored it. Dazed from the double blows to the head Marcase attempted to crawl away from his attacker. He had to get out of reach or he was a dead man. A viscous kick to the side propelled him onto his back driving the respirator pack into his kidneys with bruising force. Adrenaline strength the medical part of his mind supplied dully, killing strength. He just managed to roll out of the way of the next blow coming to rest against the wall. Leaning on the wall he painfully pulled himself to his feet. Marcase blinked away the darkness threatening to envelop him and saw a blurred image of Shiroma stalking toward him a metal IV pole clutched in her hand. Desperate Marcase grabbed the nearest object and hurled it at her. The chair slammed into Shiroma's legs with enough force to topple her but she was up in a flash the IV pole still clutched in her hand. With the strength of desperation Marcase tried to run but it was useless. He had taken only a few steps before she was on him. As his body slammed to the deck once again Marcase felt the world begin to gray. Shiroma stood above him rage contorting her beautiful face and Marcase knew he was going to die. Shiroma raised the metal pole then suddenly her body jerked. For a moment the pole lowered and some of the fury seemed to fade but then her features contorted once again and she raised the pole. A second spasm jerked her body. Confusion briefly replaced the rage on Shiroma's face before she slowly crumpled to the floor unconscious, the metal pole slipped from her hand to lay harmlessly on the deck beside her. Marcase blinked, as a ghostly apparition in white suddenly appeared above him then his vision faded and all was blackness.
The first thing Marcase became aware of was the throbbing pain in his head. This was quickly followed by numerous aches and pains all over his body. Well at least he wasn't dead. He'd been dead and it didn't hurt this much. Of course, he'd probably wish he were dead when Hailey got through with him. Well, there was no use putting it off. With an effort he forced his eyes to open. Then wished he hadn't as the light glared off the white suited figure kneeling over him. He was still lying on the floor but someone had removed his damaged suit helmet and bandaged the cut on his forehead.
"Welcome back, how do you feel?" The white apparition spoke with Hailey's voice.
"Like road kill," Pushing himself into a sitting position Marcase swayed as a wave of dizziness swept over him. Hailey reached out a hand to steady the virologist. "I don't think anything's broken but you took a couple of good blows to the head. What were you thinking? You almost got yourself killed...again."
"Could we save the lecture for later? I'll admit coming down here alone wasn't the brightest thing I've ever done. But it's not like I just barged in here, I was careful."
Taking the doctor by the arm Hailey helped him to his feet. "Not careful enough. If Sanchez and I hadn't arrived when we did Shiroma would have painted the deck with your blood. It took two darts to bring her down."
"How long was I out?"
"Not long, a half an hour maybe. We control the bridge and engine room but it's not going to do us much good."
"Let me guess. The controls are wrecked."
"Every last one of them. The engines are working but there's no way to control them. We can't slow down or alter course."
"Terrific, is there any way to stop the ship?"
"We're working on that. Now that you're up I'll go see how they're doing." Hailey glanced at Marcase's bare head and hesitated. "I'm leaving Sanchez here with you...just in case."
"I understand." Leaving Marcase and Sanchez in sickbay Hailey headed to engineering. What Hailey hadn't told Marcase was that a hurricane was brewing in the Atlantic and the Sea Star was heading straight for it. They were running out of time.
Checking sickbay Marcase was relieved to find the surgery and lab area untouched. Shiroma had obviously been in the treatment room when the madness struck. The room was a wreck. Cabinets had been smashed and the contents strewn across the floor. Fortunately, much of the supplies was intact. Shiroma had obviously ignored the cabinet's contents once they were on the floor. Fishing a bottle of aspirin from the mess he quickly downed two then turned his attention to Shiroma. Hailey and Sanchez had tied her to one of the treatment room beds. Since it was the only one standing, they had probably picked it out of the rubble. Crossing to his patient Marcase gave her a through exam. Fetching the supplies he needed from the floor he deftly drew a few samples of Shiroma's blood. Bagging one sample for Cassian he turned to Sanchez. "I need to take blood from another infected person, one that hasn't been tranquilized."
Grabbing a blood draw kit from the scattered supplies Marcase started for the door only to find his way barred by Sanchez. "Not so fast doc. You've already tangled with one crazed attacker today. This time we do it my way."
Marcase started to protest then thought better of it. "Ok, what do you suggest?"
"First we get some help down here, then we'll find you your guinea pig. When we have him safe and secure then you can do your stuff. Until then you stay behind us. Agreed?"
He didn't like it but his aching body agreed with Sanchezís wisdom. "All right we do it your way. I'll also need someone to keep an eye on Shiroma while we're out."
"Done." Calling Hailey Sanchez passed along Marcase's request and asked for anyone not tied up with bridge and engineering room duty to report to sickbay.
