/ Language: English / Genre:adventure / Series: God's lions

House of Acerbi

John Lyman


John Lyman

House of Acerbi

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation

Book of Daniel 12:1

The name of the star is wormwood.

Revelation 8:11

Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar

FACT

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bible code researchers went back to their computers and discovered the details of the attack encoded in startling clarity in the Book of Genesis. Using the ancient Hebrew text that has been handed down for the past 3000 years, they found the words Twin Towers encoded next to Airplane in the same place, and running across these two words was a message that sent chills up their spines-It caused to fall, knocked down. The odds against these words appearing together, encoded in the same place, are at least 10,000 to 1. But there was more. In Israel, the mathematician who discovered the code found the words, the sin, the crime of Bin Laden on the same page of Genesis where the original text of the Bible stated, they saw the smoke rising above the land like the smoke of a furnace.

PROLOGUE

The South of France near Carcassonne

Summer -1292

On the day when everything in her world would change forever, little Catherine Acerbi was skipping behind her mother through a field of tall sunflowers. For most of the morning, Catherine and her mother, Marie Acerbi, had been drifting on the slow-moving current of the beautiful Aude River, talking and laughing against the sound of insects buzzing along its banks, until finally the sun’s arc across the sky announced that it was time for them to go.

After walking through the field of flowers, they emerged at the base of a mountain trail and stopped to gaze up at a massive castle perched at the edge of a vertical cliff. The site of their fortress home had always been a source of fascination to the little girl, and in her imagination she had come to believe that a giant hand had somehow lowered the towering structure from the heavens to its lofty position just so she could watch the birds soar among the clouds outside her bedroom window.

Under a brilliant sun that had chased the blueness from the sky and turned it white, the two had just begun their climb up the steep path that led to the castle above when a flock of birds suddenly burst from a nearby tree and screeched into the sky over their heads. Startled, the two stopped just as the ground began to shake, while in the distance, they could hear the sound of thunder as the faint tremor beneath their feet grew into a steady rumble. The movement and noise continued to intensify, until soon it seemed as if the very air around them was vibrating in a tactile assault of both motion and sound that was quickly spreading across the land.

Looking to the north, Marie felt the hair rise on the back of her neck when she saw a cloud of red dust rising above the trees beyond the field, and it was coming closer.

Qu?est-ce-que, Mere …what is it, mother?”

“Stay close to me, Cherie.”

The shaking in the ground grew stronger.

Mere!”

Marie held her daughter close and began to pray just as the undulating wall of red dust exploded from the tree line and rolled across the field. It was headed straight for them.

“Run Catherine!”

Marie began to run, but Catherine’s nine-year-old legs could barely keep up as her mother urged her on. “Come, Cherie, you must run. You are too big to carry now.”

Glancing back over their shoulders, the two witnessed a sight that made them freeze in place. Fast-moving black shapes were weaving through the tall sunflowers, trampling them in their path as they moved across the field.

Marie shivered in the heat. It was as if the devil himself was riding across the land.

Catherine squeezed her mother’s hand. “Mere! Qu?est-ce-que?”

“Horses, Cherie! Many horses!”

Against the sound of trumpets calling the castle’s defenders to arms, the two began scrambling up the side of the hill just as an advance group of soldiers came running down the path. Behind them, riding a wild-eyed horse padded for battle, Catherine saw her father holding his sword high, his long dark hair curling down over the shoulders of his armor. With a slight jerk on the reins, Armand Acerbi brought the snorting animal to a stop. Looking up at her husband, a knot of fear grabbed at Marie’s stomach, for she saw that he was smiling the smile of a warrior on his way to battle.

“Go quickly to the castle, my loves. Seal the doors. I will return!”

Marie ran to him, but as she reached out to touch his hand, their eyes met with a look of understanding, for it was evident by the size of the force now charging through the field below that Armand Acerbi would never return.

“May God be with you,” she said.

“And also with you, dear wife.” With that, Acerbi galloped away as Marie brushed the long blonde hair from her face and wiped the tears from her eyes before leading her daughter the rest of the way up the winding path.

At the top of the hill, Marie and Catherine raced under the grated portcullis into the castle’s inner courtyard, while down below, in a field of tall sunflowers, two armies well-versed in the art of medieval combat were now coming together in a violent clash of stabbing, merciless death. Pausing for a moment to gather her thoughts, Marie waited until the heavy iron grating had been lowered inside the main gate before motioning for Catherine to follow her up a narrow stone stairway.

With their swords drawn, two of her husband’s best soldiers ran behind her, for she was the lady of the castle, and her husband, Armand Acerbi, was its lord. Before he had departed for battle, Acerbi had given these two soldiers orders to protect his wife and young daughter with their lives.

“Come, Catherine … you must keep up!”

“I’m coming!” Catherine cried. She looked up and saw her mother and the two soldiers disappear around a corner. Scrambling up the steps, Catherine caught sight of them running down a long corridor to her mother’s bedroom. Posting the guards outside, Marie motioned Catherine inside and closed the door. Marie crossed the room to a blackened fireplace and removed a stone block from the wall above the mantle. From a hollowed-out space, she removed a small wooden box-a box that young Catherine had never seen before. Placing the box on the table, Catherine’s mother slowly opened the lid and lifted three parchment scrolls from inside. She held them to her breast and closed her eyes for a brief moment before fixing Catherine with a look that caused the child to step back in fear.

“Here, little one … take these. You must keep them safe. Hide them well and guard them always.”

“Ce qui est errone, Mere? What’s wrong, mother?”

“There are men outside the walls. Bad men. Your father has gone to fight them. The soldiers outside the door will take you to the tunnels beneath the castle. Hide these scrolls inside your tunic and go with them. Do what they say, Catherine. They will take you to my sister’s house in Carcassonne.”

“I want to stay with you, Mere!”

“I must wait for your father to return, Cherie.”

With the sounds of battle outside growing louder, Marie Acerbi rushed to the open window and gasped. An army of mounted invaders dressed in black had just blown through her husband’s small band of men.

It had been a senseless gesture trying to defend this pile of stone, Marie thought to herself. But deep down inside, she knew that her husband had been defending much more than just stone. He had been defending his family and the honor of his people.

In the valley below, Marie saw a bearded man on a white horse looking down at the bloodied body of her husband lying next to his men in the field of trampled sunflowers. The man on the horse then swiveled in his saddle and looked up at the castle, and for a brief second it seemed to Marie that their eyes had met in an icy embrace. From the edge of the window, she watched as he turned to a soldier beside him and pointed to the hill. With the sun reflecting off his blood-splattered armor, the soldier waved his sword in the air and began galloping toward the castle. Within minutes, the dark invaders were swarming up the hill from all directions, their hearts pounding and their veins still engorged from the adrenaline-fueled frenzy of battle.

“You must go now, Catherine!”

“No, Mere! Come with me.”

“No, my sweet. My place is here. Your father and I will be together soon. Go now, and guard these scrolls with your life. You must pass them on to your children, and they must pass them on to theirs. Do you understand my little dove?”

Tears welled up in young Catherine’s eyes. “Yes, Mere.”

Marie held her daughter close before opening the door to her room and nodding to the two soldiers outside.

“Watch over my daughter and remember my words well, for if my husband had not left you behind to guard his only child, your bodies would now be lying next to his in the field below. Your lives have been spared so that you would live to deliver his only child to my sister’s house in Carcassonne. You have been given a sacred trust, and if you fail in my husband’s final command to you, your very souls will be doomed to hell for all eternity!”

The two soldiers exchanged frightened glances as they both dropped to their knees and bowed their heads.

Good, she thought, smiling to herself. Her speech to the two soldiers had obviously assured that they would pass through hell itself to deliver her daughter to safety. She bent down and took Catherine’s small face in her hands before kissing her gently on the forehead.

“Goodbye, Cherie. I promise we will see each other again one day.”

Marie stared into the eyes of her daughter before she stood and walked back into her room. Without looking back, she slowly closed the door.

One of the soldiers grabbed Catherine in his arms and the two men began running down a winding stairway. Beyond the castle walls, they could hear the rattle of armor and the whinny of the horses as a huge battering ram beat rhythmically against the castle’s massive wooden doors.

Rounding a corner, they continued down a hidden staircase that led to the tunnels below. Stopping only to light a torch, they ran as fast as they could through the labyrinth of underground passageways, until finally, they emerged a half mile away, below a cliff that rose sharply above the river.

At the top of the cliff, Catherine spied a neighboring castle that appeared to be deserted. Apparently, its residents had witnessed the attack on the Acerbi castle and had wisely decided to flee in advance of the murderous army that was now sweeping across the land.

Scouting their surroundings before moving on, the two soldiers pressed into the surrounding forest, taking turns holding young Catherine in their arms as they ran, each knowing that they were bringing favor upon themselves from God above in delivering this child from harm.

As the forest greenery closed in behind them, Catherine peered over the shoulder of the running soldier and saw flames leaping from her castle home on the hilltop in the distance. She knew that her mother was still there, and that somehow, her spirit was now entwined in the rising dark smoke.

Everything that little Catherine had loved was now gone. Both her parents and the castle she had lived in since the day she was born were now nothing but memories. Ashes to ashes-dust to dust. Fighting back the tears, she gazed up at the intact but abandoned castle on the cliff above. There, sitting on a large white horse, was the bearded man. Soon, he was joined by other men-the same men who had just attacked her castle and were now spreading out over the land in search of other castles to attack.

Catherine reached up with one hand and pushed the scrolls further down into her tunic. Her mother had told her to keep them safe … and keep them safe she would.

Looking back up at the man on the horse, she saw him looking out over the forest, as if somehow he knew that there was another Acerbi out there somewhere, another lamb for the slaughter.

Keeping her eyes fixed on the man, little Catherine watched as he wheeled his horse around and disappeared back down the hill. A deep rage rose up within the child, and at that very moment she knew that her destiny had been set. As soon as she was older, she would seek out the man on the horse-and vengeance would be hers.

CHAPTER 1

Oosterbeek-The Netherlands

Present Day

Rene Acerbi’s dark blue limo swept through the main gate of the fashionable resort and continued along a tree-lined road until it reached the hotel’s new, Euro-futuristic-looking conference center. Stepping from the car, Acerbi looked up at the architectural work of art rising above him. He had paid for the building, but up until now he had only seen the architect’s flat, one-dimensional drawings. Sheathed in reflective silver metal, the giant, egg-shaped structure was much more impressive in real life.

Two years before, Acerbi had walked into the architect’s office to look at the plans.

“What is it?”

“It’s an egg, Mr. Acerbi. It signifies new birth … the theme you requested.”

Acerbi spent several minutes staring at the blueprints on the drafting table, pondering the shape of the building, until finally a tight smile crossed his lips. “I like it. You may proceed with construction.”

Now, walking through the front door for the first time, he removed his coat and handed it to one of the security men walking by his side as they followed a long curving hallway lined with floor-to-ceiling glass along the outside wall. Continuing on, they passed through the blue-carpeted space until they came to a pair of stainless steel doors that led to the center’s large auditorium. Acerbi paused and looked back at the men in suits before taking a deep breath and entering alone.

From the back of the auditorium, he could see a large gathering of well-dressed people, all talking and laughing as they sat grouped together in front of an empty stage. Acerbi waited. Seconds later, the unmistakable sound of door locks clicking into place stopped all conversation as every head turned to face the man who had just entered. It was as though some instinctual, primal force had just spread throughout the room-an invisible telepathic warning prompting those inside to freeze in place, like a herd of gazelles that had just caught the scent of a predator drifting on the wind over the African savannah.

Acerbi looked directly ahead as he brushed the lapel on his designer suit and smoothed his thick, black hair straight back. With a deliberate stride, he focused his gaze on the stage ahead as he walked past the curious assembly and ascended a set of curved wooden stairs to a raised, semi-circular structure that jutted out into the immense space.

Trying to gauge the mood of his audience, he turned his head slightly to observe the faces of those looking up at him from their seats below. Their faces had turned to stone. The fact that these emotionless faces belonged to some of the most influential people in the world was not lost on him as he reached the glass podium and scanned the area for anyone who had not been invited.

Acerbi was no stranger to this group. In fact, as a scion of one of the wealthiest families in Europe, if not the world, he was an esteemed member of their gentrified cloister. It was an elite club in the tradition of a world that no longer existed-feudal lords and ladies shorn of their gilded robes, replaced instead with modern business attire. Ever since he could remember, they had all traveled in the same social circles. They had vacationed at the same summer resorts, gone to the same prep schools and colleges, joined the same exclusive clubs. They were the select few who ruled from the very pinnacle of a secret and privileged society that had embraced them with all the tender loving care a mother feels for her young.

Born of an Italian father and a French mother, his first name, Rene, meant reborn in French, while his Italian surname, Acerbi, meant heartless-a heartless man born for a heartless task. Very fitting for the job ahead, he thought to himself, for Rene Acerbi possessed a secret that he was not about to share, at least not yet.

Looking down on his wealthy peers, Acerbi allowed himself a tight smile as his eyes narrowed in preparation for the speech he was about to deliver. This meeting had been his idea. For the past several weeks, he had dispatched couriers around the globe to deliver sealed invitations to this select group whose members were a veritable who’s who of the rich and powerful. The list included several influential CEO’s who headed billion-dollar corporations, a number of high-ranking government leaders, and a collection of private citizens descended from old money-men and women of considerable power who preferred to rule from the shadows.

Because of their worldwide connections, the members of this exclusive club were sought out by other wealthy and influential people who had no idea who they were really dealing with when they needed a favor, legal or otherwise, that required a high level of discretion-a very high level. But every favor had its price, and as the favors mounted, so too did the influence of the Acerbi clan. Over time, they had become embedded among the power elite around the globe-secret players hidden in plain sight within the governments of practically every country on earth.

Acerbi stood unblinking as he watched his audience and waited. A phone on the podium rang only once before he picked up the receiver and listened without comment before hanging up. Satisfied at last that they would not be interrupted, he stepped to the side and turned to face a large screen that was already lowering into position behind him. The lights began to dim just as a flickering beam from a concealed projector filled the screen with colorful moving images selected to deliver maximum visual impact to his audience.

There was no sound as the film began and the camera focused in on a glimmering pond. The surface of the pond was topped by water lilies and populated by reeds, and along the gently sloping grassy edge, flowers of every imaginable color grew alongside its banks. The stillness of the scene was finally broken by a small silvery fish that jumped into the air and splashed back down into the crystal clear water. In the distance, the fleeting glimpse of a deer moving through leafy woods was captured by the camera before the animal became aware of the presence of humans and scampered off into the thick underbrush.

The film then morphed into a fast-forward, time lapse montage that showed more and more creatures sharing the pond as it changed over the years from its tranquil beginnings into an overcrowded, polluted pool of stagnant water. Soon, the reeds and flowers were gone, replaced instead by an eroded, muddy bank littered with the skeletal remains of animals that had drunk from the pond’s filthy water. On the surface, bloated fish floated in the murky froth, and even the birds avoided landing near their once beautiful watering hole.

As the camera panned up from the pond, the audience grew increasingly uncomfortable when they saw that the surrounding woods were now gone. Hundreds of trees had been chopped down, replaced instead with metal buildings built upon acres of concrete and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Heavy equipment could be seen coming and going from the site, and a large metal pipe leading from the property oozed a brown, sludge-like substance into the once pristine pond.

The film abruptly changed to a scene filmed from an old Stearman biplane as it flew over the city of Dallas, Texas in 1949. The flickering black and white images revealed a rapidly growing post-war city rising from the flat tree-covered plains, and as the plane flew on, the scratchy film revealed acres and acres of pastoral farms interspaced between open ranchland reaching outward as far as the eye could see.

The scene slowly faded, then jumped to new color digital images taken recently from the open door of a jet-powered helicopter. The new film jolted viewers with the shocking reality that a drastic change had occurred across the same landscape within a single generation. The old two lane, ribbon-like, country road that had once been the only connection between the two cities of Dallas and Fort Worth had been replaced by several multi-lane expressways full of speeding cars, and it was painfully obvious from the lack of open countryside that miles of virgin earth had completely disappeared.

Alongside the new superhighways, rural farmland had been gobbled up in a mindless orgy of construction as vast tracts of land had been cleared away to make room for sprawling new suburbs. Endless rows of newly-built houses were separated by even more wide swaths of snake-like concrete that undulated into infinity, while any remaining bare land sprouted asphalt islands filled with retail shopping space in anticipation of the hordes of shoppers that would surely follow. The two cities were actually growing together, giving rise to a new term that had recently entered the American lexicon-The Metroplex.

As abruptly as it started, the film ended and the lights inside the auditorium slowly came back up. Acerbi resumed his place at the podium and paused to study the solemn faces staring up at the screen.

“I hope you will all excuse me for this bit of cinematic drama, but I had some of my people put this short film together to illustrate something that concerns all of us, and if we don’t act soon, the window of opportunity to do something about it will be lost to us forever.”

From the third row of seats facing the stage, a voice shouted out. “What is all of this, Rene?”

A second voice followed with another question. “Yes … what’s your point … what are you showing us?”

Acerbi smoothed the dangling black hair from his forehead and squinted at the scowling faces peering back at him. Inhaling deeply, he let his breath flow out in a long, slow hiss of air before speaking. “What I have endeavored to show you with these simple pictures, my dear friends, is nothing short of our eventual demise as a species unless we begin to take action now.”

The expected murmur caused by over fifty voices all talking at once filled the auditorium.

Exuding the aura of an elder statesman, a white-haired man stood in the front row.

“Just what kind of action are you talking about, Rene?”

The back and forth banter was growing louder as Acerbi tapped his hand against the microphone. He wasn’t smiling as he fixed his guests with dark eyes-eyes accustomed to watching for subtle reactions that revealed weakness in others during long hours of business negotiations-negotiations that usually ended in his favor after those sitting across the table from him noticed the cold and calculating stare that signaled he had inherited the warrior DNA of his ancestors.

Taking a sip of water from a glass on the podium, Acerbi paused before speaking again. “The images from the film you have just seen were selected to illustrate a point. Our planet is changing. The world is currently undergoing change at a rate never before seen in history, and the populations of our cities are increasing to unsustainable limits. As you all saw in the film, the effects of a growing human population on a small, local pond can be devastating … but the results of the same inevitable population increase on a global scale will soon be a worldwide catastrophe. We are standing by idly while the planet’s resources are being gobbled up at a fantastic rate, and the effect on our cities will be the same as that on the pond. If mankind continues along this self-destructive path, there will be nothing left to sustain future generations.”

“But that’s just nature taking its course,” said a man who looked confused by the whole subject.

Nervous laughter filled the room as a second voice called out, “It’s called progress, Rene.”

“Not true,” Acerbi replied. “What’s happening in the world is most certainly not nature taking its course. Just look at these numbers.” A graph flashed up on the screen. “In our entire history … since mankind first appeared in the world, we had to wait until the year 1804 for the planet’s population to reach one billion people, but then things began to change rapidly. In 1927, only a little over a hundred years later, we reached the two billion mark, and we kept growing.” Acerbi pointed to the graph. “Look at the years 1959, 1974, and 1987 … all years where an additional billion people were added. Now look at the space between 1999 and 2011. In just twelve years another billion people were tacked on to the total. Today the planet has seven billion people. The exponential, mathematical result of an industrialized society trying to supply a world population that is growing to unprecedented levels will be unsustainable in the future. Do any of you know that it takes 2000 gallons of water to manufacture one pair of jeans? Insanity! Progress as we know it is sowing the seeds of our destruction. Our world is like that pond. It’s a metaphor for what is now occurring around the globe, and soon we will all run out of the resources necessary to sustain life. Our finite planet will reach a point from which there will be no return.”

“That’s hogwash!” An oil man from Texas stood in the middle of the room and faced the stage, his jowly face beet red. “With modern technology, we can grow enough food and produce enough oil to last a thousand years, and by then we’ll have figured out new technology to deal with the growing population. People want growth … we need it. Growth is good for business. More people mean more cars and a greater demand for our oil. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Acerbi’s eyes narrowed at the man. It was obvious he would have to be dealt with. “We don’t have a thousand years … we may not even have another hundred. And, if you add the growing populations of India and China into the equation, it won’t be long until the world is unable to supply the amounts of food and oil their growing economies will demand. The skies over the earth’s largest cities are already becoming choked with air pollution … pollution that will only spread with time due to the increasing number of gas powered vehicles on the road.”

Acerbi continued to fix the audience with an icy stare, for he had long suspected that some of them had drifted away from the core objectives of a secret society born of vengeance.

Seven-hundred years was a long time to wait.

Several members of the group shifted uneasily in their seats, especially those who had made vast fortunes from industries that profited from the manufacture and sale of products that left a trail of environmental destruction across the globe.

An executive from one of Acerbi’s own companies leaned forward in her seat. “We now own most of the farmland in America, Rene. We export wheat all over the globe, and we still have tons left over. And as far as the so-called air pollution problem is concerned, I’ve heard that the earth will always clean itself, just as it’s done for millions of years.”

Acerbi’s eyes zeroed in on the speaker. Another name to add to the list of those who would have to go if she balked when it came time to do what was required of her.

“We could debate this all day, but for the past several years I have spent considerable time working with several world-renowned scientists, and they all agree with what I’ve just said. Within a hundred years, the world’s population will grow to unsustainable limits. The economies of China and India are growing, and soon they will be just as dependent on the luxuries of life as we are, with the resultant demand for more resources. It’s a predetermined mathematical fact. This planet will soon have nothing left to give us, and there’s nothing to stop it unless we take drastic action. The scientists who have been working with me on this problem come from some of the finest universities around the world. Many of them are household names. They’ve run the numbers over and over again, and the results are invariably the same.”

