Gunther nodded to Klaus.

The other barely noted his presence.

Anna bowed her head with Gunther, speaking rapidly in German. All Painter could make out was a single word. It was the same in German and English.

Sabotage.

So all was not right in the Granite Castle. Was there a traitor here? If so, who? And what was their purpose? Were they friend or another foe?

Gunther's eyes fell upon Painter. His lips moved, but Painter could not discern what he said. Anna shook her head, disagreeing. Gunther's eyes narrowed, but he nodded.

Painter knew he should be relieved.

With a final pinched stare, Gunther turned and strode back into the blackened ruins.

Anna returned. "This is what I wanted to show you." She waved an arm at the destruction.

"The Bell," Painter said.

"It was destroyed. An act of sabotage."

Lisa stared at the ruin. "And it was this Bell that made Painter sick."

"And held the only chance for a cure."

Painter studied the devastation.

"Do you have a duplicate Bell?" Lisa asked. "Or can you fabricate another?"

Anna slowly shook her head. "One of the key components can't be duplicated.

Xerum 525. Even after sixty years, we've not been able to reformulate it."

"So no Bell, no cure," Painter said.

"But there might be a chance…if we help each other." Anna held out her hand. "If we cooperate…I give you my word."

Painter reached woodenly over and grasped her hand. Still, he hesitated. He sensed a level of subterfuge here. Something Anna had left unspoken. All her talk…all the explanations. They were all meant to misdirect. Why were they even offering him this deal?

Then it dawned on him.

He knew.

"The accident…" he said.

He felt Anna's fingers twitch in his.

"It wasn't an accident, was it?" He remembered the word he had overheard.

"It was sabotage, too."

Anna nodded. "At first, we thought it was an accident. We've had occasional problems with surges. Triggering spikes in the Bell's output. Nothing major. Venting the energies triggered a few illnesses locally. The occasional death."

Painter had to restrain himself from shaking his head. Nothing major, Anna had said. The illnesses and deaths were major enough to warrant Ang Gelu sending out an international call for help, drawing Painter here.

Anna continued, "But a few nights back, someone jinked with the settings during a routine test of the Bell. Exponentially increasing the output."

"And zapping the monastery and the village."

"That's right."

Painter tightened his grip on Anna's hand. It looked like she wanted to pull away. He wasn't about to let her. She was still hedging from full disclosure. But Painter knew the truth as surely as the headache that pressed now. It explained the offer of cooperation.

"But it wasn't just the monks and the village that were affected," Painter said. "Everyone here was, too. You're all sick like me. Not the rapid neurological degeneration seen at the monastery, but the slower bodily deterioration I'm experiencing."

Anna's eyes narrowed, studying him, weighing how much to tell—then she finally nodded. "We were partially shielded here, somewhat protected. We vented the worst of the Bell's radiation upward and out."

Painter remembered the ghost lights seen dancing in the mountaintops. To spare themselves, the Germans had blasted the immediate area with radiation, including the neighboring monastery. But the scientists here had failed to escape totally unscathed.

Anna met his gaze, unflinching, unapologetic. "We're now all under the same death sentence."

Painter considered his options. He had none. Though neither side trusted the other, they were all in the same boat, so they might as well get closer. Gripping her hand, he shook it, sealing the pact.

Sigma and the Nazis together.

SECOND

7 BLACK MAMBA

5:45 a.m.

HLUHLUWE-UMFOLOZI PRESERVE

ZULULAND, SOUTH AFRICA

Khamisi Taylor stood in front of the head warden's desk. Stiff-backed, he waited while Warden Gerald Kellogg finished reading his preliminary report on the past day's tragedy.

The only sound was the creak of an overhead fan, slowly churning.

Khamisi wore a borrowed set of clothes, the pants too long, the shirt too tight. But they were dry. After spending all day and night in the tepid water hole, shoulder deep in the muddy pan, arms aching while he held the rifle at the ready, he appreciated the warm clothes and solid footing.

He also appreciated the daylight. Through the back office window, dawn painted the sky a dusty rose. The world reappeared out of the shadows.

He had survived. He was alive.

But he had yet to fully accept that.

In his skull, the calls of the ukufa still echoed.

Closer at hand, the head warden, Gerald Kellogg, rubbed absently at his bushy auburn mustache as he continued to read. The morning sunlight gleamed off his bald pate, giving it an oily pink sheen. He finally looked up, staring over a pair of half-moon reading glasses perched on his nose.

"And is this the report you intend for me to file, Mr. Taylor?" Warden Kellogg ran a finger along one line on the yellow paper. '"An unknown apex predator.' Is that all you can say about what killed and dragged off Dr. Fairfield?"

"Sir, I didn't get a clear look at the animal. It was something large and white-furred. As I reported."

"A lioness perhaps," Kellogg said.

"No, sir…it was no lion."

"How can you be sure? Didn't you just say you didn't see it?"

"Yes, sir…what I meant, sir…was that what I saw did not match any known predators of the lowveld."

"Then what was it?"

Khamisi remained silent. He knew better than to mention the ukufa. In the brightness of an ordinary day, whispers of monsters would only provoke derision. The superstitious tribesman.

"So some creature attacked and dragged off Dr. Fairfield, something you never saw clearly enough to identify…"

Khamisi nodded slowly.

"…yet still you ran and hid in the water hole?" Gerald Kellogg crumpled up the report. "How do you think that reflects on our service here? One of our own wardens allows a sixty-year-old woman to be killed while he ran and hid. Tucked tail without even knowing what was out there."

"Sir. That's not a fair—"

"Fair?" The warden's voice boomed, loud enough to be heard in the outer room, where the entire staff had been called in due to the emergency. "How fair is it that I have to contact Dr. Fairfield's next of kin and tell them their mother or grandmother was attacked and eaten while one of my wardens—one of my armed wardens—ran and hid?"

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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