Starting with the cabins nearest sickbay Sanchez and the other SEALs began a systematic search for a suitable candidate for Marcase to draw. The first few cabins they checked were empty but then they struck pay dirt. Like Shiroma Sam had been alone in his cabin when the madness struck. Oblivious to their entry he was in the far corner of the room busy trying to demolish his bunk. At a nod from Sanchez the SEALs silently entered the room. Skirting the tattered mattress and other debris they crept up behind their unsuspecting prey. At a nod from Sanchez two of the SEALs reached out intending to quickly secure their quarry. At the first touch the focus of Sam's rage shifted and all hell broke loose. With strength fueled by adrenaline and hate he lashed out. After a brief but fierce struggle the SEALs were finally able to subdue the raving man so that Marcase could take his blood. As soon as Marcase finished securing his samples Sanchez drew his side arm and fired two darts into the struggling captive.
"Man," One of the SEALs gasped as they lowered the now unconscious man to the deck. "What is he on?"
"Adrenaline." Marcase answered. "Anyone hurt? Any damage to the suits?" At the negative responses Marcase relaxed. "Ok then, let's get him to sickbay."
Leaving the SEALs to handle Sam, Marcase headed to the lab. The sooner he analyzed the samples the sooner he would have some clue as to what was causing this madness.
Sickbay was quiet as Hailey entered. Dismissing Sanchez he glanced around for Marcase. He found him at Shiroma's bedside staring down at his sleeping patient. Hailey was no medical expert but he thought she looked better. She now sported an oxygen mask but seemed to be resting quietly. "How 's she doing?"
"What Öoh Michael I didn't hear you come in." Looking up Marcase gave the first genuine smile Hailey had seen since this mess began. "Sorry I was thinking. So what's new up top?"
"We're still heading no where at standard cruising speed. The powers that be wonít let us off load passengers, assuming we can find a way to contain them, unless we can prove the agent is not contagiousÖthe usual." He nodded at Shiroma. "I just came down to see how you're doing."
"I'm pretty sure we're looking at a chemical agent. I don't know what it is yet but I may have found a way to treat it. I'll know more when Cassian calls. He should have the results of the analyses by now."
As if conjured by Marcase's words the satellite link Hailey had set up in the office area beeped signaling an incoming call. Moving to the office Marcase sank into the chair at the desk and typed his password into the laptop computer. Immediately an image of Cassian appeared on the monitor.
"Dr. Marcase, Mr. Hailey I have some good news for you. We found no traces of a biological agent in either the water, air or blood samples. The water and air samples were also clean of any chemical contaminants. However we did manage to isolate a chemical compound from the blood samples you sent. I ran it through the DOD database and we have a match. The compound is RG7 better known as Rage."
"How appropriate," Marcase muttered. "So want to tell me how a chemical weapon gets on a cruise ship and more importantly is there an antidote?"
"The RG7 program was canceled and all traces of the compound were supposed to be destroyed. The powers that be felt the agent was too unstable. They couldn't accurately predict the behavior of those exposed."
"But it wasn't destroyed?" Hailey guessed. "What went wrong?"
"According to the records five canisters of RG7 were stolen from the armory before they could be destroyed. The government has been looking for them ever since."
"Well look no further," Marcase wondered why he was surprised. "We know exactly where they are. So let me guess since the project was terminated they saw no reason to make an antidote?"
"Correct, I'm afraid we're on our own."
"What else is new?' Were you able to find out anything else about the agent, except that it shouldn't exist?"
Cassian gave a wry smile. "Quiet a bit actually. RG7 was developed as a stealth weapon. Once released in the air it has a life span of approximately three hours. After that the gas breaks down and is harmless."
Marcase looked relieved. "At least I donít have to worry about going mad."
"That's the good news." Cassian continued. "The chemical is readily absorbed into the system of anyone coming into contact with the gas during those three hours. The effects are not immediately noticed. The agent is inert until triggered by a spurt of adrenaline. Fear, anger, excitement, or even physical exertion is enough to catalyze the reaction. Once activated the drug stimulates the rage center of the brain. The rest you know."
"So how do you shut off the reaction?" Hailey glanced from one doctor to the other.
"From what I understand you can't." Cassian glanced at Marcase. "Unless you've come up with something."
Marcase nodded. "It may not be a cure but I may have a way to shut off the rage response, at least temporarily. Besides the risk of bodily injury due to the outburst of violence the greatest risk of this drug is the excess adrenaline being pumped into the system. The body can't take that kind of sustained level of agitation without something giving. It's only a matter of time before people start dying of heart failure brought on by shear exhaustion. From what I can see this thing turns on the adrenaline response and keeps it on until the subject is either killed by violence or the body burns itself out. Even under heavy sedation both Shiroma and Sam remained highly agitated. Muscle tension, BP, pulse, and respiration were all way above norm. When I analyzed the blood samples I also found suppressed levels of O2. I started them both on oxygen. Within fifteen minutes there was a marked drop in the adrenal levels. I checked them a few minutes ago and all vital signs are normal for someone under sedation, there is no sign of muscle tension or stress. I believe that the combination of oxygen and sedatives disrupts the toxins metabolic cycle. We know that the compound is unstable in the atmosphere. It's possible that adrenaline acts as some sort of a stabilizer as well as a catalyst. Once deprived of its adrenaline protector, the compound is probably highly unstable. Conceivably the normal oxygen levels in body could be enough to break it down."
"Are you saying they're cured?"