“My God, Rene!” a man in the front row shouted. “Are you absolutely sure?”

“There’s no doubt about it. Mathematics leaves little room for error … it’s a pure science with no bias or emotion. The language of science doesn’t lie. It reveals only the hard, cold truth. This nightmare is real, people, and it’s coming.”

“What do you propose we do about it, Rene?” The question was posed by a female voice cloaked in shadow in the back of the room.

Acerbi moved from behind the podium and walked to the edge of the stage. “That, my friends, is what I have called you here to discuss. Together with our partners around the world, we have accumulated untold wealth and power over the years, but as you can see, only a select few of you have been invited to this gathering. I have brought us together so that we can form the core of a new and even more exclusive group … a group that will continue to meet in secret when decisions need to be made. The decisions we will make together will sometimes be difficult. In fact, they may even seem ruthless to many of you, but nothing less than the very fate of our world is at stake.” Acerbi paused to gauge the effect his words were having on his audience.

“Our time is now at hand. People have become like sheep … sheep who have fallen under the spell of increasingly glitzy advertising campaigns aimed at thrusting incompetent men into offices of immense power at election time. We can no longer endure the kind of stewardship provided by these self-serving con men who are elected by an uninformed populace, nor can we tolerate any misguided movements from the proletariat masses who would seek to overthrow the governments we already control behind the scenes. One only has to look at the failed revolutions of the past to see what can happen when an uneducated underclass comes to power. This is a time like no other in history. The future is within our grasp. Together we will bring order to the world … a new world order. From this point forward, the subject of our discussions must remain a tightly guarded secret, for if the world ever hears what I am about to say, none of us will be safe … no matter how many security people we employ.”

CHAPTER 2

Rome — The Vatican

A driving spring rain pelted the slick cobblestones covering Saint Peter’s Square, making it difficult to see the outline of the red BMW sports car as it materialized from the curtain-like downpour and raced through the gate leading into the San Damaso Courtyard before sliding to a stop at the entrance to the Apostolic Palace. Peering through the car’s rain-streaked windows, water ran off the pointed end of the Swiss Guard’s steel helmet as he snapped to attention and saluted the blurred image of the driver inside.

The impending arrival of the car had been cleared moments earlier by the head of the Vagili, the Vatican’s secret service sworn to protect the pope, but in all actuality any scrutiny given to the vehicle was more or less a formality, for the little red car was just as familiar to the Vatican’s security force as the pope’s armored limo.

Dressed in a dark blue suit, a member of the elite palace guard ran through the downpour to extend an umbrella over the visitor’s head as he climbed from the low car and made his way into the building. Once inside, the new arrival stopped to brush the rain from his long black cassock before heading straight for a hidden elevator that would whisk him to the papal apartments three stories above. The visitor needed no directions to the pope’s living quarters, for he had made this trip many times before.

Stepping from the elevator, the man’s footsteps echoed over the patterned-marble floors as he approached a pair of tall wooden doors guarded by two very large Swiss Guards holding long pikes and wearing the famous yellow and blue uniforms designed during the Renaissance by none other than Michelangelo himself. The guards remained statue-like, staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to the man’s presence as he waited patiently for the doors to be opened from the inside by an old Jesuit priest by the name of Enzo Corelli, the official Papal Secretary.

Finally, the huge doors to the papal apartments began to swing open, revealing an opulent reception area. Antique Baroque furniture dominated the decor, while a large, crystal chandelier cast an ethereal glow over the priceless art spaced around the red and gold papered walls. Ushering him forward, the priest led the man into a side corridor and seated him outside the entrance to the pope’s private chapel.

“Is there anything I can get for you, Bishop?”

Bishop Anthony Morelli gazed up at the aging face and smiled. “No … thank you, Enzo. I think I’ll just sit here until His Holiness is finished with his prayers.”

Eyeing the bishop’s ruddy complexion and slight paunch, the pope’s secretary smiled.

“Holding out for some of Pope Michael’s private stock of French wine, eh, Anthony?”

“You know me too well, old friend. His Holiness always lets me sample one of his special wines when I visit, although I hear he’s developed a taste for the California reds since his last trip to America.”

The old priest’s eyes widened. “I just finished e-mailing a new order to a Napa winery this morning. I’m beginning to think what people say about you is true, Anthony.”

“And what would that be, Enzo?”

“That somehow, you really do know everything that goes on within the Vatican.”

The two men smiled at one another before the elder man turned and walked slowly back down the corridor, shaking his head as he disappeared into his private office.

Bishop Anthony Morelli had known the old Jesuit for over thirty years-ever since that memorable day when Morelli first arrived at the Vatican from America as a very young and newly-ordained priest with a PhD in archaeology. After an exhaust spewing green and black-painted taxi had dropped him off, he had stood in the courtyard next to his small suitcase and stared up at the imposing structure of the Apostolic Palace, afraid to go forward but not daring to retreat.

Peering from a fourth-floor window of the poorly-lit offices of the Vatican’s Department of Archaeology, Father Enzo Corelli had spotted the lost-looking priest standing alone in the courtyard below and had rushed down the stairs to welcome him.

Morelli had never forgotten the old man’s kindness for coming down to greet him that day, or the fact that during his first few months at his new job, Father Corelli had taken the young priest under his wing in an effort to educate him in the subtle game of avoiding the politics that existed within the Curia-the Vatican’s equivalent of a governmental civil service. The Roman Curia controlled the bishops, the bishops controlled the clergy, and the clergy controlled the laity. In short, the Curia oversaw all aspects of Vatican life, including all of its governmental offices.

Over time, Morelli’s superiors began to take note of the young priest’s talent for discovering long-forgotten libraries that lay hidden in plain sight. In tiny villages that dotted the ancient landscape around the Mediterranean, Morelli had uncovered dusty repositories of ancient wisdom that held previously unnoticed clues to the past-clues that would lead him to dig in weed-covered patches of ground where he would discover the remains of civilizations hidden from view for thousands of years. In less than two years from the day of his arrival in Rome, it was apparent to all that Morelli was rapidly becoming one of the most forward-thinking archaeologists in the world.

Morelli’s star continued to rise at the Vatican along with that of an old classmate by the name of Marcus Lundahl. The two priests had been friends since their days together in Jesuit seminary in America. Born in Norway, Lundahl, a quiet man with a superior intellect, was destined to become a Prince of the Church, but his appointment with destiny was yet to come. After becoming an authority on Canon Law and serving briefly as the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Lundahl had gone on to achieve the greatest title of them all, a title that would change his very name forever, for Cardinal Marcus Lundahl had become Pope Michael-the first Norwegian pope in Catholic Church history.

Known in Italian as the appartamento pontificio, the papal apartments were made up of ten large rooms and included a beautiful rooftop garden. The front section of the papal suite held the reception area, the secretary’s office, and a complete medical facility. Running through the center of the apartments, a long marble corridor led to the supreme pontiff’s private chapel located next to a vast library that contained over 20,000 books. From there, a passage through the thick inner walls led to a formal dining room, the kitchen, the pope’s private study, and finally, the papal bedroom.

Those few who had entered the papal bedroom were always surprised by its spartan appearance. In fact, in the early days of the palace, the small room had actually been the sleeping quarters of a servant-a very fitting analogy to the fact that one of the pope’s many titles was Servant of the Servants of God. A simple wooden cross hung over the bed, and instead of the beautifully inlaid marble floors found throughout the rest of the palace, the wooden floor in the pope’s bed chamber dated back to the palace’s original construction in the 1500’s. The worn flooring was polished daily to a high sheen by a group of nuns who watched over the papal apartments with a fierce dedication that resembled a mother lion guarding her young. It is said that, if an intruder ever made it past the Swiss Guards, he would never live to tell of his encounter with the nuns who watched over the pope.

Elected for life as the supreme ruler of the Catholic Church and known to millions the world over as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the pope is also a world leader who wields extraordinary power over the political, ideological, and economic policies of millions of people all over the globe. And, as a monarch whose rule is absolute, he does so without the constraint of any legislative or judicial control to hinder his decisions.

Because of the pope’s immense worldwide power, along with the fact that the Vatican is a country unto itself, there must be a second in command waiting to step forward in case the pope suddenly dies or is incapacitated. In the Vatican, this distinction falls upon the Secretary of State. This position is always occupied by a cardinal who, by necessity, also happens to be one of the pope’s closest associates.

These facts were very much on Bishop Morelli’s mind as he waited in the hallway outside the private chapel, for he had just received the terrible news that the private jet carrying the much beloved Cardinal Orsini, the Vatican’s longtime Secretary of State, had just slammed into the side of a mountain in Spain.

Without fanfare, a tall man with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes emerged from the papal chapel, his long white cassock trailing on the floor behind him.

“Good evening, Anthony. I heard you were coming.”

“Thank you for seeing me, Your Holiness.”

The pope smiled as he clasped Morelli on the shoulder. “You are a welcome sight this evening, Bishop. What’s so important to bring you out in this horrible weather?”

Morelli paused just long enough for the pope’s blue eyes to focus in on him with a steely gaze.

“I’m afraid I bring Your Holiness some bad news.”

“Is it someone close to us?”

“Very close, I’m afraid. It’s Cardinal Orsini. We received word a short time ago that his plane disappeared from radar as it passed over the Pyrenees on the return trip home from America. We were waiting for further news when the Spanish Ambassador called to confirm that their military had found the plane’s wreckage on the side of a mountain in the northern part of the country.”

“Were there any survivors?”

“No, Your Holiness. The military rescue teams on the scene reported that it must have been a very high-speed impact. The weather at the crash site was clear, so the implication at this point is that there was some sort of mechanical malfunction. There was no radio communication from the aircraft.”

The pope glanced down at the gold papal ring on his right hand before removing his rosary from beneath his robes and reciting a brief prayer.

“Why don’t we go to my study and have a glass of wine, Anthony.”

The two men passed down a short corridor until they reached a tall-windowed room that looked out over Saint Peter’s Square. As the pope looked for an appropriate selection from inside a wood-paneled wine cooler built into the wall, Morelli took a seat on a facing sofa and casually scanned the selection of books lying on a side table.

Next to a few leather-bound editions of classic works by well-known theologians and philosophers, he noticed several copies of the International Defense Review along with other surprising titles like The Problems of Military Readiness, Military Balance and Surprise Attack, and Worldwide Terrorist Organizations. Then, next to these, he saw another interesting title: Spiritual Warfare.

Although it was well known that Pope Michael was a prolific reader and that his grasp of geopolitics was formidable, Morelli smiled with the knowledge that the subject matter of the books the pope was reading had always provided him with a window into the pontiff’s thinking at the moment.

Turning his attention away from the side table, Morelli saw that the pope had finished pouring the wine and was looking straight at him with an unwavering gaze as he stretched back in the red leather chair behind his desk.

“Have any of our people made it to the crash site to offer prayers for the souls of those onboard?”

“I’m afraid not, Your Holiness. Apparently, the plane went down in a very mountainous region of the country.”

Sipping his wine, the pope turned toward the window and looked out at the dark, rain-drenched skies. “You know, Anthony, over the years you have always been one of my closest and most trusted friends, but I have purposefully kept from promoting you to a higher office so that you would be free to work behind the scenes for me. Your strength lies in your obscurity. A man can accomplish much without the hindrance of a title, and as much as you deserve to become a Prince of the Church, I hope you understand my desire to keep you out of that particular political mix.”

“Titles have never been my goal in life, Your Holiness. My only desire is to serve God and the Church.”

“That, my friend, is what I have always known about you. Your faith is what makes you one of the Church’s most valued soldiers of the cross, and your earthly reward will come in time. Now that Cardinal Orsini has passed over, we must find a replacement.”

Morelli managed a weak smile. “I sincerely hope now is not the time Your Holiness is thinking of rewarding me.”

Both men smiled at one another, their facial expressions frozen in a diplomatic dance.

“What about Cardinal Amodeo?” Morelli asked, watching the pope’s stark blue Norwegian eyes in an attempt to spot the tell-tale flash that would answer his question just as surely as any spoken words.

The expected flash never came as the pope’s expression remained neutral. “Yes, I suppose Leopold would make an excellent Secretary of State. He’s one of the finest Jesuit scholars in Church history, but as much as I would like to see him in that position, the ceremonial obligations of that office would make him completely miserable. He already complains about his duties as a cardinal. Sometimes I think I did him a great injustice by making him a Prince of the Church.”

“I’m afraid Leo’s hopelessly lost in the past, Your Holiness. He loved teaching. Just last week, he was talking about how much he missed the intellectual stimulation of academic life at Boston College. He seems distracted lately. In fact, I took the liberty of encouraging him to take a much needed sabbatical at my country house near Sermoneta. I left a message at his apartment for him to call me as soon as he returns.”

“Phones?”

“Turned off. He has only his thoughts for company.”

“Good. I only hope our brother is well-rested when he returns. I will need both of you at my side when I make my final decision concerning Orsini’s replacement. How did you ever convince our good friend the cardinal to take a sabbatical?”

“It was easy. I simply told him you ordered it.”

Both men laughed as Morelli took a sip of wine and rolled it over his tongue.

“California Cabernet Sauvignon?”

“Yes, excellent, isn’t it?” The pope held his glass up and watched the light pass through the red liquid swirl. “But I’m afraid you know your wine too well to have to ask me a question like that, Bishop. Something else is troubling you, my friend, and you’re stalling for time. What’s on your mind?”

Morelli realized his friend had seen right through his efforts at small talk. Setting his glass on the table, he clasped both hands together before leaning forward.

“Yes, Your Holiness, there is another problem. It concerns our old friend, Lev Wasserman.”

“Was he also on the plane?”

“No, sir. He’s quite safe at his villa in Israel.”

A look of relief crossed the pope’s face, for it was well known that Lev Wasserman, the famous Israeli mathematician who had discovered the hidden code in the Bible the year before, was also a close friend of the Church and sometimes flew to meetings with top Vatican officials.

“What’s our Israeli friend got to do with all of this?”

“It has nothing to do with the plane crash, Your Holiness. He’s requesting a meeting with you.”

“Of course. Lev knows my door is always open to him. What’s on his mind?”

“He’s just informed me that …” Morelli’s words drifted off as he stood to watch the rain pelting the windows in the darkness outside.

“Informed you of what, Anthony?”

“The code, Your Holiness … it is speaking to us again.”

CHAPTER 3

Closing the back door to her condo, Sarah Adams stepped out into the early morning darkness and shivered in the cold air as wisps of steam rose from the cup of hot coffee in her hand. Her only consolation at being awake at this hour of the morning was the realization that the days were growing longer and that her drive to the train station would soon be in brilliant sunlight as the seasons rotated in a slow dance with the rhythms of life.

Although she sometimes complained about the time it took to travel from her suburban home on Long Island to her new job at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, she secretly loved the train ride into the city. Now that it was springtime, she was looking forward to watching the new green leaves re-populate the trees outside the windows of the fast-moving commuter train as it sped toward the faint gray outlines of the giant skyscrapers that rose in the distance.

Her new life was so completely different from the familiar surroundings of her home town. There were no commuter trains in West Texas, or giant skyscrapers for that matter. Six months ago, Sarah had moved to New York after finally earning a marketing degree at Texas Tech University. Her new career in advertising was a radical departure from her former job as a flight attendant, and at times it seemed more confining, but she had decided to give it a year and see what developed. After that, who knew? She was still involved in a long-distance relationship with Daniel Meir, the young Israeli mathematician she had shared an adventure with in Italy the year before, and the pull there was strong. Now in her mid-twenties, she was rapidly approaching the established age limit for making life decisions, and the clock was running.

Thinking of time, she jumped into her small green Mini Cooper and gunned the car out onto the tree-lined highway that ran next to her condo. Approaching a curve, she tried to peer through the low ground fog hugging the dark road ahead, looking for the outline of a police cruiser lying in wait. Her heart jumped when she flew past a parked car locked in shadows. Damn! Was that a police car? Glancing up into her rear-view mirror, she held her breath, waiting for it to pull out behind her. Nothing happened. Sarah stepped on the gas.

Ten minutes later, the red brick train station appeared off to her right as she rounded the final curve and screeched into the parking lot. The train was still sitting in the station, but the platform was empty. Double damn! The passengers had already boarded, which meant the train was about to leave. Great! She was still considered the new girl in the office, and if she missed this train, she would be late for the battle of egos thinly disguised as the daily morning staff meeting. Not a good start in her new position.

Grabbing her purse from the front seat, she tried to juggle her keys, laptop, and coffee all at once as she kicked the door closed and punched the button on her key fob. Listening for the sound of the car’s doors locking behind her as she ran, Sarah bolted through the station and out onto the deserted platform.

As soon as she spotted the smiling conductor waving to her, she breathed a sigh of relief as she ran toward the only door in the train that was still open. Reaching out, the conductor grabbed her hand just as the train jerked, signaling the pull from the massive blue and silver engine as it began powering out of the station toward its final destination-New York City.

Closing the door, the conductor turned toward the breathless young woman and looked down at the gold pocket watch in his hand. “You just made it, Sarah.”

Sarah grinned as she tossed a strand of long, blonde hair back over her shoulder. “The cops are running radar again on the road from my house. One more speeding ticket and I’ll lose my license for the rest of the year.”

“I saw your little green Mini Cooper squeal into the parking lot, so I radioed the engineer.” The conductor’s eyes narrowed. “We held the train an extra minute, and you are now personally responsible for tarnishing the Long Island Railway’s proud record of being ninety-five percent on time.”

Sarah’s blue eyes blinked back at him. “Really?”

“No … we’ll make up the time at the next stop. Besides, I reserve the right to hold the train so important women like you won’t be late for work.” The gray-haired conductor winked. It was a ritual they played out every morning.

Sarah giggled to herself as she made her way forward past the familiar faces of the regular commuters. Most were peering into the screens of their laptops, while some of the older passengers were still clinging to the time-honored tradition of reading an actual newspaper. It seemed to be a point of pride to them-an act of generational rebellion proving to the world that they didn’t have to be tied to a battery-powered screen for instant communication. Any news worth having would be in the paper, they told themselves, the rest could wait.

Breathing more slowly now, Sarah slid into an empty seat and leaned her head against the glass just as the station disappeared behind them and the train gathered speed. She looked back inside the car at her fellow passengers, none of whom seemed at all interested in what was happening outside. It was obvious to her that the scenery had become too familiar to them, as if anything beyond the train’s windows was merely a rotating tableau of color played on an endless loop, the same old backdrop that had become almost soothing to them in its regularity.

Turning her attention back outside, Sarah eschewed joining her traveling brethren as they immersed themselves in their virtual offices or blackened their fingers with the ink of day-old news. Hers was a creative profession, and like others who were successful at inspired pursuits, she had learned over time that daydreaming, combined with the power of observation, was actually a mechanism whereby the trained observer could harvest ideas. Like the farmers back in Texas who stared at their bare fields, waiting for signs of life in the spring, Sarah waited for the tiny sprouts of ideas to spring forth in her imagination. One fleeting image, a single inspired idea, could be the beginning of an entire advertising campaign that would generate millions of dollars in revenue for her firm.

The rhythmic sway of the blue and silver train lulled Sarah into a state of sleepy detachment from her travelling companions as it continued on through the countryside, making several stops along the way, until soon, the scenery began to change as the speeding train crossed an invisible border that delineated the rural world of greenery from the urban grayness that heralded the train’s arrival on the outskirts of the fabled city.

Tall buildings loomed overhead as the train reached the East River and made a final downward plunge into the tunnel that ran beneath its dark, frigid water. From the openness of the countryside into the claustrophobic dinginess of the underground world beneath the city, the train began to slow as it clattered toward mid-town Manhattan and finally screeched to a stop alongside a brightly-lit platform in one of the busiest rail stations in the world-New York’s Penn Station.

Located below Madison Square Garden, beneath the uninspired and unimaginative glass and steel office tower known as Pennsylvania Plaza, Penn Station was a gigantic subterranean railway hub that connected with the New York City subway system and served almost 600,000 passengers a day at a rate of up to a thousand every 90 seconds. These incredible numbers made Penn Station the single busiest passenger transportation facility in North America.

Amid the din of constant arrivals and departures, Sarah exited her train and walked down a flight of grimy concrete stairs to the subway platform below. There, she would wait for the subway train that would whisk her to her final stop fifteen blocks away.

As a casual observer of all things beautiful, Sarah winced as she looked around at her drab surroundings. Closing her eyes, she thought back to what had happened here in the past. She knew that this space had once been the site of one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, and that its senseless destruction fifty years earlier had been the catalyst for the entire architectural preservation movement that had sprung up all across America.

Before the present, modernist-inspired station was built in the 1960’s, this space had once been home to a much grander Pennsylvania Station. The original structure had been a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture and had been heralded around the world as one of the most beautiful buildings ever created. Built in 1910 of pink granite and surrounded by a colonnade of Corinthian columns, the spectacular building was a breathtaking, monumental entrance to New York City.

Its massive waiting area was approximately the same size as the nave in Saint Peter’s Basilica and was inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla. The grand station encompassed one of the largest public spaces in the world, covering more than 7 acres, and to build such a magnificent structure today would cost in excess of 2.5 billion dollars.