"It's possible. We wonít know for sure until I wake them but they're certainly in better physical shape then they were and they're safe to transport." Marcase turned to Hailey. "Do you have any knock out gas in that arsenal you brought on board?"
Hailey nodded. "Quiet a bit actually. What's your plan?"
"I suggest we flood this ship with sleeping gas. That will stop the immediate violence and it poses no risk to the passengers. We can gather those with minor injuries in the atrium. It should be large enough. We can flood the room with oxygen. Those with more critical injuries can be brought here. We'll use the crew's quarters as a triage area and recovery room. " Marcase glanced at Cassian. "How soon can we expect backup?"
"There are two Coast Guard cutters in route, they're carrying two full medical teams and supplies. They should be arriving at your location in six hours. We also have choppers standing by to take off the most critically injured."
"We'll just have to do the best we can until they arrive. This may not cure the problem but it will stop further injuries and allow us to evacuate."
"That will have to do for now. Latest reports say you have approximately twelve hours before you run straight into a hurricane. We need to get you off that ship now. It'll send the choppers to start the evacuation. I'll also send you all the oxygen I can get my hands on. Good work Edward. Keep me informed. Cassian out."
Leaning forward Marcase disconnected the up link then turned to Hailey. "I believe this is your department. So how does one go about gassing an entire ship."
Hailey smiled. "First we get you a new helmet. We can't have the only doctor on board falling asleep. Then I'll show you."
Chuckling Marcase went to check on Shiroma while Hailey began issuing orders to his team. For the first time since this nightmare began Marcase felt the stirrings of hope.
Marcase checked his suit to make sure it was properly sealed then shifted the power pack to a more comfortable position. His lower back was still sore from the earlier abuse. He was lucky that only his suit helmet had suffered damage; the respirator, radio and power pack had escaped unscathed. Hailey had scrounged a spare helmet from the supplies Cassian had sent, so like the SEALs he was now protected from the gas they would soon be releasing throughout the ship. Checking Shiroma and Sam he verified that their oxygen masks were firmly in place and working correctly, he didn't want to risk them being exposed to the gas while under sedation. Satisfied that all was well with his patients Marcase busied himself readying the medical supplies that he would need to treat the injured. He paused as he felt a shudder go through the ship. Since they could not turn the great ship Hailey's men had been working on shutting down the huge turbines that propelled the vessel. It looked as if they had succeeded. They were now dead in the water. At least they were no longer racing straight for the storm. The seas they were sailing were already becoming rougher. Marcase had no desire to be onboard the ship when the full force of a hurricane descended upon her. Their only hope was that the Coast Guard cutters would reach them in time to off load the passenger and crew before the storm reached them.
"Gas canisters in position." Hailey's voice sounded over the suit's transceiver. "We're ready when you are Edward."
"All secure down here. Let's do it."
For the second time a gaseous mist flowed through the Sea Star's ventilation system. However instead of bringing madness this one brought slumber. All over the ship passengers and crew slumped to the floor unconscious, all violence stilled. Moving through the now silent ship the white suited SEALs began the process of search and rescue. Trained in basic first-aide and field medicine they systematically evaluated each victim. Those with minor or non-life threatening injuries were taken to the atrium, which had been rigged to function as a giant oxygen tent. The more seriously injured were taken below to Marcase where their lone doctor worked to stabilize them for transport. The dead were bagged and placed on deck to await pickup. Once the shipís ventilation system cleared the gas from the air they were able to discard the bulky bio-suits. Then the search continued.
Marcase added a few stitches to secure the chest tube he had just inserted then signaled that the patient was ready for transport to the waiting chopper. Moving to the next patient in line he quickly evaluated their condition and set to work. A few minutes later he had the bleeding controlled and again signaled the patient was ready to be moved.
"That's all for this trip doc." Sanchez watched as Marcase deftly inserted the IV line into a young girl's arm. "The next chopper will be here in about ten minutes."
"Some of these people may not have ten minutes, they need to be in a hospital now."
"Sorry doc we're moving as fast as we can."
"I know." Finishing with the girl Marcase stood and stretched the kinks from his spine. "Make sure she's on the next flight. How's the search going?"
"We're almost done." Sanchez glanced around at the crowded room. "Looks like you have your hands full."
"You can say that again what I wouldn't give for even a first year intern right about now."
"Will I do?"
Turning at the sound of the familiar voice Marcase was stunned to find Shiroma standing in the doorway. "WhatÖHow..."
Shiroma smiled. "My aren't we articulate today. I convinced Hailey to release me. He told me what happened. I'm fine Edward really and it looks like you could use my help."
Marcase stared at her for a few seconds then handed her one of the medical kits he had assembled. "Then let's get to work doctor."
Three hours later the Coast Guard cutter and the medical teams arrived. With the addition of the extra manpower things began to move quickly. In an amazingly short time the last of the seriously injured were lifted off and evacuation of the rest of the passengers and crew was begun. They had been lucky. The gas had struck early in the morning while most of the passengers were still in their cabins getting ready for the day. Since most people had been involved in individual tasks and not clustered in groups the casualty rate was much lower than it could have been. Marcase shuddered to think what would have happened if the madness had struck during dinner or when the casinos and nightclubs had been packed. Instead of inanimate objects their fellow man would have been the targets of their wrath. It would have been a blood bath. As it was there were over 200 dead and another 400 had been hospitalized. Most of the remaining 1400 people had some combination of cuts, bruises and minor fractures.
Marcase dropped the last of the medical supplies on the bed in sickbay then paused to rub his temple in an attempt to banish the headache that had been his constant companion for the last hour.
"Here these will help." Shiroma handed him two capsules and a cup of water. She had noticed his discomfort and felt terrible knowing that she was the cause. "I can't believe I really tried to kill you. I'm so sorry Edward."
Marcase gratefully took the medication. "It wasn't your fault Kim. You were under the influence so to speak." He smiled. "Good thing I have a hard head. What did Cassian have to say?"
"The blood sample we sent in was clear of all traces of the drug." Shiroma smiled. "I'm completely cured."
"Well, that's a relief."
"He also reported that the weather is getting worse. They're grounding the helicopters after this last flight. The rest will have to be taken off by ship."
"All the seriously injured are already gone, most of the dead have been removed, and the Coast Guard are just about finished moving the rest to the cutters. I think we're actually going to make it off this tub in time."
"Excuse me." At the sound of the unfamiliar voice both doctors turned to face the door. "Are you Marcase and Shiroma?"
From the man's dress Marcase guessed him to be a member of one of the helicopter crews. "Yes, what can we do for you? If you're looking for passengers we're all out."
"Thanks doc." In one smooth movement the man drew a gun from beneath his flight jack and fired two quick shots. "But you're my cargo." The darts struck the two doctors square in the chest. With clinical detachment the shooter watched as the strong sedatives took effect and his quarry slumped to the floor unconscious. A quick check of their pulses verified that they were out for the count. Taking a small transceiver from this pocket he reported. "Targets acquired."
"Very good. Bring them up we're almost loaded." The distant voice of his boss was as cool and calm as ever. Following instructions he went to the door and signaled his partner. The two men carefully rolled the two unconscious doctors into large body bags and zipped them closed. Then hefting the shrouded bodies over burly shoulders, they carried their burdens to where the last two choppers waited. Once on deck they joined the rest of their crew, which were busy loading the last of the body bags containing the dead onto their craft. In moments the bags containing Marcase and Shiroma were stuffed inside. Two more black bags among others. When the last bag was stored the crew climbed aboard their craft and radioed their departure. Receiving the all clear the craft slowly lifted from the deck and sped away from the damaged ship.
"Marcase, Shiroma, somebody answer me." Michael Hailey was frustrated. The last of the passengers and crew of the Sea Star had been evacuated and were even now on their way to St. Thomas he and his team were in the process of boarding the last chopper when he noticed that two of their number were unaccounted for. "Where the hell are they."
"The ship's been thoroughly searched sir." Sanchez shrugged. "Maybe they caught an earlier flight and just didn't tell you."
Hailey swore. "After all this they know better than to sneak off like that."
"Begging your pardon sir but were they ever told about the danger they're in.? I mean with the disaster and allÖ"
For one brief instant Hailey felt as if he had been sucker punched. With all that had happened since they had arrived in St. Thomas he had forgotten their original reason for coming. "OK, let's go." Hailey motioned toward the chopper. "Wherever they are they obviously aren't here." As the chopper lifted from the deck Hailey radioed Cassian. How could they have forgotten about Pagit? "I should have had someone with them." He muttered darkly. This was all his fault. It was his job to keep them safe. Maybe Sanchez was right and they had taken an earlier flight. Even now they were probably safe and sound with Cassian. Yeah right, he tried to believe it but his gut knew better. Marcase and Shiroma would have never left the ship without telling him. Somehow Pagit had gotten them.
A grim faced Cassian met the chopper as it touched down at the St. Thomas airport. Thanking the pilot for this assistance, Hailey and his team followed Cassian to where their private plane waited. Ever since his team had been trapped on an airliner with a deadly plague Cassian had searched for the means to free his people from their reliance on public transport. When the DEA had confiscated the corporate jet in a drug bust Cassian had used his contacts to acquire the aircraft. He had been planning to surprise Marcase and Shiroma with the news on this trip. Now it looked as if their new transport would be used to save their lives.
As the last of the weary SEALs boarded Cassian signaled the pilot to depart then turned to face Hailey. "You were right. We found the chopper abandoned near one of the unused hangers here at the airport. The real flight crew were tied up inside. Along with the bodies of the dead we found two empty body bags aboard." Cassian held up a thin gold chain from which dangled a small locket. "This was found in the bottom of one of the empty bags."
Taking the locket Hailey opened it. Inside the faces of a young oriental couple smiled for the camera. "This is Shiromaís. It was a gift from her parents." Closing the locket he handed it back to Cassian. "So Pagit does have them. What do we do now?"
Cassian pocketed the locket then he faced Hailey his face set in grim lines. "Now Mr. Hailey, we get them back."