Of course, in all its corporate wisdom, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided that, in an effort to save money on upkeep and thus make more profit, the stunning fifty-year-old building, designed by some of the most famous architects in the world, should be torn down and replaced with a more modern structure. When it finally fell to the wrecker’s ball in 1963 amid widespread international protest, the public labeled its demise as a monumental act of corporate vandalism. With the knowledge that something irreplaceable had vanished from the land, a revolted nation was quickly united into action against the demolition of other historic structures throughout the country.

Sarah was at least buoyed by the fact that the horrific destruction of the old Penn Station had stopped the demolition of another beautiful New York City landmark, Grand Central Station, but it had taken a huge court battle against a major corporation to accomplish it. Just like the stunning Baths of Caracalla that had stood for over four centuries before being destroyed by the Barbarians, modern corporate barbarians had erased one of the most beautiful buildings on earth only fifty years after it had been built-a fact not lost on modern New Yorkers and others across America who were watching their architectural history collapse into piles of rubble on a daily basis.

Bringing her thoughts back to the present, Sarah positioned herself next to a blue and white graffiti-covered pillar and watched her fellow commuters as they began filling the concrete platform. Scanning the growing crowd, Sarah noticed a brightly-colored food cart advertising samples of whole wheat crackers made from organically grown wheat. Obviously, one of her advertising competitors had secured permission from the transit authority to use a public subway platform filled with commuters to introduce a new product to the public. Not a bad idea. In all likelihood, most of her fellow commuters had rushed from their homes without eating, and this location at this time of day was the perfect choice for launching a new brand to a swelling crowd of bored and hungry people.

Taking one of the samples, Sarah munched on the salty treat as her eyes drifted over the crowd and settled on a man with jerky dark eyes and a scraggly black beard. The man was wearing a wrinkled white dress shirt and gray slacks that were one size too large, making it necessary for him to cinch them up with a thin, black, patent leather belt. His nervous demeanor, along with his just-off-the-boat choice of clothing, marked him as a recent immigrant-except for the shoes.

Sarah’s advertising firm had just finished doing an ad campaign for a famous designer brand of Italian leather dress shoes. Sarah had even purchased a pair for her father as a birthday present, and she knew they weren’t cheap. As she stood next to the pillar, munching on a cracker and wondering how a man who dressed so poorly could afford to buy a pair of shoes like that, she noticed that he was standing right against the yellow line painted at the edge of the platform. Looking closer, she noticed that his eyes were darting quickly back and forth as he kept looking up and down the track, then down at his watch, then back at the track.

Maybe he was just late for an appointment, Sarah thought.

The bouncing headlight of a distant train approaching from the darkness of the tunnel caused Sarah to look away for a moment before turning her attention back to the man on the platform. Right away she noticed that his dark eyes were darting about even more feverishly than before as he looked over his shoulder and scanned the crowd before inching forward past the yellow line and stepping right against the concrete edge of the platform. Oh, God … was this guy a jumper?

With the sound of the approaching train now filling the station, the man withdrew a small canister from his pocket. To Sarah, the object resembled the silvery glass liner of a thermos bottle, and as the man clutched the shiny cylinder tightly to his chest, he appeared to be mumbling something to himself as he looked down the track before fixing his eyes on the approaching train.

Against the sound of screeching brakes, the train entered the station in a blur of speed and light, but before the front of the train passed the spot where the man was standing, he reached out and tossed the cylinder onto the tracks. The faint pop of glass breaking under pressure preceded a white, dust-filled cloud that swirled off the tracks just as the push of air from the arriving train blew it over the platform and through the tunnel ahead.

Sarah was jolted by the sight. Why did he do that?

With the threat of terrorism still deeply fixed in the minds of every New Yorker, Sarah looked on in horror as the hazy, vapor-like cloud of dust descended over the mass of people now crowding the platform. Due in part to the usual dirt and debris stirred up by arriving trains, no one except for Sarah seemed to notice the drifting, talcum-like powder that now entered the eyes, noses, and mouths of everyone around her, and as the tiny white particles floated down their throats and descended into the sponge-like cavities of their lungs, the fine powder triggered a brief cough reflex among those standing on the platform.

The substance fell like a dry rain, swirling under the glare of the florescent lights overhead until it came to rest on every surface-including the fibers of the clothing worn by the commuters as they stepped into the waiting subway car for their ride to the next station.

Sarah looked down at her coat in horror and began to frantically brush away the dust. That only stirred it up more! She glanced back up to see what had become of the man who had thrown the object. He was gone! Like a ghost, he had disappeared into the crowd, and like the lingering aroma of a strong perfume, the strange powder-like residue was all that remained of his visit.

Instinctively, Sarah knew she was in trouble-that everyone around her was in trouble. But how would she tell them? She couldn’t just go running through the crowd like a crazy woman, yelling and screaming that she thought they were all going to die from a cloud of white powder that came from a mysterious bearded man. Or could she? Maybe that’s exactly what she should do.

Sarah stood frozen on the platform, not knowing what to do next as people flooded into the waiting train. With a sudden hiss of air, the doors closed and the train moved away from the platform, leaving a shaken and bewildered Sarah Adams alone and shivering in the now empty station as the mysterious white powder was sucked along with the train into the subway system below the streets of New York City. By all appearances, it seemed that Penn Station was about to undergo its second great catastrophe.

CHAPTER 4

From his vantage point beneath the rust-colored umbrella that shaded his outdoor table, Cardinal Leopold Amodeo sipped coffee from a small porcelain cup and gazed across Rome’s Piazza Navona. Something about the scene wasn’t quite right. This area of town, usually filled to capacity at this time of day, was strangely void of the camera-encrusted tourists trying to capture the beauty of Bernini’s fountain in a digital image that did little to convey the noise and sights and smells of one of Rome’s most famous piazzas.

The cardinal’s intelligent green eyes squinted in the early morning sunlight as he clicked through a mental checklist of the day’s appointments and finished a hot cornetto, the Italian version of a croissant. Placing his napkin on the white linen tablecloth, he looked around at all the vacant tables nearby. Was today some kind of holiday he had forgotten about?

Cardinal Leopold-or Leo, the name his friends used-had just returned from a week of much needed solitude at Bishop Anthony Morelli’s country estate south of Rome. The two men were close friends and had known each other since they had studied together at Georgetown University back in the 1970’s. Following graduation, both men had been accepted to the same Jesuit seminary in Maryland, at a time when becoming a priest made every mother proud and people looked upon the man behind the Roman collar with deference and respect.

Although all Jesuit priests took vows of poverty, Leo, along with almost everyone else at the Vatican, was privy to the fact that Morelli had made a small fortune in the stock market. In view of this fact, most of the bishop’s money went to charity, but the pope had allowed Morelli to keep two luxuries for himself-a beautiful palazzo in the country and his beloved, bright red BMW two-seat sports car. This rare papal dispensation was due in part because of Morelli’s generous donations to the Church and his vital role as the Vatican’s Chief of Archaeology, but others knew that the pope also believed in rewarding those who served him well.

After months of watching Leo go about his new duties as a cardinal without stopping to take a day off, Morelli had insisted that his good friend spend a week alone at his country estate. The offer came with the caveat that the Cardinal would receive no communication from the outside world. At first, Leo balked at the idea of a vacation, but after a month of continual pestering from Morelli that resulted in a papal command, he finally accepted the fact that a short sabbatical might be in order.

After the decision had been made for him, Leo had begun to look forward to some time away from his tedious administrative duties, and that time had arrived the week before on a bright Sunday morning. After presiding over an early mass in one of the basilica’s side chapels, Leo had returned to his small Vatican apartment and changed into a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt before making his way downstairs to his tiny white Fiat. Within minutes, the dome of Saint Peter’s had faded in his rear-view mirror as he sped through the maze of heavy traffic on Rome’s narrow side streets. An hour later, he had found himself all alone, motoring along a quiet, twisting road in the valley below the ancient hilltop town of Sermoneta.

Turning into the shaded tree-lined driveway that led to Morelli’s seventeenth-century house, Leo gazed up at an immense reddish-colored structure that was the size of a small palazzo. Fronted by a gravel driveway that circled a four-hundred-year-old fountain topped with a weathered statue of an angel, the house had been built among the ruins of the medieval village of Ninfa during the Renaissance. The family who had once owned the property had converted the entire area into lush gardens fed by clear streams that ran throughout grounds surrounded by crumbling ruins.

Stepping from his small car, Leo spotted the burned remains of a medieval tower to his left. The sight brought back memories of events that had transpired here the year before. He paused, staring at the tower and breathing in the fresh country air before grabbing his backpack from the trunk and making his way inside.

For the next week, Leo had swum in the pool, read, and walked alone in the lush gardens. He had sat among the flowers next to the bank of a wide and shallow stream, thinking of nothing in particular while he watched the crystalline mountain water flowing over green, moss-covered rocks.

This luxurious time spent alone was a precious reminder of how little time he had to himself now that he had inherited the title of Cardinal. A year earlier, he had been quite satisfied with his role as a Jesuit priest who taught history at Boston College, and he had begun to miss his students and the intellectual give and take of the wine-lubricated philosophical discussions that ran late into the night at a local pub.

In the twelve short months since the pope had made him a cardinal and transferred him to Rome, Leo’s life had changed dramatically. His workload had increased ten-fold, but it was not the sort of academic work he preferred. Instead, his new position as a Prince of the Church consisted of endless meetings and bureaucratic details, not to mention the constant demand for him to attend various ceremonies and church functions.

Now that he was away, he had come to realize that this break from the politics at the Vatican had been good for him. He felt refreshed, both physically and spiritually, but the time had passed too quickly and he wished that he could spend a few more days alone, just reading next to the rushing water of the stream while the birds chirped mindlessly in the trees overhead.

He spent the final night of his short vacation sitting up late and writing in his journal before waking at three in the morning. Dressing quickly in a black polo shirt and tan slacks, he closed the front door of the palazzo and stared back at the house wistfully before jumping into his little car for the short trip back to Rome in the early morning darkness.

Arriving at the Vatican just before dawn, Leo showered in his small apartment and dressed in a black, floor length cassock edged with red piping. He then draped a scarlet, watered silk fascia around his waist and donned the signature red skull cap of a cardinal before looking into the mirror, but the reflection still seemed foreign to him. Despite the scarred left eyelid and blunted nose from his days on the boxing team in high school, he was having trouble recognizing the face staring back at him. It seemed as if time had made some sort of cosmic leap since the days when he had been a young college student at Georgetown-to the times when he had to use a fake ID when he went out drinking with his buddies and their manic Jesuit professor who enjoyed watching philosophic theological discussions turn into bar fights. Who would have thought-Leo Amodeo-a cardinal! The absurdity of his meteoric rise within the Church forced him to smile as he hurried from his apartment and out into the city for coffee and a bite to eat at his favorite trattoria.

Now, as the sun rose higher, the cardinal breathed in deeply before lifting his tall frame from a reed-backed chair. Tossing a generous tip on the outdoor table, he walked out into the empty piazza, moving over the smooth cobblestones until he came to a covered wooden produce cart and stopped to admire the fresh offerings of a street vendor.

“Your vegetables look beautiful today,” Leo said.

“Thank you, Your Eminence.” The normally talkative vendor cast his eyes down at the ground. He seemed quiet and withdrawn, as did the other vendors nearby, who stood clumped together in groups, casting furtive glances and talking in whispers.

Leo studied the odd scene momentarily before crossing the piazza and entering an alley-like side street still trapped in early morning shadows. The torrential rain storms of the past few days permeated the air with the smell of damp earth as his robes brushed the cool pavement and he continued along the narrow street lined with pastel-colored shops.

Stepping from a doorway, a local baker blocked Leo’s path. His eyes darted from side to side and his hands seemed to tremble as the frightened-looking man practically begged the cardinal to say a prayer for his family.

“Is everyone well at your house, Signore?”

“For now, Cardinal.”

The baker then turned and rushed back into his small panetteria without making the usual small talk required in polite Italian society, especially when speaking to a Roman Catholic Cardinal. Looking out from his bakery, the man quickly closed his door.

By now, alarm bells were going off in Leo’s head. Something was definitely wrong. He started to follow the baker into his shop before changing his mind after he realized his questions would be better answered at the Vatican. For the past week, he had been totally out of touch with the world, and in that short period of time something had changed-people seemed frightened. He backed away and headed up a slight incline until he reached the spot where he had parked his bright red Vespa motor scooter.

Swinging his tall frame onto the small seat, Leo ran his fingers through his long, gray-streaked black hair and pressed his red skull cap down tightly over his head. With the flick of a switch, the tiny motor came to life and the scooter jerked around the corner and up the Via Del Coronari. Gathering speed, the cardinal’s long black cassock billowed in the wind as he glanced up at a second story window and waved to a smiling group of children who had become accustomed to seeing a Roman Catholic Cardinal speeding through the streets on a small red motorbike. At least the children were smiling today, Leo thought.

The rapidly warming air brushed Leo’s face as he approached the river Tiber and sped over the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II. Weaving his scooter through the sparse traffic, he looked to his right and spotted the imposing structure of the Castel Sant’ Angelo. He lifted his eyes for just a second, focusing on the ancient castle’s summit and the enormous bronze statue of the Archangel Michael, frozen in the act of sheathing his sword with his right hand. The cardinal murmured a silent prayer. It was the same prayer he always offered when he passed the image of the very angel who had protected him and his friends the year before. Turning his attention back to the street, he quickly swerved to avoid a collision with a slower moving vehicle. Shaking off the momentary rush of adrenaline, he leaned to the left and shot up the Via Della Conciliazione toward the Vatican.

Whizzing around the outskirts of Saint Peter’s Square, Leo approached two thick arches that served as an entrance into the Vatican from the Via Di Porta Angelica. Speeding through the ancient portal, he brought the scooter to a stop in his personal parking space next to his car.

Walking out into the sunshine, Leo paused for a moment and peered through Bernini’s columns at the world’s largest church. Conceived by Michelangelo, the immense Renaissance structure was one of the most pictured sites in the world. Between Leo and the church lay the Piazza Di San Pietro, the Square of Saint Peter. For centuries, the stones of the square have covered the ruins of one of ancient Rome’s most notorious sites-the Circus of Nero, where the first organized and state-sponsored martyrdoms of Christians occurred in AD 65. It was also on this spot where, two years later, Saint Peter, along with thousands of other Christians, shared the same fate.

Walking out into the large square, Leo realized the scene here was also odd. The famous square, usually overflowing with people this time of day, was strangely quiet. In fact, the place looked deserted. On any normal day he would have been besieged by throngs of tourists who wanted their picture taken with the famous cardinal whose face had appeared on the cover of almost every newspaper and magazine in the world for the past year. But today it was as if the whole world was taking a nap, and the Swiss Guards, who were usually forced to come to his rescue when he was swarmed by admiring visitors, stood frozen at their posts with grim-looking expressions clouding their faces.

“I see you are back, Cardinal,” a familiar voice called out behind him.

Leo smiled as he turned to see a pudgy, red-headed bishop walking in his direction.

“Good morning, Anthony.”

Leo noticed that Bishop Anthony Morelli’s signature smile was absent as he glanced around the square and stopped to catch his breath.

“Thank God I found you, Leo. I’ve been calling your apartment all morning. You need to come with me … right away.”

“What’s up, Anthony?”

“I’m afraid your normal schedule has been cancelled today, Cardinal. We have an urgent meeting with the pope … and we’re running late.” Morelli looked around once more before taking Leo by the arm and leading him in the direction of the Apostolic Palace.

“The Pope?”

Morelli looked down at the ground and continued leading Leo. “There’s been an incident.”

“An incident? What kind of incident?”

“I don’t want to discuss it here, Leo.”

“Who else is going to be at this meeting?”

“There will be one other. Now come … we must hurry.”

Leo stopped and squinted in the bright sunlight as he raised his head and let his eyes follow the curved outline of Bernini’s colonnade and its 284 columns supporting 162 immense statues of saints. The silent marble images seemed to be studying him, as if they were wondering if this new Prince of the Church would one day join their ranks.

“I’m not taking another step until I know who’s going to be at this meeting.”

Morelli turned, exasperation showing on his face.

“An old friend … Lev Wasserman. He just arrived from Israel this morning on a private jet. Really, Leo … we must go.”

Passing under the colonnade, Morelli avoided a group of nuns walking with their heads down as he led the cardinal across the San Damaso courtyard and passed through the guarded doorway into the Apostolic Palace. From there, two silent men in dark blue suits accompanied them down a side hall until they reached the darkened alcove that concealed the pope’s private elevator.

Leo folded his arms and looked straight ahead as he waited for the gleaming metal doors to slide open. “This is just a wild guess, Bishop, but since Lev’s involved, I’m thinking this meeting has something to do with the code.”

The elevator doors slid open and the two men stepped inside.

Morelli turned to face his friend. “The code is involved … yes … but …”

“But what, Anthony?”

“You’re not going to like it, Cardinal.”

CHAPTER 5

Sarah Adams awakened to a constant beeping sound that seemed to match the rhythmic beat of her heart. Bags of clear liquid appeared to be floating above her head, while moving shadows could be seen beyond the thin, gossamer-like curtains that separated her from whatever lay beyond.

When she inhaled, the machine beside her gasped with escaping air, and she was thirsty, desperately thirsty, as if she had been walking in the desert for days without water. Her nose itched, but when she moved to touch her face she found that her hands seemed trapped. They were tied! Her eyes widened with fear as she struggled against the restraints holding her in place. Where in the hell was she!

A soft, female voice at the foot of her bed called out to the moving figures on the other side of the curtains. “She’s waking up, Doctor.”

Sarah strained to lift her head, but it was no use. She twisted and turned until finally, the face of a young woman appeared nearby, and she could hear a voice that seemed muted and far away. “It’s ok, Sarah. You’re in the hospital, sweetie. You’ve been very sick.”

Sarah felt a cool, damp cloth press against her forehead as the nurse wiped away the beads of sweat threatening to roll down into her eyes. Something was pressing against her lips and running down inside her throat, making it impossible for her to talk. Her terror-filled eyes darted about the room, prompting the nurse to move in closer and give Sarah’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “There’s a tube in your throat that goes down into your lungs. You’re on a breathing machine. Don’t try to talk right now … it will only make your throat hurt worse. Try to relax. Hopefully, we can take the tube out later today if you continue to improve. You’re our miracle girl, Sarah.”

For the first time, Sarah realized that she wasn’t seeing an entire face, that the nurse’s blue eyes were all that were visible over the top of the yellow surgical mask stretched across her nose. In addition to the mask, her hands were clad in purple-colored surgical gloves, and her light blue scrubs were covered by a yellow paper gown, signaling to Sarah that her caregivers were being cautious-cautious of coming into contact with something-something that had already come into contact with her. Frantically, Sarah tried to think, but she remembered nothing.

From the other side of the curtains, gowned and gloved medical personnel flowed in and out of her room as a very tired-looking doctor moved to the head of her bed. Her vision blurred in and out of focus, but with some effort, she was able to tell by the way the doctor’s skin crinkled at the corners of his eyes that he seemed to be smiling. Always a good sign when you were looking up from a hospital bed.

“Good morning, Miss Adams.”

Sarah could only nod her head as she watched the doctor warm his stethoscope with his gloved hand before gently placing it against her skin. He closed his eyes briefly as he listened to the air rushing in and out of her lungs. The day before he had heard the sounds of rhonchi, the sonorous indication of fluid trapped in the larger airways of the lungs. Today, only the clear rush of air filled the doctor’s ears as he opened his eyes and glanced over at the nurse standing across from him. “You’re right. Her lungs sound much better today. Let’s plan on weaning her from the ventilator and getting that tube out this afternoon. I think we’ll be able to move her out of ICU to the medical floor tomorrow if all goes well.”

The doctor then shifted his attention back to Sarah. “You’ve been through quite an ordeal, but you’re getting better. We’ll talk more after you get that tube out of your throat this afternoon.” With that, the doctor stripped off his gloves and yellow gown before stepping outside her room. Sarah could hear him talking in hushed tones to the nurse on the other side of the curtain.

“That’s one tough girl. Did you know she survived an airplane crash in the Mediterranean last year?”

“Really?”

“Yeah. She was involved with that group that discovered the code in the Bible.”

“What’s she doing here?”

“Don’t know. I think she’s a flight attendant or something. She’s still young … I’d really like to see her make it. Has anyone notified her family?”

“Her father called. He’s a pilot for a rich oil man in Texas, but all of the airports in New York are closed right now. We’re keeping him informed by phone.”

The voices faded away as Sarah drifted back to sleep. Outside her room, the doctor crossed the hall, where he would don another yellow gown before seeing his next patient, one not doing as well as Sarah.

Yellow was the international medical color of isolation. From the yellow isolation cart parked outside Sarah’s ICU room, to the masks and gowns worn by the doctors and nurses, the color yellow was a warning to all who entered that the patient was the repository of something contagious. Beyond the curtains lay an invisible, lethal entity that appeared to be viral in nature, and whatever it was, it was proving to be extremely virulent.

Forty-eight hours earlier, the color yellow had begun spreading throughout the hallways of every hospital on the island of Manhattan. To the medical staff, this was a clear indication of the arrival of something deadly that had drifted in on the wind and spread throughout the city, and as thousands of New Yorkers began collapsing in the streets, their homes, and their offices, the city’s hospitals had become overwhelmed to the point of being unable to care for them all.