The black paneled truck pulled up to the large security gates and stopped. Punching numbers into the keypad beside the gate the driver watched as the massive portal opened then drove into the compound. Circling the mansion it drove up to the back door and stopped. Four men dressed in military fatigues climbed out. Leaving his men to unload the truck Pagit went in search of Monica. He found her in the office going over some papers. As he entered she rose from behind the desk and started toward him. "Youíre late."
"It couldnít be helped. We ran into some trouble crossing the border. I have to hand it to Cassianís people they responded quicker than I expected. Every cop on both sides of the border were looking for our guests."
"But you have them?"
"Yes, theyíre here safe and sound just as you ordered."
"Excellent. Show me."
"This way." Pagit led Monica to one of the spare guestrooms. Marcase and Shiroma lay on the large bed sleeping the sleep of the heavily drugged."
Walking to the bed Monica studied the sleeping pair and smiled. "You have done well Jacob. How long will they be out?"
"íTil nightfall at least. I thought it would be a good idea to keep them out until you were ready for them. Less trouble that way."
"An excellent idea. They can awaken just in time to die." She turned to Pagit. "See that they are guarded closely. Tonight when the full moon rises we will free your brother. No one must interfere."
"I have men guarding the perimeter and grounds. The security system is state of the art and just in case Iíve also arranged some surprises for anyone stupid enough to try to breach the grounds."
"Good." Monica took one last look at her sleeping captives. "Very good." Then leaving the prisoners in Pagitís capable hands she left to begin the preparations for tonightís ceremony.
On a hillside behind the Pagit compound Hailey took off his headset and turned to Cassian. "Well at least we know theyíre alive and unharmed."
"For now." Cassian glanced from the headset in his hands to the mansion below. It was amazing what technology could do. "So how do we get them out?"
Hailey turned to Sanchez who was busy typing commands into a laptop computer. "How does it look?"
Sanchez studied the screen then passed the computer to Hailey. "Not good."
Studying the compound schematics displayed on the screen Hailey had to agree. "I have to give Pagit credit heís good."
"How good?" Cassian looked from the screen to Hailey. "Can we get in?"
Hailey smiled. "Oh weíll get in, but itís not going to be easy. There are at least twenty armed men patrolling the grounds. The placed is fully wiredÖelectrified fence, motion sensors, cameras, infrared sensors the works. Heís even mined the place. We can get in but itís going to take time and we have to wait for dark to begin."
"So itís a race. Whether we get to Marcase and Shiroma before Monica has time to do whatever it is she has planned."
"Iím afraid so."
"Do whatever you have to Michael but get us in there."
"Weíll do our best."
As the SEALs began planning their assault Cassian watched the compound and did the only thing he could. He waited. It seemed like an eternity before the sun began to dip below the horizon and Hailey signaled it was time to move out. Dressed in black combat gear and armed to the teeth, the SEALs stole quietly toward their objective black shadows that quickly blended with the blackness of the night.
The first thing Shiroma was aware of was a womanís voice calling her name. Forcing her eyes open she saw the fuzzy image of a woman standing in front of her. Blinking she struggled to clear her vision and was rewarded as the womanís face popped into focus. "Good youíre awake." The woman smiled brightly. "Welcome Dr. Shiroma."
Shiroma stared blankly at the woman and tried to force her dazed mind to work. From her symptoms it was obvious that she had been drugged. Memory of being struck with a dart surfaced. OK so she had been kidnapped, the question was by whom and why. Looking around she realized that she was tied to a large column at the edge of what looked like Grecian ruins. The place seemed familiar. Then she spotted the serpent statue and recognition dawned.
"I see you remember." Monica smiled at her captive. "We have some unfinished business you and I."
"What do you want? Why have you brought me here?"
"Why to die of course. You took Philip from me and now youíre going to help me bring him back."
"I donít understand."
The god Aesclepius doesnít tolerate failure. When you and Marcase escaped he was very angry. He has trapped Philip in his world. Only your deaths can free him." Monica ran one sculptured nail down the side of Shiromaís cheek. "Youíll make a lovely sacrifice."
"On the contrary Iím quiet sane." She gestured to the man behind her. "Jacob was a skeptic at first until he felt Aesclipicusís power. Heís Philipís brother, it was he that brought you here."
"Enough Monica," Jacob Pagit looked at the woman in disgust. "Letís get on with this."
"Oh donít be such a prude Jacob, Shiroma has the right to know why she is going to die."
Monica turned back to Shiroma all traces of levity gone. "You spilled blood in this holy place and for that you will die but first you will bear witness to Philipís return." Moving aside she gestured to the altar on the opposite of the clearing and the still body of Marcase lying upon it.
"What have you done to him?" Shiroma demanded. Desperately she worked at her bonds. It was obvious that Monica was mad. She had to get free before she killed them both. Feeling a crack in the marble column she began rubbing her bonds against its sharp edge.
"Donít worry my dear heís perfectly fine. Iíve just given him something to make him a little more cooperative. Heís fully aware just unable to move. A most effective drug wouldnít you agree?"
"I agree that youíre insane." She shifted her attention to Pagit. "How can you be a party to this madness?"
"Iíd do anything for my brother Dr. Shiroma, anything," Turning to Monica he gestured to Marcase. "Letís get on with this we could have company anytime."
Nodding in agreement Monica moved to the altar. Picking up a large ceremonial dagger she smiled down at her victim. "Donít worry itíll only hurt for a little while."
"No!" Marcase heard Shiromaís cry but could not turn his head to look at her. Unable to move he watched in horror as Monica lifted the blade and plunged it into his side. A scream of pain resounded in his head but no sound escaped his paralyzed body. Then the world exploded in a burst of light.
Laying the dagger on the altar Monica picked up a silver goblet and held it to the bleeding wound in Marcaseís side. When it was filled with his blood she walked across the clearing and stood before the serpent statue. Lifting the goblet she muttered an ancient incantation then poured the contents of the goblet onto the stone. Immediately the statue began to pulse with a red light and before their stunned eyes the serpent began to change. Mesmerized they watched as stone became flesh and the serpent slithered into the clearing.
Marcaseís first sensation was that of pain followed by a profound weakness. It felt as if his life was being slowly drained away. Climbing slowly to his feet he studied his surroundings. He was standing in a circle of light. Beyond the protective circle all was darkness. "Weíre definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto."
"Very good Edward, I see you havenít lost your sense of humor."
Turning around Marcase saw a man emerge from the darkness. As he walked forward into the light recognition dawned. "Pagit."
The man gave a bow. "Iím glad you remember."
"Yeah well, what I remember is that youíre supposed to be dead."
"Edward Iím surprised at you. As you know dead is a relative term." He indicated their surroundings. "Youíre in my world now. The realm of the gods."
"This place belongs to no god of mine." Marcase staggered as another wave of weakness passed over him. "What do you want Philip?"
"Why, what Iíve always wanted EdwardÖyour soul."
"Itís not for sale."
"Your strength is fading Edward." He moved closer. "You were promised to Aesclepius. Once he has your soul he will return me to the world of the living." Philip smiled. "Your spirit is strong Aesclepius will be pleased." He moved to stand directly before Marcase. "Why fight the inevitable?"
"Thereís only one thing wrong with your plan." Marcase stared defiantly at his adversary. "My soul is no good to your god. He can only take those who give themselves to him of their own free will."
"Ah but Edward you will give yourself to him."
"Never can be a very long time." Philip lashed out knocking Marcase to the ground. "Time passes differently here I have all the time I need to convince you to change your mind. Your body is growing weaker. Aesclepius can save you, all you have to do is give yourself to him."
Steeling himself for what he knew would follow, Marcase prayed for strength. Staring defiantly up at Philip he uttered the words that he knew would seal his fate. "Iíd rather die."
Rage marred the handsome features as Philip raised his hands and fired a bolt of energy into Marcaseís body. "Then so be it."
Pain flared in every nerve of his body as the deadly bolt struck home. Through the haze of pain he heard Philipís voice. "You donít have to suffer. You can end this torment. You know what your have to do."
The promise was tempting but Marcase knew he could never accept it. Pushing the seductive voice out of his head he surrendered himself to the pain.
As Marcase battled for his soul Shiroma struggled to free herself from her bonds. In the center of the clearing the serpent had continued to grow. It loomed above the altar a mass of black coils with glowing red eyes. The serpent stared at Marcaseís still form then seemed to become denser. If she didnít know that such a thing was possible Shiroma would swear that the serpent was somehow feeding off of Marcaseís energy. All such thoughts vanished as Monica moved to stand before the apparition.
"Mighty Aesclepius I your servant greet you." Turning she gestured toward Shiroma. "Accept now this sacrifice. The one who desecrated your holy temple."
The massive head turned to stare in her direction then the creature began moving toward her. With a last desperate tug Shiroma parted the ropes binding her and lunged to the side just as the huge jaws closed over the column where she had been tied. With a shriek of outrage Monica launched herself at Shiroma. Meeting the attack Shiroma landed a kick to her attackerís midsection knocking her back toward the now angry serpent. With the speed of its kind the serpent darted forward engulfing the screaming woman in its powerful jaws.
Shiroma jumped as hands grabbed her from behind. "I think thatís our cue to get the hell out of here." Turning around she found Hailey and three of his fellow SEALs crouched at the edge of the clearing. She had never been so happy to see anyone in all her life.
Pulling Shiroma to cover Hailey nodded toward the huge snake. "Any idea where our large friend came from?"
"It came out of the statue. Monica used Edwardís blood to bring it to life."
Hailey looked to where Marcase lay on the altar. "Is he alive?"
"I donít know. They gave him some kind of drug to paralyze him then she stabbed him in the side."
"Letís get back to the others."
Across the clearing Jacob Pagit watched as Monica met her grisly fate and knew that their plan was doomed to fail. He watched as the SEALs escorted Shiroma out of reach and knew that time had run out. The SEALs had breached his security, which meant that his men were out of commission. He would get no help from that quarter. He gazed at the huge serpent. He had no idea what Monica had unleashed. Without her he had no way to reach Philip. He could not rescue his brother but maybe he could avenge him. Shiroma might be out of reach but Marcase wasnít. Using the columns as cover he took up position where he had a clear shot at the defenseless man. He would only have a few seconds before the SEALs became wise to what he was doing but for a marksman of his caliber a few seconds was more than enough. The large serpent was quiescent now was his chance. Taking aim he prepared to send Marcase to join his brother in hell. Before he could pull the trigger a large black shadow blocked his light. Looking up he saw a brief flash of sharp fangs before joining Monica in death.