In only two terror-filled days, thousands had become ill. Some had died almost immediately, while others who had become infected clung to life for only a few short hours before succumbing to this new and horrific microscopic predator. Strangely, it affected only about half of those it came into contact with, but panic still overcame those who, for some reason, had miraculously been left untouched. They found themselves standing on the sidelines watching others die from an invisible airborne pathogen that appeared to be jumping quickly from person to person. No one had a clue as to who would live and who would die. Almost overnight, the strange-behaving epidemic had caused the city to take on the appearance of a metropolitan ghost town as people locked the doors to their apartments and refused to respond to the last cries of their neighbors on the other side of the wall.

Reacting quickly with pre-set emergency management plans, police, medical, and fire department response teams had placed the city on a total lockdown. Nothing moved in or out, especially on the subway. Those who remained behind were now trapped on an island of fear, with no option other than to remain behind locked doors and pray that the invisible menace now circulating outside their windows would not find its way into their place of refuge.

Due to the siege-like atmosphere at every hospital in the city, huge triage tents were erected outside the buildings as rings of police security surrounded the area. Only the truly sick were being allowed to enter, forcing the drug seekers, psych cases, and neurotic attention-seekers that usually clogged the hallways of the ER to flee for their lives. Fueled by coffee and adrenaline, the medical staff who had not fallen to the disease themselves continued caring for the critically ill, but due to the rapid onset and lethal nature of the mystery illness, their efforts appeared to be futile in the face of a bizarre pathogen that mysteriously left half of those exposed totally unaffected, while the other half died a horrible death within hours. All, that is, except for one patient-Sarah Adams, who had become infected but somehow survived.

It usually began with a slight cough, followed by a raging fever and intense body aches. Within hours, the disease progressed to the point where the lungs had filled with fluid, and people who had been feeling fine in the morning were drowning in their own secretions before noon. On the first day, many epidemiologists thought the mystery disease was somehow related to the 1918 flu epidemic that had swept the world and left over fifty million dead, but then the blood began to flow.

After the initial respiratory phase of the disease had taken hold, blotchy, purplish-red patches began to form in random places around the body. In a matter of hours, they had spread under the skin like dark rivers flowing together across a maroon landscape, until finally the entire body was one great lake of pain. The pain was excruciating. Even the pressure of a single sheet was too much for the victims to bear.

Mercifully, most became unconscious at this stage of the disease, and then, to the horror of those watching, the skin began to separate as the entire outer layer fell away in sheets revealing liquefied underlying tissue. Blood was flowing from every orifice of the body until soon, the twitching remnants of what had once been a living, breathing, human being was nothing more than the rapidly disintegrating repository of an alien invader, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Those not affected huddled and prayed in their apartments, while outside, hundreds of men wearing blue biological protection suits roamed empty streets in an effort to contain and track the origin of the grotesque disease. The blue-suited men swarmed over the city taking samples. They took samples of air, samples of blood, samples of water-they swabbed everything from subway cars to door knobs to family pets, all in an attempt to find anything that might give them a clue as to what kind of pathogen was raging throughout the city and killing thousands.

Then, forty-eight hours after the horror had descended on New York, as the men in blue continued to sample and swab and collect bodies for disposal, a planned event unknown to them was already taking place. The mystery pathogen was now retreating, disappearing almost as rapidly as it had appeared. Within hours, it would vanish completely without infecting anyone else, leaving behind no trace of its identity or place of origin-for that was the way it had been engineered.

CHAPTER 6

The mood inside the papal apartments was somber when Cardinal Leo and Bishop Morelli entered. The old Jesuit secretary led the men to the library, where they found Pope Michael engaged in a serious sounding discussion with a man they both knew well.

“Ah … you’ve found him,” the pope said, rising from his chair.

“Yes, Your Holiness. He was just standing out there in the middle of the square.”

A distinguished-looking man with a full head of curly gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard rose from his seat and rushed over to take Leo’s hand.

“Cardinal! It’s good to see you, my friend.”

“Lev! How are you … and how’s your beautiful daughter, Ariella?”

“She said to tell you she sends her love, as do your other friends back in Israel.”

Leo smiled when he noticed that Professor Lev Wasserman had traded in his usual khaki field shirt and knee-length shorts for a blue dress shirt and a pair of tailored gray slacks-clothes he was definitely not comfortable in. However, this was the Vatican, and shorts were not allowed, even for a world-class mathematician with a doctorate in archaeology.

“Are any of the others coming to Rome?” Leo asked.

“I’m afraid not, Cardinal.” Lev turned toward Morelli and raised an eyebrow in his direction. “He doesn’t know yet, does he, Anthony?”

“He just returned from a sabbatical at my house in the country.”

Leo’s piercing green eyes scanned the room.

“I don’t know what yet?”

The pope set his wine glass on the table and motioned for the others to follow. “Come, Leopold, I think it’s time we brought you up to speed.”

The three men followed the pope out of the papal apartments past two Swiss Guards who immediately snapped to attention when they saw Pope Michael heading for his private elevator. Once inside, the group squeezed together in silence as the elevator descended below the palace and stopped. As soon as the doors slid open, they saw a sight very familiar to all of them.

Beyond the open doors of the elevator lay the crumbling ruins of a section of ancient catacombs that had been hidden beneath the Vatican for almost two-thousand years. For centuries they had been covered over and forgotten until a construction crew, working below the basilica the year before, had accidently crashed through a wall, thus providing Morelli and his team of Vatican archaeologists a window to a sealed off labyrinth that snaked beneath the city. It was down in this area, following clues from a hidden code discovered in the Old Testament by Lev Wasserman, that they had discovered the secret chapel.

Leo was shocked to find that the pope had direct access to the catacombs from his private elevator in the Apostolic Palace. “I didn’t realize your elevator descended into the catacombs, Your Holiness.”

“Bishop Morelli had the work done a few months ago. We’re now four stories underground. I got tired of squeezing through holes and crawling down over piles of rubble to reach the chapel. I go there quite often you know … it’s a very spiritual place to think.”

Following a path lit by construction lights mounted on tripods, the three men followed along behind the pope until they reached a twisting tunnel that had been dug two thousand years before through the reddish volcanic rock that formed the foundation for the entire city of Rome. After walking up a slight incline, they turned a corner and came face to face with the pinkish limestone wall of the ancient chapel.

The only way inside was through a jagged hole that lay before them. When first discovered by Morelli, along with Leo and a young candidate for the priesthood by the name of John Lowe, they had been unable to find any entrance. Using a pickaxe, they had knocked out a section of the wall before crawling inside to discover an immense ballroom-sized space. With the exception of a raised stone altar that lay beneath a five-foot-high cross carved into the wall, the gigantic room was empty.

Standing to the side, the pope extended his hand toward the opening, indicating his desire for the others to enter the chapel first. Only Morelli held back.

“Aren’t you coming, Bishop?”

“I’ll be along in a moment, Your Holiness. I want to check the progress of the excavation along the back wall.”

Morelli disappeared around the corner, while the others ducked through the small opening and entered the chapel. Once inside, they all stood there in silence, for it had been within this very space that they had all been allowed a brief glimpse into a spiritual battle between the forces of heaven and hell-a battle that continued to rage out of sight in a cosmic realm usually not visible to mortal man, even though the eventual outcome would one day determine the fate of everyone on the planet.

Looking at the ancient stone, they could feel a palpable energy all around them, as if the angels had left something behind, an invisible message that had the quality of aura-left there in the chapel to remind them of the vision they had all seen with their own eyes.

Unlike before, when they had only lanterns and flashlights to illuminate a space that was as dark as a mine when the lights were turned off, the room was now bathed in floodlights and littered with the tools of construction workers. The ancient structure was undergoing preparation for the construction of a modern underground center that would allow visitors to view the ancient chapel without disturbing it.

The pope cleared his throat and looked straight at Leo. “So, Cardinal, you haven’t heard anything for the past week … not even a newspaper?”

“Nothing, Your Holiness.”

“Well then, I’m afraid we have some disturbing news for you.”

Leo stiffened. “I noticed that the city seemed deserted, and people look frightened.”

“That’s because most of them are staying indoors. Every commercial mode of transport in the city … the whole world in fact … has been put on hold.” The pope paused. “A mysterious and deadly virus was unleashed in New York City. Thousands have died, Leo.”

The cardinal’s green eyes narrowed. “Is it spreading?”

“No, it seems to have stopped as suddenly as it began. Surprisingly, it hasn’t appeared anywhere else in the world … at least not yet.”

“That’s good news … isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid not. It was a biological attack, which means whoever dispersed the pathogen still has the ability to do it again.”

“A biological attack!” A familiar sense of dread descended over Leo. “Terrorists?”

“That seems to be everyone’s best guess for now, although a number of bad actors could be involved. A witness claims they saw a man disperse a white powder in the subway under the city a few days ago. The timing is right, but so far no one’s been able to make a connection between the incident and the spread of the virus.”

“The witness just happened to be a friend of ours,” Lev added. “Sarah Adams, the flight attendant who was with you on the plane that crashed in the Mediterranean last year. She was also infected, but amazingly she survived, which is another mystery, because no one else has. Except for her, the disease has been one hundred percent fatal to anyone who was infected.”

“A hundred percent … and she’s the only one who survived. Do they know why?”

“So far it’s a complete mystery, but the situation is still evolving. There may be other survivors we don’t yet know about.”

Leo could sense the underlying tension in the room. “What else is going on? I have a feeling there’s more.”

“We’ve uncovered something else in the code, Leo. We’re not exactly sure what it means, but we’ve discovered a phrase in Genesis that leads us to believe there are other prophetic messages still hidden somewhere in this chapel. That’s why Morelli is rushing the excavation along the back wall. It’s possible we may have missed something when we explored this area last year.”

“But we’ve gone over every inch of this chapel … there’s nothing else in here.”

“Exactly. Up until now we’ve focused on the inside of the chapel and the one exterior wall that was visible. The other three exterior walls have been covered over for almost two-thousand years. A few weeks ago, we put a team of Vatican archaeologists to work digging the dirt away from those walls. It’s possible, even likely, that there are other cryptic messages just like the ones we found last year.”

“Let’s hope your theories will prove fruitful,” the pope said, looking up at the large Christian cross carved into the wall at the far end of the chapel. Leo and Lev both knew that the mystery of who had built this ancient place of Christian worship was one that kept the pope awake at night.

Morelli was sweating when he returned and squeezed through the small opening. “It looks like they’ve just finished excavating the back wall. We may have found what we’re looking for.”

With eyes that glistened with all the excitement of treasure hunters, they all followed Morelli back out through the opening and around to the opposite exterior wall of the chapel. The men who had excavated the area had left for lunch, but it was evident that they had worked through the night to clear a four-foot-wide passage along a wall constructed by the ancients using pinkish-colored limestone blocks.

Morelli waited for everyone’s eyes to adjust to the glare from the halogen floodlights before pointing to the faint outline of a painted image directly above their heads. The others let out a collective gasp, for right before their eyes was the faded outline of a trefoil-a small central circle that served to join three larger ones that had their outward portions erased, like three sets of horns joined together by a center ring and pointing outward. It was the universal symbol used throughout the modern world to indicate a biological hazard, and it had been painted on a wall that had been hidden from view for over two-thousand years.

Leo was beginning to feel a growing sense of dread as he studied the faded image. “How is this possible?”

“Remember where you’re standing, Leo,” Morelli said. “Nothing about this chapel surprises me anymore.” He motioned the men forward. “There’s more.”

Moving a few steps further down the wall, he pointed to a different section. There, at eye level and still partially covered with dirt, was the painted image of a golden stalk of wheat. Two painted lines led down and away in opposite directions to join with two other painted images of stalks of wheat. Then, below the strange images of wheat, was another image-the unmistakable image of a man. Once again, two descending diagonal lines pointed in opposite directions to two more man-like images. Then, below all of the images there were three words written in Latin-triticum idem vir.

“I’m afraid I’m not as proficient in Latin as you gentlemen are,” Lev said.

Pope Michael folded his arms and stared at the words.

“Basically, it says … wheat same as man.”

“What in heaven’s name does that mean?” Leo scratched the hair under his red skull cap.

“I have no idea,” the pope said, “but since one of the world’s largest cities has just suffered a biological attack, and we’ve all just seen a modern biohazard symbol painted on a chapel wall that’s been covered over for two thousand years, then I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s some kind of connection.”

Lev stepped back and snapped a few pictures of the paintings on the wall with his cell phone. “I’ll send these to Daniel in Israel as soon as we get back upstairs. Since we’ve already found several references to this chapel encoded within the Old Testament, these images may help him when he begins a search for new encoded messages in the Bible.” Lev paused as he inhaled the musty scent of the catacombs. “I have a feeling these images were left here for us as a warning.”

CHAPTER 7

All four men sat staring down at the red Persian carpet in the pope’s study. With the grace of the track star he had once been, Pope Michael rose from behind his heavy wooden desk and walked around the room, refilling everyone’s wineglass before returning to his seat.

Reclining in his chair, he studied the faces of his guests as they sipped their wine in contemplative silence, each trying to draw some meaning from the images they had just seen on a wall that had been buried for two thousand years.

The pope wanted to hear from Lev Wasserman first. “Professor, I must confess that I am at a total loss as to how you and your team utilize this Bible code of yours to uncover future events. I mean, if it is really all that you say it is, then why didn’t one of your cryptographers find some kind of warning about the virus that struck New York?”

“Well, with all due respect, Your Holiness, the code is not mine. It belongs to the world as a true message from God … I am only one of its discoverers. Unfortunately, many people have made the mistake of assuming that the code is prophetic in the literal sense. It is not.”

Listening to the discussion, Morelli glanced down at the pope’s coffee table and noticed that someone had added a newly-released book on the Bible Code to his daily stack of reading material.

The pope smiled. “It’s obvious, Professor, that I still have a lot to learn about the subject. The world is changing so quickly and there is so much information to process, that I am forced to rely on others to obtain and analyze a lot of the information I need to make decisions for the Church. The rest I leave to God’s providence.”

Lev managed a tired grin. His actual face-time with the pope over the past year probably amounted to no more than a total of thirty minutes. Now, as he was becoming better acquainted with him, he was starting to see that this pope was not only a very special individual, but somewhat of a regular guy in the company of men.

“I’ve heard much about it, of course,” the pope continued, “but up until now the bulk of my information has been anecdotal, so for the most part, this supposed code within the Old Testament remains a total mystery to me. Would you be so kind as to enlighten an old Jesuit?”

“It would be my pleasure, Your Holiness. The discovery of the code in the Torah has been replicated in the United States by several senior cryptographers at the National Security Administration, using their most powerful computers. Its validity has not only passed academic peer review, as mentioned in several leading scientific journals, but has come under close scrutiny by many world renowned mathematicians who’ve been working independently at some very prestigious universities, both in America and here in Europe. To date, all of those who have set out to disprove the fact that the code exists have discovered just the opposite. Also, as you know, the code was instrumental in leading us to the discoveries we made last year, both here in Rome and in the Negev Desert.”

“Yes, most impressive, Professor, but I have to tell you that some of my most trusted advisors believe that the whole concept of a code embedded within our most sacred text seems almost heretical. What led you to the belief that there was a code in the Bible in the first place?”

“I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way your advisors do when they first hear about some kind of code being embedded within the Bible. But I also believe most people who’ve heard of it haven’t taken the time to learn all of the facts or take into account the most beautiful fact of all … that God is real and is now proving His existence to an increasingly secular and cynical world using an ancient code so complex that it takes modern computers to unravel it. Our team has come to believe that there’s another Bible within the Bible. It’s like a massive puzzle in layers, similar to a three-dimensional hologram. Some believe that the Bible itself is a computer program left to us by the Almighty, and there are an infinite number of encoded messages yet to be discovered. Even with all of our computers and code-breaking programs today, no one could have encoded the Bible the way it was done over three-thousand years ago.”

The pope continued to probe. “I have to admit that I’ve become fascinated by the subject, Professor, but I’d still like to know how you came to discover it.”

“Like most historical discoveries, I stumbled upon it by chance. Several years ago I was reading about the Genius of Vilna, an eighteenth-century Jewish sage in Lithuania who predicted 9/11 to the day and spoke about the possibility of a code being embedded within the Bible. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and learned that, throughout history, many Bible scholars had been trying to prove that there was a secret code in the Old Testament.”

“I’ve heard that Sir Isaac Newton believed there was a hidden code in the Bible that would reveal the future.”

“I see you’ve been doing your homework, Your Holiness. Most people have no idea that the father of modern physics believed there was a code in the Bible, and that he was obsessed with finding it.” Lev looked up to see the pope’s startling blue eyes staring at him with a piercing gaze, a trait that was slightly unnerving to people when they first met him.

Lev cleared his throat and continued. “Newton’s biographer discovered his obsession with the code when he went through his papers at Cambridge. Newton even learned Hebrew and spent most of his life in a fruitless attempt trying to find it. Apparently, he focused specifically on the Torah … the first five books of the Old Testament. As it turns out, Newton was on to something, because unlike the other books of scripture, the first five books of the Bible were dictated directly by God to Moses in an exact letter-by-letter sequence with strict instructions never to change or alter the sequence of any word, letter, or space.”

The pope stroked his chin and gazed toward the open window. “I don’t remember exactly where it was written, but there is an ancient warning about the Torah. It warned that if a single letter was added or omitted from the Torah, the whole universe would be destroyed.”

“Yes,” Lev continued. “It was a warning to the scribes. Every copy of the Torah since the days of Moses has been copied by hand from its predecessor along with a warning to every new scribe to copy it exactly as it was given to Moses. That’s also the reason the code only exists in Hebrew, because that was the original language of the Bible as it was first written. Translating it into another language would have altered the code, thus rendering it useless.”

Lev could tell by the look on the pope’s face that he was still waiting to hear how he and his team had come to discover something that had remained hidden for so long to so many brilliant thinkers throughout history.

“Evidently, Your Holiness, sixty years ago a rabbi from Eastern Europe, who coincidentally just happened to be a mathematician and fan of Newton, noticed in Genesis that if he skipped fifty letters, then another fifty and then another fifty, the word Torah was spelled out in the beginning of the book. He then used that same skip sequence again and spelled out the word Torah in the Book of Exodus. To his amazement, the word Torah was also embedded at the beginnings of the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. After this surprising discovery, he wrote a paper claiming that Newton was right all along … that the Bible contained some kind of code, but he was never able to unravel the enormity of what he had discovered. That was as far as he got.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. For sixty years this information lay on a dusty shelf at the university until one of my research assistants brought it to my attention. After seeing what this rabbi had stumbled upon, we realized that both he and Newton lacked the one tool that could have helped them unravel the code … a computer. We quickly enlisted the help of several of our colleagues at the University of Jerusalem, and within a few months we had developed a computer program that allowed us to scan literally millions of skip sequences in the Torah to see if we could find any meaningful words or groups of words embedded within the text.”

Lev paused to take a sip of wine as Pope Michael’s eyes narrowed in anticipation.

“Exactly what did you and your team find?”

“We began to see words grouped together on the same page … words and phrases that mentioned historical events that occurred thousands of years after the Bible was written. Both World Wars, the Holocaust, men landing on the moon and the exact date they landed … the horrific events of 9/11, the exact date of the collision of the Shoemaker-Levi comet with Jupiter, the Gulf War, the dates and locations of the assassinations of President Kennedy, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The names of their assassins were spelled out next to theirs, plus much, much more. The things we were finding sent chills up our spines … we all saw the hand of God at work.”

“So, what you’re saying is that this discovery wouldn’t have been possible until now, at this exact point in history … at a time that coincided with the invention of the computer.”

“Exactly. That’s the reason why even a genius like Newton was unable to find any evidence of it. The number of combinations and permutations were just too vast, even for a man of his superior intellect.”

“How much information is there?”

“All of our past and all of our future. The name of every person who has lived before us, who is living now, and who is yet to be born. All of our greatest historical events, plagues, disasters, wars, and future wars … all are encoded in the Bible. There’s no limit to the amount of encoded information the Bible contains.”

“But how is that possible? Are you saying we’re looking at an intelligence that encoded our past, present, and future almost three-thousand years ago using a mathematical model we’re unable to grasp even today?”

“Yes, Your Holiness … and being a man of faith, I’m convinced that intelligence is God. He has given us proof with a modern twist that He exists. He’s sending us a message! Try to think of the Bible as a cryptogram sent to us by God Himself … a cryptogram with a series of time locks that could not be opened until certain events had come to pass. One of these events is the return of the Jews to their homeland after the great Diaspora that lasted almost two-thousand years. The other key is one you just mentioned … the invention of the modern computer. This one leap in technology has finally given scientists and cryptographers the ability to prove what Newton and others believed was there all along. I mean, just think of it. Three-thousand years ago, a code that would be considered complex even by today’s standards was embedded within the Bible, and whoever put it there knew our future. That last part brings up your point about predictions, Your Holiness.”

“How so, Professor?”

“Even though the future is encoded within the Old Testament, I believe the true purpose of the code is to authenticate the Bible as a book of divine and supernatural origin. God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that one day the world would progress to the intellectual point where we would begin to question His existence. How do you convince an enlightened and cynical society that has progressed to our current level of knowledge that God exists? In the modern world, some of our intellectual elite have begun to equate God with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.”