Hailey watched with grim satisfaction as the large serpent made short work of the mercenary, then focused on their more immediately problem. "Weíll try to distract that thing while you get to Marcase."
Cassian nodded. Circling to the far side of the clearing the SEALs opened fire on the large serpent. Hissing in pain and rage the snake lashed out at the SEALs smashing the marble columns and toppling men everywhere. But no matter what they did the huge serpent never left Marcaseís side. As they watched the snake once again hovered over the unconscious doctor.
Cassian frowned as he watched the wounds inflicted by the SEALs attack fade. "Marcase and that thing are linked somehow."
"So how do we destroy the snake without destroying the man?" Hailey glanced from Cassian to Shiroma. "There has to be a way."
Cassian frowned in concentration then turned to Shiroma. "Tell me again exactly what happened. How did Monica create that thing?"
Shiroma shrugged. "Monica poured a goblet of Marcaseís blood onto the serpent statue. The stone glowed red then that thing crawled out of the statue."
Cassian nodded. "The statueís the link." He turned to Hailey. "We have to destroy the statue." "We canít." Shiroma shook her head. "We donít know what destroying the statue will do to Edward. It could kill him."
Cassian turned to Hailey. "Do it." Then he turned to Shiroma. "We donít have a choice. If we donít get rid of that creature heís dead anyway."
Reluctantly Shiroma nodded. Together they watched as Hailey conferred with his men. While the SEALs began a second assault on the serpent Hailey knelt at the edge of the clearing and raised a rocket launcher to his shoulder. Taking aim he fired a rocket into the stone statue. As the statue shattered into dust an unearthly cry rang through the temple. Thunder and lightening split the sky and a fierce wind howled through the area causing everyone to drop to the ground for cover. Then as quickly as it came the storm subsided and stillness descended upon the clearing. No sign of the serpent remained.
Jumping to their feet Cassian and Shiroma ran for the altar. Shiroma pressed her hand against the wound in Marcaseís side while Cassian searched for a pulse. Hailey dropped the emergency medical kit on the altar and then stepped back to give the doctors room to work. Slapping a pressure bandage onto the wound Shiroma deftly inserted an IV and turned the flow wide open. Then she glanced at Cassian. He had an oxygen mask in place and was monitoring the vital signs. Looking up he met Shiromaís worried gaze. "I have a pulse but itís weak and erratic. BP is almost non-existence. I just donít know." At that moment the faint pulse under his fingers skipped and stopped. "Weíre losing him!" In unison Shiroma and Cassian began CPR.
While Cassian and Shiroma fought to save his body Marcase was fighting to save his soul. Lifting his head he saw Philip frown. "Youíre such a disappointment Edward. I could have made you a god now Iím afraid our time is up." Raising his hands he allowed the power to build. "Goodbye Edward. Itís time to die."
Closing his eyes Marcase waited for the end. Suddenly he heard a gasp and opened his eyes to see Philip stumble, the glow fading from his hands. "Whatís the matter Philip? Forget to pay your electric bill?"
"No, itís not possible." He glared at Marcase. "This is all your fault. You and your accursed friends."
Marcase watched as a shape began to take form behind Pagit. Sensing the presence Pagit turned and fell to his knees as a large serpent emerged from the darkness. Ignoring Philip's pleading the huge creature leaned froward and engulfed the screaming man in its huge jaws. Then it turned its gaze toward Marcase.
Staring up into the fanged jaws Marcase wondered if being eaten by a giant snake was preferable to being electrocuted by a dead man. His fuzzy thoughts were still contemplating the issue when a bright light streaked out of nowhere to strike the head of the giant serpent. Rearing back in pain the serpent glared at the glowing figure that had suddenly appeared behind Marcase. "No," The figureís voice was soft but rung with authority. "This one is not for you."
The serpent continued to glare at the glowing figure for a few seconds then turned to melt away into the darkness. Marcase struggled to make sense of what was happening but lacked the strength. Then suddenly strong arms supported him and warmth flowed into his body driving away the pain. He felt himself lowered to the ground then hands moving over his body. Their touch was gentle bringing healing and strength to his battered spirit. Under the strangerís ministrations he settled into a peaceful, healing slumber.
The glowing stranger settled back on his heels and studied his sleeping charge. It had been close this time and the stakes had been high. If Marcase had surrendered his soul to Philip he would have been damned for all eternity. He smiled, he should know by now not to underestimate this remarkable young man. Tilting his head to the side he listened to what was happening in the physical world. Marcaseís mortal body was dying, if his spirit was not soon rejoined with it he would not survive. Spreading his hands out over the sleeping man he concentrated and Marcase faded from view. His work done the figure vanished in a flash of light.