“I know.” The pope exhaled as he looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve read some of their enlightened theories. But I still believe faith plays a greater part in our belief in God than any tangible scientific proof. I’ve always thought that those prone to intellectual debate about the existence of God have an agenda, although I have to admit that I’m not sure just what that agenda is.”

“I agree, Your Holiness, but the questioning, litigious society we live in today requires proof, and I believe God has provided it by giving us little snippets of our future through a hidden code in the Old Testament. However, it’s still our position that the code itself is not a tool for predicting the future. Humanity was never meant to know or predict its own destiny, for only God can know that.”

“But you’ve uncovered future events before.”

“Yes, but unless one knows exactly what one is looking for, or accidently stumbles upon a hidden phrase predicting a future event while running a random skip sequence, as we have done in the past on a few occasions, the future remains invisible. Nothing will be revealed to us unless God wants it revealed. Through the code, God has provided proof to a modern world that He exists and that the Bible was divinely inspired. Who else could have known our future? God is still talking to us through the code. I like to use the analogy of God talking to Moses thousands of years ago through the medium of a burning bush, but today He’s communicating with modern man using a complex code that can only be unraveled by a computer. Let’s face it, our lives have become dominated by computer technology … technology that was predicted thousands of years ago by whoever inserted the code within the Bible.”

Staring into his wineglass, the pope brought it up to eye level and swirled the red liquid around. “And the biohazard symbol we discovered today on the chapel wall … coincidence?”

“Obviously not,” Lev said. “I emailed the images to the villa in Israel. They’re being analyzed as we speak. Hopefully we’ll come up with a match in the code. Occasionally, a phrase or group of words jumps right out at you with startling clarity, while others seem almost hopelessly cryptic. It takes a lot …”

Lev’s cell phone erupted with the tune from the Hebrew folk song Hava Nagila.

“You’d better answer it, Professor. From the sound of your ringtone, I’m guessing it’s probably your team in Israel calling, and I’d like to hear what they have to say.”

Lev read the incoming number. “Yes it is, Your Holiness. Please excuse me.” Lev punched a button on the phone and walked out of the room to take the call.

The lull in the conversation provided Morelli with an excuse to begin exploring the pope’s wine cabinet, while Leo wandered over to the window to gaze out at the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The iconic structure had remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, and the seemingly ageless presence of a building designed by Michelangelo was somehow comforting to him. When it came to matters of faith, it had always provided a timeless reference point upon which to guide his thinking, especially now that the world was experiencing yet another horror. Some men were capable of creating such beauty, he thought, while others seemed destined from birth to commit abhorrent acts of evil-a dichotomy within the human species that had been an unnerving paradox to philosophers throughout the ages.

Looking down into Saint Peter’s Square, Leo was suddenly aware that the entire area below was literally undulating with movement. Where only hours before the square had been deserted, now thousands of people were crowded shoulder to shoulder, staring up at the windows of the pope’s apartment, and in the distance, he could see the streets around the Vatican were also filled with people heading in their direction. “Your Holiness … the people … they are here!”

Rushing to the window, Pope Michael and Bishop Morelli saw the mass of humanity flowing into the square from all directions. In the face of an invisible menace that could already be drifting on the wind over the Eternal City, the faithful were obviously flinging aside their fear and venturing outside, leaving the safety of their homes so they could be together to pray on sacred ground.

“What’s going on?”

The men at the window turned to see a pale-looking Lev Wasserman walking toward them with his cell phone still in his hand. Moving in beside them, he leaned forward and gripped the window sill. “We’ve got to stop them!”

CHAPTER 8

None of the men in the room had ever seen Lev Wasserman display an ounce of fear before. They stood there dumbstruck, waiting for an explanation.

“I’m afraid I have some disturbing news. Daniel just found an encoded passage in the code that mentions Rome as being the next target for the same mysterious illness that just struck New York. All of those people down in the square should have stayed in their homes. We’ve got to warn them somehow!”

The pope began waving to the crowd below as he looked back over his shoulder. “Have we received any reports of illness in the city?”

“None in the city, Your Holiness,” Morelli answered, “but we’ve just received a report that a few people have fallen ill in a village nearby.”

“This man who called you from Israel, Professor … this man Daniel … is he usually reliable?”

“Yes, very reliable. His full name is Daniel Meir, and like the other members of our team, he’s an Israeli Christian. He’s also a brilliant mathematician and one of the world’s premier code breakers. Daniel is the one who was responsible for finding most of the encoded passages we discovered in the Bible last year.”

The Holy Father turned away from the window, his public smile slowly fading. “I would like to speak with Bishop Morelli in private for a moment.”

Leo felt his face flush. “Why yes … of course, Your Holiness.”

This sudden, matter-of-fact dismissal by the pope had taken Leo by surprise. After all, he was a cardinal, a Prince of the Church-a member of a select group from which the next pope would be chosen. Had he lost the pope’s trust for some reason?

The pope placed his hand on Leo’s shoulder. “Why don’t you and the professor go to my kitchen? Sister Marcella makes wonderful sandwiches and a decent cup of espresso.”

Sister Marcella was also known for her foul temper.

“Thank you, Your Holiness,” Leo said. “We wouldn’t want to put her to any trouble. We’ll just wait out in the hall.”

“Really, she makes delicious sandwiches, Cardinal … I insist. I have a feeling you’ll both need your strength in the hours ahead. This will just take a moment.”

Ten minutes later, Leo was watching a grumpy Sister Marcella make sandwiches as she glared at them from the kitchen. Sitting across from him, a very worried-looking Lev Wasserman stared down at a simple, white-painted wooden table and drummed his fingers. As a former Special Forces officer and member of the elite Israeli security service known as the Mossad, Lev had stared death in the face more than once, but he had always been the picture of calm and restraint, maintaining a thoughtful, almost relaxed demeanor in the face of danger. No opponent had ever seemed to faze him, except for one. Unbeknownst to others, Lev Wasserman had always harbored a secret fear-the fear of germs.

Ever since he was a young man, Lev had been acutely aware of the invisible foe that lived all around us-the unseen enemy that killed with the same indiscriminate finality of any gun or explosive. On the Israeli kibbutz where he had been raised, the constant threat of Arab attacks had forced him to confront terror on a daily basis, but nothing had frightened Lev Wasserman so much as one of mankind’s most insidious enemies-the microscopic bacteria that vastly outnumber all other living things.

At the age of nineteen, he had begun his mandatory service in the Israeli Army. After basic training, he had been standing guard duty one moonlit night along the Jordanian border when a soldier standing next to him was bitten on the leg by something neither one of them ever saw. Within days, the man’s leg had turned black from the knee down, prompting the army surgeons to amputate. But the infection had not been stopped in time. Within hours, it was obvious that the bacteria had continued up the body, and less than twenty-four hours later, Lev Wasserman found himself helping his fellow soldiers lift the young man’s plain wooden coffin into the back of an army truck for its journey back to his family in Jerusalem.

From that day forward, Lev had been left with a permanent fear of germs. He marveled at how divine providence had singled out the man next to him for an attack from a microscopic enemy that was invisible to the naked eye. There but for the grace of God go I-the phrase had played over and over in his mind ever since that fateful day.

Now, sitting at a table munching on a sandwich in the papal Apartments, Lev Wasserman suspected that the thing he feared the most was now already drifting silently through the air in their direction.

“Lev.”

Leo’s voice startled the professor.

“I’m sorry, Leo … did you say something?”

“Your phone is making a noise.”

“Oh.” Lev pulled the phone from his pocket and quickly read a text message on the screen. “It appears that Daniel wants to e-mail us some encoded phrases that he’s just discovered on a page from Leviticus, but he needs to send it on a secure network.”

Leo laid his sandwich on his plate. “I believe there’s a computer in the library.”

Both men pushed away from the table and crossed the hall to the pope’s private library. Lev spotted a black and silver laptop sitting on a small table next to a red wing chair.

“Is that a secure laptop, Leo?”

“Yes. All of the pope’s personal computers have military-grade encryption software installed.”

“Can we use it? Daniel will need the pope’s personal e-mail address.”

Without hesitating, Leo walked over to the computer and typed something in. “That should work.”

Looking down at the screen, Lev was unable to keep from smiling when he saw the address: headhoncho@vatican.gov.

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Morelli had too much wine one night and changed the pope’s e-mail address as a joke. Marcus … I mean, Pope Michael, got such a kick out of it that he left it like that. As it turns out, it’s a pretty secure address, because no one would ever believe that email address actually belongs to the pope.”

Lev began typing and fired off a short e-mail. They waited. A few minutes later, an e-mail with an attachment arrived. Lev hit the download button and soon they were looking at a page from Leviticus that contained several encoded phrases circled in red.

Running vertically on the page was the phrase-Same as New York. Running horizontally across the top of this phrase was a single word-virus. Then, at the bottom of the page, they saw another single word-Rome. Leo and Lev stood frozen in silence when they read the phrase next to it-many will die.

Lev hit print and grabbed the warm page off the printer. “We’ve got to show this to the pope.”

The sound of someone clearing their throat behind them caused both men to jump. It was Enzo Corelli. “His Holiness would like you to rejoin him in his study now.”

“Thank you, Enzo,” Leo said. “We’ll be right there.”

The old Jesuit started to leave, then stopped and turned around. “You’ll be saying a lot of Hail Mary’s for using that computer without his permission.” The old priest winked in their direction before turning back to leave the room.

Entering the study, Lev handed the printout to Pope Michael and watched as his blue eyes scanned the page. Removing his reading glasses, he handed the paper to Morelli.

“What would you like us to do, Your Holiness?” Leo asked.

“Nothing.”

Leo’s face turned ashen. “But … Marcus … I mean, Your Holiness … didn’t you say earlier that you wished we could have used the code to warn the people in New York? This is clearly a warning about the same virus striking Rome. We must do something!”

The pope remained silent as Morelli let the printout fall into his lap. “I’m afraid His Holiness is right, Leo. A warning now will only cause panic. People will want to know where we obtained our information, and when they find out we’re basing our actions on a hidden code in the Bible, they will only laugh at us. Most of them have never heard of the code, and those who have remain skeptical, despite the proof.”

“At least we could save some,” Leo said. He was thinking of the smiling children who had waved at him from the window earlier in the day.

“I understand your deep felt desire to preserve life, Leo,” the pope said, “but a warning from us now will only cause panic and confusion, and if the pathogen is already loose, then we are already too late.”

“How do we know unless we at least try, Your Holiness? It would be unconscionable for us not to act. We are men of God. If ever there was a time to stand and fight, this is it.”

“Spoken like a true Jesuit warrior, but I’m afraid the time for warnings has passed.” The pope’s eyes narrowed at Leo before he walked to the window and looked down at the square below. Raising his right hand, he made the sign of the cross before the thousands of people staring up at him. A loud cheer went up from the crowd as he waved and blessed them once more before turning away. Without speaking, he walked from the room and strode down the hall to his private chapel.

The men waited patiently for the pope to say his private prayers, and after several minutes of uncomfortable silence, the pope reappeared at the door looking totally exhausted. “Gentlemen, I fear it is only a matter of time before the city and the countryside around it is overrun by this invisible enemy. I must remain here in Rome to guide the Church, but you must all flee the city.”

“And just where are we to flee, Your Holiness?” Leo asked.

“I’ve given instructions to the Bishop. He knows where you must go.”

Leo glanced at Morelli, who was staring off into space, seemingly unfazed by the events unfolding around them.

“Naturally,” the pope continued, “I realize that a Jesuit’s first impulse is to stay and meet any threat to the Church head-on, and as much as I would like to have all of you here in Rome with me at a time like this, you are needed elsewhere. You must find whoever or whatever is causing this plague against humanity and bring an end to it with swift retribution. You are all sanctified combatants, and the time for battle is at hand.”

The men were spellbound by the tone of the Holy Father’s words.

“We understand, Your Holiness,” Leo said, straightening to his full height of six-feet-three inches. “We’ll begin making preparations to move out of the city right away.”

“What about the jet I flew in on this morning?” Lev asked.

“We already thought of that,” Morelli said. “Enzo called the airport and talked to the pilot. The crew is sick … it started an hour ago, shortly after they had lunch at the airport. If there is truly some kind of unknown pathogen circulating somewhere out there right now, then nowhere is safe. Any kind of public transportation could be a death trap, especially planes and trains.”

Pope Michael settled himself into a comfortable position on an oversized sofa and sipped his wine. His coolness seemed almost arrogant, but to those who knew him well, this seeming aloofness was a way for him to step back from an emotional situation so that he could think more clearly. An expression of total comprehension crossed his face, but behind the look of understanding there was also a secret, a secret that he was forbidden from sharing with anyone else, even his closest friends. Slowly, his aloofness seemed to fade as he sat forward and faced the others. “I’ve already made arrangements for you to travel overland. You’ll be taking one of the Vatican’s armored SUVs for your journey. Francoise is waiting for you downstairs.”

The emotional energy in the room was electric as the three men exchanged looks and set their glasses firmly on the table in a gesture of finality. They had been hand-picked by the pope himself and dispatched to an unknown location with orders to unravel an enigma-a mystery wrapped in a riddle, one they had very little time to solve. It was an impossible task.

Rising from the couch, the pope seemed to tower over everyone else. “Stay in touch, Gentlemen. I have no doubt that we will see each other again soon, whether it be in this life or the next. Now please, you must go. Time is growing short, and I fear that things will start to go very badly very soon.”

Reluctantly, the three men filed silently from the room without looking back. When they had gone, the pope’s secretary joined him in his study.

“Do you think they’ll be successful, Marcus?”

“Only time will tell, Enzo my old friend … only time will tell.”

CHAPTER 9

The weather had turned unseasonably cool as the three men exited the Apostolic Palace to find a blue-suited man with a short-cropped, military style haircut waiting for them by the entrance. All three were relieved to see Francois Leander, the legendary head of the Swiss Guard.

“Good morning, Gentleman. Father Enzo just called. I have a vehicle waiting for you.” Francois led the men through a darkened medieval passageway into a second courtyard that fronted the Swiss Guard’s barracks. “I’ve just placed my men on high alert. They haven’t been formally advised of the biological threat yet, but everyone knows what happened in America, so they put two and two together. They’re good men and they’ll follow orders, but I’ve never seen them so frightened.”

“Can’t say I blame them,” Lev said, brushing the sleeve of his coat, as though he were trying to brush away an invisible alien invader that had just landed and was burrowing into the fibers of his jacket. “Soldiers would much rather face an enemy they can see.”

“From a security standpoint, a biological attack has always been one of our worst fears,” Francois said. “Men, women … even children. This invisible thing from hell doesn’t care what it kills!”

Walking next to the Swiss Guard chief, Leo was watching a line of dark clouds flowing in over the Eternal City. “Unfortunately, Francois, a virus has no soul, and thus no conscience. In fact, a virus is barely considered a life form.”

“Good. Then we shall have no guilt when we kill it, Cardinal.”

Walking into the center of the courtyard, they spotted an ominous-looking, black Chevy SUV with a small forest of antennas sprouting from its roof.

“I’ll be driving and monitoring the radios,” Francois continued. “We’ll be in constant contact with the Swiss Guard units that have been moved into position along our route. They’ll be able to get to us relatively quickly should the need arise. I also stocked a few supplies in the back.”

“It seems like you’ve thought of everything … as usual,” Leo said.

Francois forced a tight smile as Morelli jumped into the front passenger seat and Leo and Lev slid into the back. Gunning the engine, he threw a departing wave to a group of uniformed Swiss Guards standing in front of their barracks before speeding through the tightly guarded Porta Sant’ Anna and squealing out onto a narrow street known as the Via Di Porta Angelica-the street of angels.

Behind them, Vatican City was still filling with people, leaving the medieval hodgepodge of alley-like streets in this section of Rome practically empty. The absence of people in the usually teaming streets was eerie as the SUV crossed the river Tiber and continued up the Via Pinciana, a wide boulevard that ran along the eastern border of a huge park that surrounded the famous Villa Borghese.

The Villa and the grounds around it were constructed in 1613 for the hedonistic Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. It had been the first park of its kind in Rome, containing foreign academies and a school of archaeology, plus museums, art galleries, fountains, and even a zoo. Usually filled with gelato-slurping tourists, on this day the park stood virtually empty. Looking out over the beautiful grounds, Leo was once again struck by the duality between those who dedicated themselves to creating objects of beauty and those who seemed equally dedicated to depraved acts of cruelty.

Scipione’s villa was now known as the Galleria Borghese, a world-class art gallery filled with sculpture, including an especially beautiful marble version of a recumbent and semi-nude Venus. It was said that the model for the sculpture was none other than Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, but as soon as the brilliant work of art had been completed, her jealous husband locked it away. Even its famous sculptor, Canova, was never permitted to lay eyes on it again, and so it remained in darkness until long after Pauline Borghese and her husband had died.

As the tree-lined grounds of the magnificent park flashed by the left side of the SUV, Leo leaned over the front seat and peered through the front windshield. “Now that we’re away from the Vatican, does anyone care to share with me where we’re headed?”

“Spain,” Morelli replied.

“Spain! Why Spain?”

“A private jet on a mission for the Vatican crashed there yesterday.”

Leo and Lev traded looks.

“Could you elaborate on that, Anthony?”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news, Leo. Cardinal Orsini was onboard.”

“Orsini? The Vatican’s Secretary of State?” Leo paused as the news sank in. “Were there any survivors?”

“Sadly, no … the cardinal is dead, Leo.”

Leo pulled a small, wooden rosary from his pocket and ran his fingers over the beads. “Orsini was one of the brightest, most insightful men I’ve ever known. Why wasn’t I informed of this earlier?”

“His Holiness didn’t want the news of his death to be made public yet. With everything else that’s happening, I couldn’t seem to find the right time to tell you. For now, that’s all the information we have. The Spanish authorities have cordoned off the area as a precaution.”

Francois turned the speeding SUV onto the Via Salaria and continued on through the seemingly deserted city until they passed under Rome’s ring freeway and headed north on the A-1 highway. Sitting back in his seat, Leo stared out through his window at the ruins of an ancient aqueduct in the distance. The rapidly vanishing campagna, the countryside around Rome, was filled with reminders of a glorious past, but as the city continued to grow, it was becoming obvious that the encroaching urban landscape would soon envelope them and dilute their solitary glory. At least they would still be there, Leo thought. Man needed his monuments to remind him of what had been before. Orsini’s final monument would surely be less grand, but he would be remembered just the same.

“A precaution against what?” Leo asked, shaking off his thoughts about distant ruins and monuments to men long gone.

“I beg your pardon?” Morelli said.

“You said the Spanish authorities had cordoned off the crash site as a precaution … a precaution against what?”

“Probably against whatever killed all those people in America. Did I mention the plane was returning from New York? Undoubtedly there’s some concern from the Spanish authorities that the people onboard could have been infected.”

“That’s a good point, which makes me wonder why the pope is sending us there. We could be headed right into a biological hot zone.”

“We thought of that, so we called some experts at the CDC in Atlanta this morning. They believe the Spanish authorities are being overly cautious. They informed us that, if there was a danger from an unknown pathogen at the site of the crash, it has long since passed. Whatever killed all of those people in America quickly flamed out and hasn’t reappeared. Also, the wreckage of the aircraft was apparently consumed by a very hot fireball that would have virtually sterilized the wreckage.”

“That still doesn’t answer the question of why the Holy Father is sending us to a crash site, a site where, in most likelihood, nothing recognizable remains.”

Morelli breathed in deeply before reaching into his cassock. He removed a folded sheet of paper and handed it over his shoulder into the back seat. “Here, Leo … this might help clear things up for you.”

Leo’s eyes narrowed at the back of Morelli’s head as he reached for the paper. For some reason, Morelli was holding back. He wasn’t sharing everything he knew, and as a ranking cardinal, especially one who was in line to replace Orsini, Leo should have been informed of Orsini’s death right away.

Without warning, Francois braked and swerved the SUV to avoid hitting a wild-eyed man who had just run out onto the highway in front of the vehicle. Looking outside, Leo and the others could see other wild-eyed people running out onto the road from a nearby field. In a matter of seconds, a large mob had surrounded the SUV after Francois had been forced to stop to avoid running them over.

The people around the vehicle were screaming something at the men inside, but their speech was garbled and unintelligible. Shockingly, their hands appeared to be covered in blood, and as they reached out to touch the windows, they left behind wide swaths of brownish-red streaks.

Shrieking and groaning in a primitive litany of pain and hopelessness, the mob began to rock the vehicle back and forth, almost tipping it on its side. The men inside braced themselves, their hearts racing as they peered from behind their windows at even more panicked-looking people streaming toward them from the fields.

Their way forward was now blocked, as was the road behind them. The occupants of the SUV were totally surrounded by a growing mob that had been driven stark-raving mad by something, and they seemed intent on getting at the men inside the big Chevy.

Francois frantically motioned to the crowd and laid on the horn as he tried to inch the vehicle forward, but the crowd refused to move. Some began beating on the vehicle, while others began pushing against it, lifting it up on two wheels. With more and more crazed people flooding onto the highway, Francois realized that, within seconds, the SUV would be on its side, its occupants doomed.

The Swiss Guard chief had been tagged as their driver for a reason. He was intimately familiar with the defensive capabilities of this very special SUV. Reaching under the dash, he pulled a lever, releasing a cloud of tear gas that spurted from hidden vents running under both sides and at the rear of the vehicle.

The people pushing on the sides immediately fell back. Reaching up, they covered their burning eyes with their bloody hands just as a whitish foam spewed from their mouths and their bodies began to shake with fits of coughing. Only those in the front of the vehicle had not felt the effects of the teargas, and after a brief retreat, they returned and began jumping on the bumper and crawling up on the hood. Francois quickly reached under the dash and pulled a second lever. Immediately, an invisible wall of focused sound hit the people in front, causing them to grab their ears and back away to escape the ear-shattering sound that seemed to pierce their bodies.

Without waiting, Francois stepped on the gas and smoked the tires. The crowd in front of the vehicle screamed and cursed as the SUV shot forward, narrowly missing some who were still trying to block their way forward. From out of nowhere, a rock smashed against a side window just as a man jumped on the hood and pressed his twisted face against the windshield. For a brief moment, the crazed man’s eyes locked with those of the occupants inside as he clawed at the glass. Francois made the sign of the cross and pushed the accelerator all the way down. He swerved the vehicle from side-to-side as their speed increased, until finally, the man on the hood lost his grip and slipped over the side, crashing against the pavement with a thud.

Peering into the vehicle’s side mirrors and back through the blood-streaked rear window, the stunned men inside the SUV shuddered at the sight behind them as the mob began to turn on itself. In a bizarre scene that could have been taken from the pages of Dante’s Inferno, the crazed and shrieking victims were now tearing at one another in a horrific and mindless tableau of bloodthirsty mayhem.

Lev tried to calm himself by taking deep breaths as he leaned back in his seat. “My God! What just happened back there?”

Francois increased their speed. “I’m afraid the pathogen has arrived in Italy.”

CHAPTER 10

The Villa in Israel

Reclining in a weathered beach chair, the blinding reflection off the white sand dunes caused Ariella to squint as she looked out at the contrasting blue of the Mediterranean Sea and stroked her husband’s tanned arm. The two had just returned to their little beach house from a morning swim after John had speared a sizeable string of red snapper for supper.

She smiled to herself as she studied his calm face in the chair beside hers and thought back to his first attempt at spear fishing, when he had proudly captured a five-inch-long mackerel. “Would you like some orange juice?”

John opened his eyes. “That would be great … thanks.”

Turning his head, he observed the lithe form of his lovely wife as she stood and walked toward the small, wood-shingled beach house her father had given them the year before as a wedding present. After she disappeared past the transparent curtains blowing from the sides of the open French doors, he turned his attention back to the sea, causing him to marvel at how much his life had changed in less than a year.

For a mile in either direction, the land along this stretch of coastline belonged to his father-in-law, Lev Wasserman. Shortly after Ariella was born, Lev and his late wife, Carmela, had purchased two hundred acres here along the beach with the intention of building a small farming cooperative safe from the constant terrorist bombings that plagued Israel’s cities.

From his seat on the beach, John could see the dim outline of his father-in-law’s immense house in the distance. Set at the end of a long paved driveway, the enormous Mediterranean-styled villa was the centerpiece of the farm. Three stories high, with white stucco walls and a red-tiled roof, the villa was set back from the beach, connected to the sea by a rickety boardwalk that ran through sugar-white sand dunes and tall palm trees to a sparkling blue swimming pool at the back of the house.

The entire compound was run much like the communal kibbutz Lev had been raised on, except in this case he retained ownership of the land. Scattered around the property, twenty smaller houses were tucked in among the vineyards, orchards, and planted fields that made up the farm. These single-family dwellings were used mostly by professors and graduate students, who lived there free of charge in exchange for providing security, growing the community’s food, and taking care of the villa. The community also owned several vehicles that were available for everyone. They were used mostly for going to school or shopping or just a night out on the town.

People of various ages could be seen walking around the property, the most noticeable being the young men and women of the villa’s security force dressed in olive-colored shirts and matching shorts. From the beachfront to the gatehouse to the fields, these dedicated young people could be seen everywhere, patrolling the property with radios and automatic weapons slung over their shoulders.

It was on this very beach the year before that John had first laid eyes on his wife after he and Father Leo had escaped from Rome when they were being chased by a group of rogue Vatican security men led by an evil priest who had long since disappeared.

Returning from the house with the orange juice, Ariella settled into the chair next to John. The breeze from the sea whipped strands of long brown hair across her face and over her eyes, forcing her to pull it back and hold it off to the side as she fixed her young husband with a look that made it obvious to him that her next words had been planned out in advance.

“So, John, when are we going to have a baby?”

John continued staring out to sea as he sat his glass of orange juice on the small table beside him.

He’s not getting off that easily, Ariella told herself. She twisted around in her seat and faced him full on. “Did you hear what I just said?”

John reached up and scratched his beard before adjusting his sun glasses with both hands.

Ariella leaned in closer. She had to give him credit for his ability to feign deafness.

He’s good-but so am I.

“How do you like the new futon we bought in Tel Aviv?”

“What?”

“I asked what you thought of the new futon.”

“It’s great. I love the red color.” An intuitive sense of dread was working its way up from his stomach into his throat. “Why do you ask?”

“Because if you don’t answer my question right now, you’ll be sleeping on it tonight.”

There it was.

“I thought we discussed this last month. Didn’t we both agree to wait at least two more years before we made an attempt at parenthood?”

“You know it’s what I want.”

“Oh … now I’m a mind reader.” John instantly regretted his words. Sarcasm-a sure ticket to the futon.

He glanced over at a pair of liquid brown eyes blinking back at him … eyes he had fallen in love with the moment he had first noticed them that day on the beach in front of the villa.

“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to sound like a jerk. It’s just that I still have another year of graduate school. I’d kind of like to keep any outside distractions down until I graduate.”

Ariella’s eyes narrowed at him.

Oh man, I’ve really stepped in it now.

“Did I just hear you refer to our future children as distractions?”

Just take me now.

“You know very well what I meant, Ariella.”

“There are always going to be distractions, John. Life is full of distractions. My father always told me that managing them successfully is the key to success. You’re the ultimate boss. You rule the distractions. They don’t rule you.”

“Your father is a very wise man, and I think he’d agree that now is not the time to be bringing a new baby into the world.”

“You’re worried about the virus. That’s it. Am I right? You think we’re all going to die?”

“From everything we’ve heard, it could grow into a worldwide epidemic. This could very well be the big one they’ve been predicting for so long.”

“Do you really think it’s coming our way?”

“No way to tell. With the speed of modern jet travel, it could already be here in Israel. That’s why your father told us to stay on the compound until he gets back from Rome. We should be safe as long as we don’t go into the city. We have the advantage of being totally self-sufficient here on the farm, and I have the internet for all the research I need to finish my thesis. At least that eliminates the need to drive into Jerusalem for classes.”

“Daniel told me this new virus was acting strange. Some people weren’t affected at all, while others died within hours.”

“I know … it’s horrible. Even your father’s friends in the government don’t seem to have a clear picture of what’s going on. Worst case scenario, it could be a mutation of a type of flu that’s turned super deadly. I’m more worried about my folks back in New Mexico, but at least out on the ranch they’re away from any major population areas. Mom cans fruit and vegetables every year, so they should have enough food stored to keep them from having to go to the store in town, and dad was smart enough to convert over to solar and wind power after they came here for the wedding last year and saw what your father had done on the compound with the new technology.”

Reaching out to each other, they locked hands and looked out at the waves crashing onto the sloping shoreline as the sound of a phone ringing in the background interrupted their brief moment of silence.

“Want me to get it?” John asked.

“No, that’s ok. I need to get some more sun block anyway.”

Ariella lifted herself from the chair and strolled back into the house while John continued watching the waves. He really did live in paradise.

Seconds later Ariella was back, standing over him and blocking the sun. “We have to go.”

“What?”

“We have to go. That was my father on the phone. He just ordered the Carmela’s crew to prepare the yacht for sea.”

“Right now?”

“He wants us underway in an hour.”

“An hour! Did he say why?”

“No. He just said to make sure Alex kept the boat at full speed all the way and …”

“And what?”

“And for us to stay away from populated areas.”

Ariella turned and began walking back toward the house.

“Ariella … wait. Where are we going?”

Ariella stopped and glanced back over her shoulder. “Italy.”

CHAPTER 11

Leo looked down at his shaking hands and realized he was still holding the paper that Morelli had given him earlier. Pushing his glasses down from his forehead, he noticed a bold header that ran across the top of the page: USAMRID, Fort Meade Maryland. Stamped diagonally over the heading was the word ULTRA in bright red letters. The page was filled with cryptic scientific jargon that included lines of numbers, rows of shaded blocks, a few graphs, and a fuzzy digital photographic image taken through an electron microscope.

“What is all of this, Anthony? What’s USAMRID?”

“It’s the U.S. Army’s biological warfare center.”

“Looks like some kind of top secret document. How did you get it?”

“Don’t ask. That paper contains some of the data American scientists have collected so far on the pathogen that struck New York.”

Leo glanced down at the page again. “I’m afraid this is totally outside my realm of expertise. I have no idea what any of this means … all this scientific jargon is like a foreign language to me.”

“Do you mind if I take a look, Leo?” Lev asked.

Leo handed the paper to Lev and stared back out the window as they approached the hill country of Umbria.

“This organism has been artificially engineered,” Lev said. “But there’s more. It has some very specific markers.”

“What kind of markers?”

Lev hesitated as the enormity of what he was looking at began to sink in. “Genetic markers, Leo.”

“I’m not sure I understand?”

“It was designed to affect certain people … maybe even a specific race.”

“Are you saying this thing could be ethnically targeted?”

“Precisely. They could do it by manipulating the pathogen so that it would affect only those with a specific DNA sequence, which itself is actually a code.”

Leo’s mind was reeling from the implications. “That’s monstrous! Who in their right mind would do such a thing?”

It was a typical response, but in truth, Cardinal Leopold Amodeo knew quite well that the world was overflowing with those who would love to acquire a weapon that could wipe out an entire race while leaving others untouched.

Lev cracked his window a few inches before pulling a cigar from his shirt pocket and lighting it with a match. “We know that there have been several attempts at such a thing in the past, most notably in South Africa. Ten years ago, an Israeli Mossad agent spotted a well-known South African scientist at an airport in Libya and followed him to a secret underground biological lab that Colonel Gadhafi had constructed out in the desert.”

“I’ll bet that got the Israeli’s attention.”

“It not only got our attention, but it prompted us to launch a full scale investigation into just what the South Africans were up to. I was working for the Mossad at the time. Turns out the scientist our agent had followed was the head of a South African biological warfare research program. The program was called Project Coast. What we found sent chills up everyone’s spines. We discovered that the South African government had constructed their own biological research facility beneath an old farmhouse located on scrubland ten miles north of Pretoria. We had accidently stumbled upon what was possibly one of the most evil research centers since the Nazi experiments in World War II. They were working with smallpox, Ebola, anthrax, botulinum, the plague … they had it all.”

“Do you think the same scientist is behind this new outbreak?”

“It’s possible. After the apartheid regime collapsed the lab was destroyed, but the scientist, along with most of his research notes, disappeared. Evidently, he tried to burn some of his secret files, but one of his research assistants was actually a Mossad agent that we had just put into place. After the other scientists had left the room, our agent put out the fire and retrieved the notes. That’s when we found out what these guys had really been up to. In addition to learning the essentials of biological engineering, they were discovering ways to freeze dry and weaponize various organisms by mixing them with nanopowder so that the pathogens could become easily airborne and penetrate human lungs. All of this was being done elsewhere around the world of course, especially in Russia and North Korea, but what was different about this program was the fact that they were also doing genetic research and isolating genes with the goal of making a biological weapon that could target a specific race. They were actually creating an ethnic bomb.”

“Sounds like some kind of diabolical Nazi plot,” Leo said.

“Believe me,” Lev continued, “if Hitler had been able to develop such a weapon he would have used it. When word of what the South Africans were up to got out, a well-known Nobel Prize-winning scientist dubbed it the monster in our backyard. He also predicted that the release of a genetic weapon like that would unleash genetic variations that could create a mutant form of the pathogen that would wipe out not only the targeted race, but the entire human species … a real life Andromeda Strain. Unfortunately, we now know that the North Koreans have taken over where the South Africans left off. They’ve invested huge amounts of money and manpower into the same kind of research. In fact, some of our people believe that North Korea is where the missing scientist fled to, so the threat is still out there.”

Leo shifted uneasily in his seat and tapped his fingers on the armrest as he looked around inside the vehicle. “Your men didn’t happen to stock any wine in the back, did they, Francois?”

Francois looked up into his rearview mirror and winked. “Of course, Cardinal. I knew who my passengers would be, so I added wine to the list of critical supplies.”

Lev laughed out loud. “I think we could all use a drink right about now.”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to wait,” the Swiss Guard chief frowned. “I’m your designated driver.”

Lev eyed a closed gas station on the side of the highway as they drove past a seemingly deserted small town. “How much fuel do we have?”

“We’ve already used almost half a tank, but we have contingency plans.”

“Can we make it to Portofino?”

“Not without refueling.” Francois smiled. “Why do you ask?”

“Because that’s where the Carmela will be waiting for us.”

“We know.”

“What?”

“She put to sea an hour ago. We’ve been monitoring your communications with the villa. The captain just sent you a text message. They’re headed across the Mediterranean at full speed.”

“I should have known,” Lev said. “You guys are good.”

“There’s only one problem. The yacht won’t be here until tomorrow, so we’re making arrangements to secure a safe-house until she arrives. There’s bound to be more crazed mobs like the one we just encountered, and we need to avoid any more contact.”

Lev flipped his cell phone open and stared at the screen. “I just lost the signal to my cell phone.”

“They’re shutting down the cell phone towers, Professor. You can use my radio if you need to call the yacht.”

Francois was just reaching for the radio when they all noticed the reflection of flashing blue lights and heard sirens behind them. Two police motorcycles screamed past and disappeared around a bend in the road ahead.

“At least the Carabinieri are still out,” Morelli said, referring to the Italian police.

The pop of a wine bottle being uncorked sounded from the back seat. Leo had discovered the wine and was busy pouring some of the precious red liquid into the only thing he could find-a paper cup. He was just taking his first sip when the SUV rounded a curve in the road and came to a screeching halt. Up ahead, a traffic accident was blocking the highway. Looking closer, they could see bodies lying along the side of the road, covered in sheets.

Without giving it a second thought, Leo climbed from the SUV and approached the bodies of the dead to offer prayers for their departed souls.

“Leo!” Lev yelled from behind his closed window. “The pathogen! Get back inside the car!”

Leo stopped and turned back toward the vehicle. Holding his rosary in his hands, with a look of complete peace on his face, it was apparent to all inside the car that Cardinal Leopold Amodeo was answering a higher calling despite the threat to his own safety.

“Should we go with him?” Lev asked Morelli.

“No, wait for him. He wouldn’t want anyone else risking their life. He won’t be long.”

Both men watched as Leo walked among the dead, stopping at the head of each to raise his hand in the sign of the cross, and when he was through, he walked over and spoke briefly with the two motorcycle officers that had passed them earlier. Both officers were wearing surgical face masks.

Returning to the vehicle, Leo opened the door and climbed inside. Leaving the door open, he refilled his cup and sipped his wine in silence as he looked out at all the empty-looking houses scattered around the surrounding countryside.

“Those two motorcycle officers told me that a group of people just walked out onto the highway in front of a large truck.” Leo paused to take another sip of wine. “They said a sickness is spreading and that, as people become infected, they begin to lose their minds just before they die.”

“Sounds like a neurotoxin,” Lev said. “If it’s the same pathogen that hit New York, it’s beginning to behave differently, but that’s to be expected.”

“What do you mean … expected?”

“If this pathogen is genetically engineered, and I believe that it is, then it was probably engineered to affect a specific genome … the sixty to eighty thousand genes that make up all human DNA of any particular race. It’s natural to assume that it will affect one race differently than another, so it’s no surprise that the pathogen is manifesting itself differently on another continent. This could be devastating to Italy, because the gene pool here is strong and steeped in history. Local families marry within their small communities, making them more vulnerable because the chances of genetic variation are even less likely.”

Leo threw his empty cup onto the floorboard and closed his door. “But the police said that only about a third of the people in the villages around here seem to be affected. The rest of the population is terrified, but otherwise healthy … even those who have had close contact with the ones who have died.”

Lev pushed his hands up through his thick, curly gray hair. “Something’s not right. With a genetically engineered pathogen, especially one targeted at a specific and narrow gene pool like the one here in Italy, the rate of infection should be much higher … seventy percent at least. It could be mutating, and if that’s what’s happening we’re all in trouble.”

As the men sat trying to digest this newest bit of information, one of the police officers approached the SUV and motioned for Francois to roll down the window. “Mi scusi, Fathers … I just received a radio message. You will please follow me, capisco?”

Si … molto bene … grazie,” Francois replied. He looked over at the others and started the SUV while the policeman mounted his motorcycle and motioned for them to follow. With the motorcycle’s lights flashing and siren wailing in front of them, Francois guided the big Chevy down into the grassy highway median and around the scene of the accident before driving back up on the roadway and following behind the speeding motorcycle.

For several minutes they continued up the highway until the policeman veered off to the side and waved them on. Francois waved back as they continued on the A-1 and through the spectacular Tuscan countryside. “What gives,” Leo said. “Why the VIP treatment?”

Francois increased their speed. “They were told to be on the lookout for us … I guess you could say they just paid us some professional courtesy.”

Leo usually loved traveling through this part of Italy. He rolled down his window so that he could inhale the unique combination of scents being released into the air as the sun made an appearance and the temperature outside began to climb. It was the unmistakable scent of moist clay, citrus trees, vineyards, and olive groves, all coming together in a symphony of regional aroma. Gazing out at the evocative landscape, he wondered why the magnificent beauty outside their windows contrasted so starkly with the human tragedy playing out on the same canvas.

In truth, it had always been like this. The same quiet pastoral setting they were now passing through had witnessed things that even Leo could not imagine. In all of recorded history, mankind had been plagued with continuous strife. It seemed that humanity had been doomed from the beginning to live on a planet that more closely resembled a vast genetic Petri dish filled with murderous individuals who were born without warning labels. They had no discernible markings to warn others of what they were, thus allowing them to roam freely among us, walking human bombs set to explode when an invisible fuse was lit by an unseen hand.

It was as if the rest of us were the victims of some kind of horrible cosmic mistake that had been left uncorrected by someone or something that had given up on us. Nature, it seemed, was but a delightful mask to the darkness that lay hidden within the souls of those who sought only to wreak havoc against the innocent. It acted like a barrier between order and chaos, concealing the fact that murder and mayhem lurked just beneath the surface of an otherwise idyllic setting, thus making life more bearable for those who wanted only to live in peace as they faced a fragile mortality.

Leo’s internal philosophic discussion with himself soon evaporated when he noticed they were skirting the magnificent city of Florence-once home to the Medici’s and center of the universe during the Renaissance, where countless objects of art like that of Michelangelo’s David were created. It was a statue so perfect that tourists were only allowed to view the replica because the original was hidden away for fear that some madman would one day try to destroy it.

In the distance, towering above the red-roofed city, they could see the dome of the six-hundred-year-old Duomo as Francois turned west toward the coast. With the sun in their eyes, they headed away from all the art and grandeur of one of the earth’s most visited cities, now empty of tourists, until finally, they arrived at the rocky shoreline fronting the Ligurian Sea just in time to see the sun plunge out of sight over the horizon.

Looking into the faint blue light of the GPS screen, Francois could see that they still had about eighty miles to go until they reached the coastal village of Portofino. At the same time, he noticed a flashing yellow light on the instrument panel. They were almost out of fuel.

CHAPTER 12

France

The Loire Valley

It was well after midnight when the long, dark-blue Mercedes limo turned off the main highway and wound its way up a twisting road beneath the dark silhouette of overlapping trees. Seated in the back, a short man with heavy black eyebrows peered through tinted glass at the enormous French chateau that loomed in the darkness ahead.

In front of the chateau’s imposing entrance, a pair of iron lamps emitted tiny pools of faint yellow light, making it difficult to see the man in a dark suit standing in the shadows off to the side. His eyes narrowed at the limo’s approach, his only movement a slight jerk on a leash, a signal to the massive dog at his side to wait.

Rounding the final turn in the road, the limo’s headlights painted the front of the building before it crunched to a stop on the gravel driveway. Immediately, the man in the shadows sprang from his place of concealment and rushed to open the rear door.

“Good evening, sir.”

Without speaking, the visitor stepped out. He paused long enough to look up at the immense stone structure, all the while focusing his attention on a faint light streaming from a window above. An invisible force called out to him from inside, dulling his ability to focus on the business at hand. Breathing in deeply, he regained his composure long enough to pass beneath a pair of medieval gargoyles and mount the aged stairway before entering the chateau. Once inside, his body coursed with excitement as his eyes darted about in nervous anticipation, for he had waited untold years for an invitation to his master’s house.

“I trust your trip from Rome was comfortable, Father Emilio.”

Emilio spun to see a tall man in a dark suit standing behind him. “Yes, thank you … but don’t call me Father … that title no longer applies to me. Is he here?”

“Of course, sir. Please, this way.”

The tall man led Emilio across an empty foyer and up a wide, stone staircase designed in the shape of a double helix. It was a brilliant piece of medieval architecture conceived so that those ascending would never meet those descending from the floors above. They turned and walked under a carved stone arch and down a long hallway until they came to a paneled section of the wall. Looking back at Emilio, the man pushed a concealed button and the paneling slid to the side, revealing a hidden alcove containing a small elevator.