Hailey and the SEALs watched helplessly as Shiroma and Cassian labored to save Marcaseís life. They had almost given up hope when Shiroma felt the body beneath her hands spasm as it began to breathe. Stopping her movements she glanced at Cassian. "I have a pulse." Cheers rang through the temple and Cassian smiled. "And heís breathing on his own."
"Then letís stabilize him and get the hell out of here." The SEALs chuckled at Shiromaís words then began clearing the compound of any trace of their presence. Pagitís men were rounded up and locked in a storeroom. They would be able to free themselves in time but by then Cassian and party would be long gone. Monicaís and the Pagitís disappearances would be just one more mystery for the authorities. In moments they were ready to go. Across the clearing unseen by mortal eyes a glowing figure watched the group depart. Then the smiling figure vanished as if it had never existed.
Cassian entered the hospital room to find Shiroma and Hailey already there. Propped up in bed Marcase was listening avidly as Shiroma and Hailey took turns describing what had happened in Mexico. "I canít believe I missed it all. I remember Monica stabbing me but after that everything is jumbled. I canít tell what was real and what was a dream."
"It doesnít really matter." Cassian joined the conversation. "Weíre all alive and thatís all that counts."
"I guess youíre right." Marcase agreed. "Still, next time Iím being stalked by a madman Iíd appreciate it if youíd let me know."
"Iím sorry Edward," Cassian glanced at Hailey then turned back to Marcase and Shiroma. "Pagit was a company hit man. He planned to kill the both of you to avenge his brother death. I sent you on the cruise to hide you from him until we could track him down and neutralize the threat. But then Pagit met Monica and things changed. She had other plans for you, plans requiring you to be taken alive. Once we learned that Pagit had discovered your whereabouts we flew to St. Thomas to warn you."
"But then things went a little crazy and you never got the chance." Marcase finished, it was a plausible story and he couldnít really blame Cassian. "OK, I can see your point but Iíd still have liked to know."
"I promise the next time youíre targeted by an assassin Iíll be sure to tell you." Cassian glanced at the wound in Marcaseís side. "Right before I lock you into the mansionís secure lab and throw away the key."
"On second thought ignorance is bliss."
Shiroma chuckled then turned to Cassian. "Speaking of cruises have you heard anything on the Sea Star?"
Cassian nodded. "I talked to the authorities this morning. Edwardís treatment proved effective. There is no sign of the toxin in any of the passengers and all those hospitalized are recovering nicely. Unfortunately, I canít say the same for the Star herself. Soon after you abandoned ship the hurricane struck. They searched the area after the storm passed but could find no trace of her."
"Iím relieved the passengers and crew are going to recover but Iím sorry about the Star, she was a good ship. It looks like Dr. Bartlett proved his point about the need for better medical facilities at sea. If we had been on any other ship besides the STAR, things would have been much worse." Marcase frowned. "What Iíd really like to know is what a chemical weapon was doing on a cruise ship in the first place?"
"We may have an answer to that." Hailey put in. "Do you remember a Dirk Ramsey?"
Shiroma nodded. "Yes, he was an officer on the Sea Star."
"Actually he wasnít the real Dirk Ramsey." Two sets of eyes turned to stare at Hailey. "Frank Dalton woke and was finally able to fill us in on what he had discovered. Ramsey and his gang were arms smugglers. They killed the real crewmen and assumed their identities."
"Were?" Marcase asked. "Then you caught them?"
"Not exactly, Ramsey and his gang miscalculated. It was a clever plan but it didnít take into account being attacked by their cargo. They were in the process of dumping the cargo overboard when the madness struck. Confined together in a small spaceÖ"
"They killed each other." Shiroma finished the explanation.
Hailey nodded. "We found them with the rest of the weapons and four more canisters of RG7. Itís all at the bottom of the sea now."
"Good riddance." Cassian summed up all their feelings. One canister of the deadly gas had wrecked enough havoc. No one wanted to witness a repeat performance.
Marcase shifted position then winced as the movement pulled at the wound in his side. Seeing his discomfort Shiroma rose from her chair. "We should let you get some rest."
"What Iíd really like is to get out of here." Marcase muttered.
"Oh no," Shiroma shook her head and smiled. "Youíre staying put even if Hailey has to assign one of his SEAL buddies to sit on you."
"Then when your doctor releases you." Cassian added. "Youíre going to take it easy for a few days. Maybe go on a nice vaó"
"No, donít say it." Marcase interrupted. "Not the V word. The last time you sent me on a vacation I ended up fighting two epidemics and almost getting sacrificed to an ancient Greek god. If itís all the same to you, Iíd rather work. Itís much safer."
Chuckling his teammates prepared to leave. "Iíll see what I can do." Cassian promised.
Reaching the doorway Cassian paused and glanced back. He smiled to find Marcase already asleep his abused body for once overruling his stubborn head. It had been close this time but the team was still intact. Sometimes Cassian believed that someone up there was watching over all of them and especially over one headstrong virologist. Whoever they were Cassian was grateful. Quietly closing the door Cassian joined Shiroma and Hailey leaving Marcase to the healing power of sleep.