After a short ride to the next level, they stepped from the elevator onto the tightly guarded third floor of the chateau. Pausing briefly, Emilio thought he heard the low snarl of a dog coming from the far end of the darkened hallway. He hesitated before the tall man motioned him forward to a pair of nondescript, black steel doors that opened into a small room.

Peering inside, the defrocked priest beheld a scene that seemed out of place in a five-hundred-year-old French chateau. He was looking into a locker room. Green-tiled walls surrounded a space filled with rows of lockers fronted by long metal benches, and at the opposite end of the room, Emilio noticed a stainless steel door with a tiny window at eye level.

“Take off your clothes,” the tall man said.

“What!”

“I said take off your clothes. You can put them into one of the lockers there. Also, remove your ring and any other jewelry.”

“But why?” Emilio stuttered.

“You’re about to enter a Level 4 biohazard area. Nothing goes in and nothing comes out except for your body.”

Emilio hesitated as the man began to disrobe.

“Either take off your clothes or leave the area. Your choice, Father.”

Emilio glared back at the now smiling man as he began removing his shirt. “I told you not to call me that.”

After both men had finished undressing, they opened the stainless steel door and walked stark naked into a room bathed in the purplish glow of ultraviolet light. After waiting for a red light to flash above a second stainless steel door, they passed into another room that held a toilet and white metal cabinets stocked with blue surgical scrub suits, gloves, socks, and rolls of tape.

“This might be a good time to empty your bladder,” the man said. “You won’t be able to go to the bathroom once you’re in the suit.”

Emilio nodded his head in resignation and relieved himself before pulling on a pair of cotton scrubs with long sleeves. The man then instructed him on how to make a seal by wrapping tape around the bottom of his pants to his socks and around his sleeves to his gloves. When finished, they passed through yet another door into a bare concrete room, where Emilio saw what looked to him like blue space suits hanging from a rack suspended from the ceiling. A sudden hiss from the air-filtering baffles opening and closing above their heads made him jump.

Trying to keep from smiling at the former priest’s obvious discomfort, the man grabbed one of the thick, one-piece plastic suits off the rack and handed it to Emilio.

“These are biohazard suits. This one should fit you.”

Sitting on a bench, Emilio followed the man’s lead and slipped his feet through the chest opening and down through the legs of the suit into the boots. He then slid his arms into the sleeves and pushed his head up into the hood with the clear faceplate before zipping up a wide zipper that ran diagonally across the chest.

Grabbing one of the yellow air hoses that dangled from the ceiling, the man attached one end to a fitting on Emilio’s suit. Once again, Emilio jumped when the suit inflated with a roar of pressurized air designed to keep the suit under positive pressure. This constant outward flow of air would theoretically protect the person inside from any lethal organisms that might be floating around inside the lab from entering the suit if it developed a tear.

Now fully suited, the two men faced the final door. It was also made from stainless steel and had a bright orange biohazard symbol emblazoned across its surface. The man looked at Emilio and spoke loudly to overcome the hiss of air flowing into their suits. “How are you doing, sir?”

Emilio looked through his faceplate and scowled. “I’m fine. Are we almost there?”

“Beyond that door is the Level 4 lab. It’s one of the hottest hot zones in the world. There are things in there that could kill you before your body even hits the floor. Are you sure you’re ready?”

Emilio’s eyes grew wide. “Yes … of course … let’s go.”

“Ok. Don’t touch anything once you’re inside and everything should be fine. You’ll have to unhook from your air supply hose in here and hook up to another one once we’re inside. Remember … always, and I mean always, stay hooked up to your air supply. Follow me.” Both men unhooked from their yellow lifelines before the tall man opened the steel door and disappeared inside.

Emilio inhaled deeply as if he were preparing to immerse himself in a pool of ice cold water. Stepping through the doorway, a bead of sweat ran down his face as he struggled to keep up with the man ahead of him. The room seemed to spin as he worked to slow his breathing. His heart was pounding in his ears-it skipped a beat. Had something entered his suit somehow- something that had already entered his body and was now affecting him? Emilio worked hard to quell the panic he felt rising within him. Black spots began floating before his eyes when suddenly, he remembered to grab the bright yellow air hose hanging from the ceiling and attach it to his suit.

“Emilio … can you hear me? What’s wrong with you?”

Slowly, Emilio’s eyes began to focus on a blue-suited figure standing before him. From behind the faceplate, Emilio could feel Rene’s eyes looking right through him. His master’s eyes! “Yes … yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I got a little dizzy for a second.”

Acerbi glared back at him and shrugged. “It’s the suit, Emilio. You’ll get used to it.”

“Yes, sir. I feel much better now.” Another bead of sweat began to trickle down his face. “I got here as soon as I could, sir. Interpol has pictures of my face in every police station in France. I had to take precautions.”

“I know. We’ve been watching you to make sure that you weren’t being followed.” A slight smile crossed Acerbi’s lips when he saw the look of surprise on Emilio’s face. “The world can never know about this lab. I also must take precautions.”

Acerbi turned and motioned for Emilio to follow him over the rubber-coated flooring designed to prevent falling containers from breaking, past rows of waist-high tables full of glass flasks and clear plastic tubing that ran upward and joined with larger, multi-colored tubing overhead. It reminded Emilio of his college chemistry lab, only this one was much, much larger.

They continued on past tall, stainless steel incubators packed with small round Petri dishes full of things Emilio could only wonder about, until they came to a wall of glass that separated a small room from the rest of the lab. It was obvious to him that strict isolation was critical, for the organism that lived behind the glass could never, ever be allowed to come in contact with the air of the outside world. This was the mother pathogen, the queen bee-the one from which all the others had been born, but unlike its children, this one had no fail safe mechanism to cause it to die out after forty-eight hours.

Emilio watched as a technician outside the sealed room maneuvered a mechanical arm, inserting a plastic slide into an electron microscope mounted on a pedestal behind the glass. His eyes grew wide as he felt the sweat begin to flow once more, but this time the sweat was different. This was sweat born of exhilaration, for soon he would be looking at that which he had come to see-the living but mindless result of years of research. His anticipation was overwhelming. It felt almost as if he were drowning, as though he was descending into deep, dark water while watching the light fade above, signaling a final victory of death over life.

He stepped closer and peered down at the slide in the microscope.

“There it is, Emilio,” Acerbi announced with pride. He pointed to a pair of black eyepieces jutting out from the glass enclosure. “Have a look.”

Emilio bent forward and placed the faceplate of his hood against the soft rubber ends of the eyepieces. He squinted until a shape materialized within his field of view. There before him was a microscopic blob of green goo with tendrils of red extending outward.

Emilio took an involuntary step back as he realized he was looking at death incarnate. His breath came in short, shallow gasps. He felt dizzy and unable to concentrate. He grabbed the side of the enclosure to steady himself as the room began to spin wildly. His response to the object was not one he had anticipated.

Acerbi laughed. Aside from receiving some sadistic satisfaction at Emilio’s obvious discomfort, Rene Acerbi had good reason to be happy. After inheriting his family’s fortune at the age of twenty-one, he had become one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. Prone to sudden mood swings, his facial expression changed suddenly as he thought back to the day when his famous Italian father, Eduardo Acerbi, had disappeared without a trace after a meeting with some close associates.

Rene was only seven-years-old on the day he heard his mother sobbing in her room. Peering through the partially open door, he had seen her crying in the arms of his live-in nanny.

“I’m sure Mr. Acerbi will turn up soon, Mrs. Acerbi. It’s only been a few days, and, well, you know how inconsiderate some men can be.”

“Not Eduardo! It’s not like him. He always calls if he’s running late … he’s just vanished! All of his things are still here. All of his clothes, his favorite gold watch, his Ferrari … us … me and little Rene. Everything he loves is right here in this house. He must be dead or unconscious in a hospital somewhere.”

“We’ve checked every hospital in Europe, Mrs. Acerbi. He’s not in any of them.”

“Maybe he’s got amnesia or something. He could be wandering around, all alone and not knowing who he is or where to go.” Deep sobs shook her body as she collapsed back into the arms of the nanny.

“He’s a very famous man,” the nanny replied. “If anyone spots him, I’m sure they will recognize him. His picture is on the front page of every newspaper in the world.”

Not knowing what to do, little Rene had backed away from the door. At the time he didn’t understand his mother’s grief, for he was still too young, but somehow the scene seemed familiar to him. Only the week before, he had also seen his father in tears and in the arms of the nanny.

And so the search for Acerbi had gone on … lasting for weeks that stretched into months, until finally, all hope began to vanish. The newspapers and magazines of the day had called it one of the strangest disappearance cases on record. It was a total mystery. One of the world’s wealthiest men-a handsome husband and loving father who doted on his family-suddenly and inexplicably gone. He had vanished into thin air without a trace.

Some blamed it on the Mafia and waited for a ransom note that never arrived, while others believed he had been murdered by assassins hired by a Latin American dictator he had crossed. But whatever the cause, it soon became apparent to everyone that Eduardo Acerbi was never going to return from wherever he had gone.

Rene’s mother remarried shortly after her husband’s disappearance, but within a year she and her new husband were also dead. They had been killed in a freak automobile accident when the car they were riding in inexplicably veered off the side of a mountain road and tumbled down a rocky cliff. In her will, Rene’s mother had bequeathed everything to her only son on the advice of those close to her, especially the nanny, who over the past year had taken on a stronger role in raising little Rene.

The child now stood to inherit the entire sum of his family’s wealth and power on the day of his twenty-first birthday. Until then, as specified in the will, the control of the family fortune would rest in the hands of the nanny, who had been named as Rene’s legal guardian. It was the nanny who now took on the role of mother, and it was she who told Rene of his famous father and how much Eduardo had loved his only son. She grew to be powerful and fiercely protective of her young charge, until the day when Rene turned twenty-one and the nanny suddenly left, returning to the village of her youth.

Though he looked much younger, Rene was now forty-seven years old. It had been twenty-six years since the nanny, a woman who had been like a mother to him, had been replaced by a multitude of advisors-men who had known Rene’s father well and had looked out after his interests. Still unmarried, Rene Acerbi shied away from close social contact with others as he took his place at the head of a worldwide business organization that included the sons of other powerful leaders in the business world. Together, this new generation had inherited from their ancestors the shadowy vestige of an ambitious design, an intricate plan that would one day attempt to alter the face of humanity forever. Rene and his friends had all sworn sacred oaths to one another that they would continue down the path that had been set for them hundreds of years before by wise men and women who were now gone or fading away, but would never be forgotten.

Emilio was still staring at the pathogen and clutching the side of the enclosure when Acerbi spoke again. “I had the same reaction when I first saw it, Emilio. If we would have used that instead of the test organism on New York, the world would be a lot less crowded right now.”

“Yes, sir,” Emilio said breathlessly. “The test was a huge success. Our man did a perfect job of spreading it into the subway, although sadly, he never lived to report back to us.”

Acerbi’s dark eyes narrowed behind the faceplate of his suit. “He was never meant to.”

Acerbi turned and walked over to a laptop computer lying on a nearby counter. He laid his gloved finger on the plastic-covered touchpad, signaling the screen to emit a bluish glow that reflected off the faceplate of his biohazard suit. There before him were the pages from an ancient book filled with the words of a long-dead language. He smiled with the memory of how he had outwitted those who had destroyed the book the year before. The book itself was nothing more than ashes now, but Acerbi had secretly downloaded its contents so that its words would spread like seeds on the wind and inflame the hearts and minds of those waiting for its message, a message that was already beginning to be felt throughout the world.

Turning away from the counter, Acerbi looked above his head at a wide-screen TV linked to a camera located on the roof of the chateau. From inside the lab, he was able to look out over manicured grounds still cloaked in darkness. Soon his eyes adjusted to the darkened picture, and as he watched, he could see the pale outline of yellow light on the horizon announcing the coming of the sun. He smiled, for a new day was about to dawn, and soon there would be no place on earth where the sun was not dawning on a new empire-an empire ruled by Rene Acerbi.

CHAPTER 13

A red light blinked from the bank of radios centered beneath the SUVs dash, signaling an incoming message from the communications center at the Vatican. Francois picked up the handset and pushed the green talk button. “Yes.”

“Have you checked your fuel, sir?”

“The fuel light just came on.”

“We know. We’re receiving data from your onboard computer via satellite. The air pressure inside your left front tire is also a little low, but nothing to worry about at this point.”

“Have you made arrangements?”

“You’re headed toward the coast on the A-12 now. The next town is Carrara. Exit there and you’ll see an AGIP gas station as you enter the town. It has a big yellow sign with the picture of a black, six-legged dog spitting fire.”

“I know those signs well. They’re all over Italy.”

“The station will look closed, sir. The owner is afraid to come out. He’ll be waiting inside to turn the pumps on when you arrive. Just drive off after you fill up … we’ll handle the bill. Oh, and one other thing, Chief. We just heard from the Carmela. She’ll be arriving sometime late tomorrow. We’re making arrangements for you to stay at one of our safe-houses outside of town. Things are getting dangerous for travelers right now, so stay inside the house until the boat arrives.”

“Will do … and thanks.”

“Be safe, sir.”

Just as promised, a sign pointing to the town of Carrara appeared off to their right. Turning off the coastal road, they drove through the deserted town square until they spotted the yellow sign with the six-legged-dog. After they had pulled up next to the pumps, Lev jumped out and grabbed the fuel hose. He shoved the nozzle into the fuel tank, but when he squeezed the handle nothing happened. Looking around, he spotted a man peering at him from inside the station. Probably the owner. The man waved and disappeared behind the counter.

Seconds later, the hose jerked and Lev could hear the most expensive gas in all of Europe flowing into a fuel tank that was almost empty. Throughout the entire European Union, it was well known that the cost of gas in Italy was higher than anywhere else in Europe. A large SUV like the one they were driving would cost a normal person a good portion of their paycheck just to keep it on the road. It was no wonder that the tiny motorbikes one saw everywhere were the favored mode of transportation. Scenes of a man and wife, together with two of their children on the same bike, were common.

As soon as the fuel tank was full, Lev replaced the gas cap and climbed back into the vehicle. They could see the owner lowering the shades inside as Francois started the engine and headed back toward the coastal road.

“That’s a strange logo for a gas company,” Lev said, looking up at the sign as they left the station.

Morelli chuckled. “Oh, the six-legged-dog? I know. I used to wonder about it myself, so I googled it on my computer last year. The decision to use that image as the logo for an oil company has always been a mystery in Italy. It was actually designed for the company in 1952 by Luigi Broggini, a famous sculptor who died in Milan back in the eighties. He never revealed why he chose it, although many have said Broggini drew his inspiration from Greek mythology. The Greeks often used the image of an animal with extra legs to symbolize supernatural strength. Some people think it represents the fire-spitting monster locals have been reporting for years in Lake Gerundo in the Po Valley.”

“I’ve seen the same kind of symbolism in America,” Leo said. “One of our well-known oil companies used the red image of a winged horse. I guess oil company executives have a penchant for mythological beasts, which isn’t too surprising when you think that oil has become something akin to a new idolatry in the twentieth century.”

In the gathering darkness, they turned onto the coast road and saw row after row of closed seafood restaurants, a sudden reminder that they hadn’t eaten all day. Leo began rooting around in the ice chest in the back and discovered some large pastrami and mozzarella sandwiches made with thick Italian bread. Within minutes, they had devoured all of them and were looking for other hidden culinary treasures Francois’s men had stashed onboard. Leo let out a whoop when he found a plastic container full of Saltimbocca alla romana-veal slices rolled with prosciutto and sage. Translated, Saltimbocca literally means jump in the mouth.

From a side road, a black SUV just like the one they were riding in pulled out onto the highway in front of them. A stern-sounding voice with a thick Swiss accent came over the radio.

“Good evening, sir. We are right in front of you. The pope sends his regards. Please follow us.”

Francois turned and looked at the others. “Swiss Guards … they’ve been waiting for us.”

Lev eyed the black vehicle ahead. “Are you sure, Francois?”

“Positive. For one, not too many people drive vehicles identical to this one, and secondly, he used the correct passwords.”

The pope sends his regards?” As someone familiar with codes, Lev couldn’t help himself. “Really?”

Francois smiled. “Well, our passwords might not be all that sophisticated, Professor, but I happen to recognize the voice.”

“No offense, Francois. I’m just relieved to see we have some backup now.”

“Look behind you.”

Lev turned in his seat and peered back at the darkening road behind them. In the distance, he saw a small white car pass beneath a street light, driving with its headlights turned off. “How long have they been there?”

“Since that mob outside Rome attacked our vehicle on the highway. We try not to leave anything to chance.”

A few minutes later, the black SUV in front of them slowed and turned off to the right. They followed until the headlights from their vehicles illuminated the front of a darkened farmhouse sitting at the end of a red dirt road.

As soon as the SUVs stopped, the lights inside the house began switching on, and Leo and the others could see that the building was already surrounded by Swiss Guard soldiers. Climbing from their vehicle, Leo and the others stretched and looked around.

“I don’t know about the rest of you,” Leo said, “but I’m going straight to bed.”

“Good idea, Cardinal,” Francois responded. “I have a feeling the next few days will be very busy for you.”

Wearily, they all filed into the house as the security men outside began their night-long vigil. Parked along the road under the trees, the small white car that had been following sat with its lights off, waiting for the dawn.

CHAPTER 14

Leo had gone to bed early, while Morelli and Lev had stayed up late. Before going to bed, the two men had joined a group of Swiss Guard officers at a long wooden table in the farmhouse kitchen-drinking coffee, playing cards, and listening to the reports on TV about the mysterious virus that had swept through central Italy, leaving thousands dead in its wake before flaming out like a blazing torch dipped in water.

In a replay of the viral onslaught that took New York by surprise, the majority of people in the affected region had remained healthy, while others had died a horrible death within hours of exposure. On the surface it appeared as though the virus had run its course, but many families continued to huddle in their homes and pray as specialized biohazard teams from the World Health Organization descended on the Italian countryside looking for clues to the identity and origin of the deadly pathogen.

So far, the only thing they knew for sure was the fact that they were dealing with a virus that seemed to change the way it affected its victims. Unlike the Ebola-like symptoms seen in New York, the virus seen in Italy had acted more like a neurotoxin against the body’s central nervous system, but in both cases the method of infection remained a mystery.

The Italian outbreak had apparently started in the suburbs of Rome and headed north, cutting a swath through the regions of Umbria and Tuscany before finally ending its rampage on the outskirts of Florence. For the past twelve hours, no new cases had been reported, and news that the virus stopped just as suddenly as it had started brought cries of cautious relief across the entire European continent.

In Portofino, the picturesque seaside village was slowly awakening to the fact that they had been left untouched by the shadowy specter of a pathogen that had suddenly faded into oblivion-but for how long? The world had now been hit twice by an engineered virus that affected its victims differently on two separate continents, and no one knew when the mysterious virus would once again spring to life somewhere else on the globe and take thousands more to their graves.

Early the next morning, Morelli awakened, grabbed a cup of coffee from the kitchen, and walked outside to breathe in some fresh country air. Sipping his coffee, he squinted in the bright sunlight and surveyed the rolling hills surrounding the farm. He noticed that, sometime during the night, more vehicles had arrived at the farm, and with them had come a large detachment of men who were standing around in their combat fatigues next to a grizzled-looking Swiss Guard captain.

Morelli ambled up to the group and spoke briefly with the captain before drinking the last of his coffee and walking back to the farmhouse. Once inside, he spotted Leo sitting at the far end of the dining room table, happily dealing out a new hand of cards to a depressed looking group of men. Biting his lower lip, Morelli was barely able to keep from laughing when he realized that the men seated around Leo had unwittingly subjected themselves to a game of poker with the cardinal, a man who was known to beat world-class players on a regular basis.

As a young boy growing up in central Pennsylvania, Leo had watched his father and uncles gather together every Friday night under the glare of a bare light bulb hanging above the kitchen table. There, after they had all spent an exhausting week working deep in the local coal mines, they would drink and laugh and play poker into the wee hours of the morning. The game had always fascinated Leo. He had loved watching the way his father’s left eye twitched imperceptibly when he was holding a winning hand, a clue that his father’s opponents never seemed to notice. That single observation had taught him an important lesson in life, because just like in poker, life was full of imperceptible nuances that a keen observer could use to his or her advantage when they lacked solid information and had to make a key decision based on instinct alone.

Having a relaxing hobby like poker challenged Leo’s mind and sharpened his powers of observation, so despite his busy schedule doing God’s work, he continued to follow the careers of professional poker players who traveled the international poker circuit. He always knew when a well-known player was visiting Rome, and as soon as he found out where they were staying, he would dispatch a formal invitation for a friendly little game. But as rumors of his skill began to spread within the poker community, Leo soon discovered that many of the visiting players he had beaten in the past were suddenly becoming very creative in their excuses as to why they were unable to meet with the famous cardinal for an evening of poker and fine wine at the Vatican.

Lev glanced up from the table at Morelli. “Did you know about this?”

“Know what?”

“That the cardinal is a card shark. He’s a hustler and you never warned us.”

The humbled Swiss Guards all nodded their heads.

“I learned long ago never to play poker with the man, especially if money is involved.” Morelli peered over Leo’s shoulder at the cards in his hand. “I have some news that might make you feel better, Professor.”

“What … is Leo bluffing?”

“It concerns the yacht. Apparently, the Carmela has just made a record crossing of the Mediterranean. Francois informed me that they dropped anchor offshore thirty minutes ago.”

“Hmmm … Alex must have really been pushing the new engines.”

Morelli slid down into an empty chair beside Leo and let out a loud sigh.

“Ok, what is it?” Leo said, laying his cards face-down on the table. “You don’t look happy, Anthony.”

“I’m afraid this is as far as I go, Leo.”

“I thought we were all going to Spain together.”

“There’s been a change of plans. With the arrival of the Carmela, you have the entire Bible Code Team here to support you now. Pope Michael needs me back at the Vatican.”

“Actually, I was a little surprised he let you leave in the first place. After all, you’re his most trusted advisor.”

Morelli winked and nodded his head in the direction of the door. Leo caught on and grabbed a cup of coffee before excusing himself and following Morelli outside.

“What’s up, Bishop?”

“Marcus is very fond of you, Leo. He picks his confidants carefully, and I happen to know that he especially values the fact that you possess the kind of mind that can analyze a situation from a unique perspective. You see things others may miss. That’s why our little get-togethers with the pope over the past year have been so important to him. It allows him to bounce ideas around the room with those he trusts in an informal setting away from the pomp and ceremony of his office. But I have a feeling there’s something else … something that only he is privy to, and he doesn’t seem to want to discuss it with anyone else … at lease not now.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m not sure, but he’s sending you to Spain for a reason … a reason that he’s chosen not to share with either of us. On the way here, I thought back to a cryptic comment he made last month after a late-night dinner party he held for a select group of friends in his apartment. He seemed troubled that night and surprised both Enzo and myself when he had more than his usual two glasses of wine. We were all laughing about a complaint that had been made about you.”

“About me?”

“Yes. It was quite funny, actually. Enzo received a letter from a group of Vatican nuns. They had written to say that they didn’t think it was dignified for a cardinal of your stature to be whizzing around Rome on a motor scooter. We were all practically rolling on the floor when Marcus got up and poured another glass of wine. His face suddenly turned serious, and he started talking about how dangerous and crazy the traffic was in Rome and how maybe he should forbid you to drive around town on the thing. He then walked to the window and surprised all of us when he muttered something to himself about how your survival and the survival of the Church were somehow linked together. He stood there for a long time, then turned and looked back at us as if he had forgotten that we were in the room. He seemed lost in thought, as if something else was bothering him, then smiled and became his old, easy-going self again.”

“That doesn’t sound like Marcus … I mean, His Holiness. Good grief, I’ll never get used to calling him that.”

“Truth be told, Leo, he prefers his given name in private.”

Leo paused and took a last sip of coffee. “I know. I think he’s almost as uncomfortable in his position as I am in mine. Despite the fact that he’s always had a very fatalistic view of life, he’s always been very protective of his friends. Even as far back as when we were all in seminary together he used to watch over the underclassmen like a mother hen. It’s a quality he’s probably had all his life … it’s in his blood. Now that he’s become pope … a Jesuit pope … he’s become like a military commander looking out for his troops. If you look at the big picture, and I’m talking about the future of the Church in general here, then his statement about my future being intertwined with that of the Church isn’t really all that strange. The College of Cardinals is a pretty exclusive club. We’re the pope’s generals, and the next pope will be chosen from our ranks. Marcus probably just had a few too many glasses of his favorite Merlot that night and was feeling a little overly protective of one of his own.”

“I disagree, Leo. It was deeper than that. There was something definitive in his statement. As soon as the virus hit Rome he wanted you out of there. I mean, with so many people dying, the Vatican is practically under siege right now, yet the pope sent his best people to guard us. The captain in charge of all those well-armed men standing over there said he’s never seen so much security for a cardinal before. He said we’re receiving more protection than the pope himself right now. His Holiness values your friendship, Leo, but something else is going on. He’s making double sure nothing happens to you, and it’s not just because you two are friends.”

Leo stared back at Morelli with a blank look on his face. His uncanny ability to read people had failed him this time. He had completely misread the pope earlier when he thought the pontiff had lost trust in him. So that’s why the pope had wanted to speak to the bishop in private. Morelli and Francois had been given orders to watch over him, but why? What was Pope Michael up to?

“What are you two conspiring about? Is it some kind of Catholic plot?”

Morelli and Leo turned to see a sullen-looking Lev Wasserman standing behind them. Morelli grinned back at him and pulled a small yellow box from his coat pocket.

“Here, Professor. This might help to make up for your poker losses with the Cardinal.”

Lev whistled softly to himself as he gingerly opened the box and inhaled the unmistakable and overpowering aroma of twenty-five genuine Cuban cigars.

“Cohibas!”

“Yes. The Church is making significant inroads back into Cuba. Raul Castro gave them to Bishop Hernandez when he was meeting with Fidel last month. Hernandez doesn’t smoke, so he mailed them to me and I’ve been saving them for you ever since.”

“Your thoughtfulness has just earned you a special place in heaven, Anthony!” Lev stepped back and eyed the bishop suspiciously. “What do you want?”

Morelli laughed. “Well, go ahead … we know you’re dying to try one.” They both watched as Lev expertly clipped the end from one of the precious cigars and lit it with a match. Closing his eyes, he exhaled and let the thick, bluish smoke drift upwards around his head and through his hair as his face widened with a huge grin. “I don’t know how to thank you, Anthony. How did you know these are my favorites?”

“I didn’t, but I knew they must be good considering where they came from and who sent them.”

Those entrenched in the cigar world knew that only ten farms in the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba supplied their best leaves for the Cohiba. That, plus the fact that they are the only brand to use three fermentations-one of many small details that make it one of the finest cigars in the world. First introduced in 1968, the Cohiba was an instant sensation. Back then, the Cuban government was looking for something special. Their cigars were a point of pride, and Fidel wanted the best of the best when it came to giving a special gift to foreign dignitaries. The Cohiba exceeded his wildest expectations, and when word of its velvety flavor spread among cigar aficionados the world over, the new cigar became almost impossible to obtain, making it one of the most expensive and sought-after tobacco products in the world. Needless to say, Lev was ecstatic.

Morelli relished watching Lev’s reaction. The bishop was truly a man who enjoyed giving more than he enjoyed receiving, and those who counted themselves among his close friends quickly got used to receiving little gifts from him for no special reason.

Morelli glanced down at his watch. It was time for him to leave. Not one for long goodbyes, he turned away and walked quickly down the red dirt road to the little white car that had followed them all the way from Rome. Looking back at Leo and Lev, he gave a quick wave before climbing into the back seat. Moments later, the little car had disappeared from sight.

“Nice cigars.” Leo and Lev glanced over to see Francois standing next to them.

Lev sighed as he reached into the box and handed Leander one of his precious stogies. Running the prized cylinder of tobacco beneath his nose, Francois nodded his head in the direction of a group of fit-looking men sporting an array of automatic weapons. “As you can see, one of my quick response teams arrived during the night. I think it’s time we leave for Portofino.”

While Leo and Lev settled into the back of one of the armored SUVs, Francois conferred with the Swiss Guard captain before hopping behind the wheel and starting the engine. Flanked by several additional vehicles full of heavily-armed men, the procession pulled away from the farmhouse and headed up the coast highway toward the stair-stepped houses that made up the seaside village of Portofino.

Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful seaside ports in all of Europe, millions of would-be travelers had gazed upon pictures of the tiny Mediterranean village on posters displayed in windows of travel agencies all over the world. One look at the idyllic seaside setting was usually all it took to make customers reach for their wallets and hand over their credit cards as they stared at the poster, hypnotized by thoughts of rubbing elbows with the rich and famous on the Italian Riviera.

Although the harbor at Portofino was too small to accept a super yacht the size of the Carmela, the port was filled with smaller yachts along with brightly-painted fishing boats that appeared to float on air in the clear aquamarine water that lapped at a dock populated with sidewalk cafes. The laid-back, seaside retreat of Portofino was a place where the rich and not-so-rich mingled in a setting untouched by time, drinking and eating late into the night as the velvety sea air filled their lungs with the sweet perfume of the ocean.

After parking on a sloping cobblestoned street, Francois walked with Leo and Lev down to the waterfront. Predictably, the cafes were deserted as a slight breeze ruffled the multicolored umbrellas over the empty tables.

Squinting out at the dazzling harbor, they could see an enormous blue and white yacht pulling at its anchor chain in the softly rolling swell of the sea beyond the protective rock jetty. It was a welcome sight to the weary men who, only the day before, were not sure if they would live to see another sunrise.

“Daddy!” The startled men turned to see a shapely young woman with long brown hair running toward them.

“Ariella! I thought we sent word … no one was supposed to come ashore.”

“John and I brought the speedboat in, Father. You weren’t planning on swimming out to the yacht, were you?”

“I see.” Lev’s futile attempt to look stern brought a smile to Ariella’s face. Ever since she was a child, Lev had learned that his efforts to control his headstrong daughter were met with about as much success as an attempt to shape dry sand.

“Where’s everyone else?”

“On the yacht. John is across the harbor looking to buy some fresh fish for supper tonight … he should be along in a minute.”

“Leo!” Ariella threw her arms around the cardinal’s neck. “We’ve missed you so much. It’s been almost a year since my wedding. Where’s Bishop Morelli?”

“On his way back to the Vatican. Is that John?” Leo pointed to a tanned and shirtless young man who was slowly edging a gleaming white speedboat up against the dock. As soon as he spotted Leo, he jumped from the boat and reached out with an eager handshake.

“It’s good to see you again, sir. Ariella and I have been meaning to come to Rome for the past several months, but the house … school …”

Leo stood back and admired the young couple. They were the closest thing to having children of his own that he had ever experienced. “You two are still newlyweds. You need to feather your nest.”

John grinned. “Come on … hop in the boat. We need to get going. There’s a storm coming and the captain wants to put to sea as soon as possible.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Lev said, looking around at all the empty tables. “I’m not convinced this epidemic is over yet. It’s only a matter of time before it pops up again.”

Ariella shuddered. Looking down into the speedboat, she spotted an empty wire basket lying on the floorboards. “No luck finding any fresh fish for supper, hon?”

“No fishermen. This town is locked up tight. I saw a few people watching me from their windows, but they closed their shutters when they saw me looking up at them.”

Speaking into his radio, Francois hurried over to the group. “I’ll be saying goodbye for now. My men and I need to get back to the Vatican.”

“Thank you, Francois,” Leo said. “We’ll stay in touch.”

Francois shoved a satellite phone into the cardinal’s hand. “Remember, we can get to you wherever you are … we’re only a phone call away.”

As everyone clamored onboard the speedboat, John took his place on a raised seat behind the wheel and turned the key. Immediately, the engine came to life with a muted rumble that grew into a throaty roar as they moved out into the harbor. Inching the throttles forward, the bow rose steadily through the water as John steered the boat out into open water toward the Carmela. Standing behind him on tiptoes, Ariella wrapped her arms around his shoulders and laid her head against his tanned back, her long hair whipping in the slipstream as she closed her eyes against the saltwater spray.

Sitting next to Lev on the padded seat in the back of the boat, Leo watched the young couple with a mixture of joy and sadness. He felt a great sense of satisfaction that these two had found happiness with each other, but his joy was tinged with sadness at the fact that he would forever have a void in his life. He would never experience the same closeness with a woman. No one would ever hold him the way Ariella held on to John. His only embrace came from his faith, for that was the path he had chosen.

Only a few of the cardinal’s closest friends knew that he fought a constant internal battle with the issue of celibacy and marriage. His rough-chiseled features and intelligent green eyes had attracted more than one woman throughout his life, and for some odd reason, his Roman collar had actually acted as a magnet to some. But despite his yearning to share his life with another, Leo had come to terms with the fact that life wasn’t always fair to those who served. He had always managed to remain faithful to his vows, but in his view, the Church’s demand for priests to remain celibate had condemned thousands of men to a life of unnatural solitude. More and more he was coming to believe that this demand for a life filled with reflective isolation was a throwback to the Middle-Ages, to an unenlightened era in history, when enforcing deprivation on others was power.

Now, in the twenty-first century, as information circled the globe at the speed of light, a new generation of priests had become filled with a fierce resolve-a resolve for change. They had become convinced that the Church’s failure to acknowledge a man’s God-given right to marry and have a family was the one thing most responsible for the scandals that had befallen the modern priesthood.

The year before, when Leo had first met John as a young man considering the priesthood, he had counseled him to choose his vocation wisely due to this very issue. John had agonized between his ambition to serve God as a priest and his desire to marry and raise a family. The matter had finally been settled in Israel when John and Ariella looked into each other’s eyes for the first time. Game over. The Church had lost another promising candidate.

A shadow looming over the speedboat caused Leo to look up as the gleaming white superstructure of the Carmela towered above them. Pulling up alongside the yacht’s dark blue hull, John expertly reversed the speedboat’s engines to keep from slamming into the wooden stairway that descended down the side of the yacht from the deck above. Rising and falling with the swell of the ocean, John tried to steady the small boat while Lev scrambled onto the bow and threw a line to a deckhand standing at the bottom of the stairs.

Up on the bridge, Alex Pappas, the Carmela’s captain, stood against the railing, smoking a cigarette. He looked down on the scene below with eyes that matched the color of the sea he had lived on for most of his adult life. His short black hair contrasted with the stark white uniform he wore with pride, and like his father and grandfather before him, he had followed in the footsteps of generations of Greek sea captains who had guided ships across the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years.

“Secure that speedboat,” Pappas bellowed to the deckhands below. “We’re starting the engines in fifteen minutes.”

The yacht’s mixed crew of men and women looked up and watched as he flicked the remainder of his lit cigarette overboard and walked back into the bridge. The young crewmembers sprang into action, for they knew that their beloved Greek captain always meant what he said, and that in exactly fifteen minutes, the twin turbines of the two-hundred-and-thirty-foot yacht would begin propelling the huge boat away from the coastline and out to sea.

As the crew took charge of stowing the speedboat below decks, Leo and Lev followed John and Ariella up the polished wooden stairs to the main deck.

“We’re going up to the bridge to watch the departure,” John said. “Aren’t you two coming? The view is spectacular from up there.”

“It’s pretty spectacular from here too,” Lev said, settling back into a cushy lounge chair next to a table under a blue canvas awning. “Tell Alex we’ll be up in a minute.”

Shrugging his shoulders, John grabbed Ariella’s hand and the two headed up some outside stairs to the bridge. Seconds later, a female crewmember exited the aft salon with a tray in her hand. She was wearing the crew’s standard uniform of dark blue shorts and a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt with the name of the yacht, Carmela, emblazoned in gold script over the left chest. Bending from the waist, she set two glasses of sparkling white wine at their table before disappearing back inside.

“I had forgotten how much I loved being on this boat,” Leo said, lying back in a recumbent deck chair next to Lev and gazing out at the harbor.

“I know. I love it too. Sometimes I feel more at home on this boat than I do on land. Still, I can’t help but feel a little guilty sitting here amidst all of this luxury, especially in view of what just happened to all of those poor souls back on the highway.”

Leo took a long sip from his glass and stared out at the water. “Life is for the living, Lev, and we have to press on if we are to have any chance at all of stopping this thing. Now that I think of it, this boat is probably one of the best places in the world to be right now. It’s mobile and easily isolated … a perfect home base for what we need to do. Everything happens for a reason, so we should count our blessings that we have our own little island of safety right now.”

“What you just said reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about since we came onboard. Now that the world is at the mercy of a virus that’s capable of killing millions, we’ve arrived at a kind of crossroads in human history. No one knows where this thing will strike next. Panic will soon rule the cities, and others will be looking for similar places of safety. Untold thousands will be seeking to escape the virus until the threat has passed. I’ve sent word to our people guarding the compound back in Israel to block all access. For now, no one comes in and no one goes out. The same thing goes for this boat except for designated team members who will have to make shore excursions from time to time.”

“I suppose you’re right. We’re going to have to start looking at the world in a whole new way. For all practical purposes, the planet we live on is rapidly becoming a dangerous alien environment.”

“That’s exactly the way we need to start looking at our surroundings when we leave the boat. We have no idea when or where the pathogen will pop up next and what effect it will have on any given population. Of course, in Israel, we’ve always been faced with hostile threats, but according to the Bible, our greatest threat still lies ahead. My wife and I always kept the biblical warnings of Revelation at the forefront of our thinking, especially when we built the villa and the compound surrounding it. I don’t think I ever mentioned this to you before, but throughout the years, I’ve been in contact with other like-minded communities similar to ours in Israel.”

“You mean people have built other compounds like the one surrounding your villa?”

“Most of them were built by friends I’ve known throughout the years … friends who believe as I do. We wanted to create places of safety for our families and friends to go to if something catastrophic occurred in the world. A lot of people scoffed at our Noah’s Ark mentality, and I hate to say it, but a lot of them are probably wishing they had listened to us now.”

“Are they all in Israel?”

“Two of them are. They are both kibbutz-like compounds like the one at the villa. There’s another located near the Aude River in southern France, and two more in America. All of them were started by some very interesting people.”

“I sincerely hope you’re not describing something along the lines of those end-of-world religious cults that seem to pop up in the headlines from time to time … the kind that give the rest of us in the religious community a black eye.”

“Oh, no, they’re nothing like that. They were conceived with Christian belief systems in mind, but there’s nothing cult-like about them. One of the communities in America is quite large. Apparently, one group bought up hundreds of acres of farmland in an area of the country where the local farmers had fallen on hard times. Some of the farmers actually returned to live for free in homes they had lost to the bank. They now run the farming operation while the other residents are involved in outside professions. Everyone owns their own homes and they come and go as they please. They have elected boards and there’s no guru in charge telling them how they should worship. The other one was built by a wealthy businessman in Chicago who bought a skyscraper, gutted it, and had the interior rebuilt to suit their needs. Apparently, he was becoming alarmed at the wholesale change in moral values and the increasing rate of violent crime in the city. The entire building is self-contained … they’re not dependent on anything from the outside.”

“Sounds like a ship at sea.”

“That’s a good analogy, Leo. It’s very much like a ship … a ship in a sea of social and moral uncertainty. They depend mostly on solar energy for their power, grow their own food, and recycle everything. It’s quite an operation. It felt like I was in a model for a city of the future when I was there last year. After my visit, we adopted some of their technology for the farm in Israel.”

“What about the one in France?”

“That one is probably my favorite. It’s a modern-day remnant of an old hippie commune built around the ruins of an old castle. Their fields produce some of the best wine in the world, and like the other communities, they’re totally self-sufficient.”

This was getting interesting. Lev had always been an enigma to Leo. He was wealthy and powerful, yet almost overly generous and very protective of those he loved. As long as Leo had known him, Lev had never mentioned any of these self-sufficient, kibbutz-like compounds, or the fact that they all communicated with each other.

Lev stood and pulled one of his new cigars from his shirt pocket and lit it with a match. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, Leo, I think I’ll go topside and see how things are progressing. Why don’t you stay here and relax for a while. You look tired.”

“I am. I think I’ve only slept a few hours in the past two days. I’ll be up to join you shortly.”

Leo watched Lev climb the outside stairs to the bridge while he sat back and mulled Lev’s newest revelations over in his head. He was just drifting off into a light sleep when a crewmember walked up and handed him one of the yacht’s satellite phones. “Excuse me, sir. It’s a call from Bishop Morelli.”

“Thank you.” Leo took the phone and pressed it to his ear. “Anthony … is everything ok?”

“Yes, we’re fine. We’re pulled off to the side of the road. Marcus is sending a helicopter for me and Francois. I just wanted to make sure you made it safely onboard.”

“Yes. We’re just getting ready to depart for Spain.”

“Wish I was there. I love that boat.”

Leo smiled. “You know, Anthony, the way your investments are paying off, you could probably afford a boat like this. You could name her something like Church Business.”

“So I could tell people I was off on church business without having to lie about the fact that I was really lying around on my boat somewhere.”

“Exactly.”

“You’re a very devious fellow, Cardinal.”

“I know.”

“I think a purchase like that that might be pushing my vow of poverty a little too far, although I don’t think that’s going to be a problem anytime soon. I took a pretty substantial hit in the stock market this year, along with everyone else. I’m still doing alright, but I’m afraid my contributions to the Church have dwindled lately. If I’m frugal, I might be able to afford one of the Carmela’s speedboats.”

“I’ve always thought that naming the yacht after his late wife was a nice way to remind people of her,” Leo said, looking down at a napkin with the name Carmela printed on it. “It’s a touching tribute to her. She was American, you know. Lev told me a little bit about her when I was in Israel last year, but I don’t think he’s mentioned her more than a couple of times since.”

“Probably too painful for him, Leo. She and Lev met back in the late 1960’s, when they were both students at the University of Jerusalem. Carmela was a devout Christian … that’s part of the reason she moved to Israel. Lev said she loved exploring the Holy Land and the places where Jesus walked. From what everyone has told me, Lev was crazy about her. I don’t think it was much of a surprise to his Jewish friends that he converted to Christianity after they were married. Ariella was their only child. She was only ten years old when her mother passed away, so Lev was left to raise her pretty much all by himself.”

“He must have been devastated when Carmela died.”

“He was. His father left him a manufacturing company worth a fortune, but Lev told me that he would gladly throw it all away if he could spend just one more day with her.”

“I know. Lev’s life has never been about money. I guess that’s why he left the running of the company to his managers while he pursued his academic interests.”

“Well, evidently they’ve done a good job,” Morelli said, “because the company is worth twice what it was when his father left it to him.”

The deck beneath Leo’s feet rumbled with the startup of the yacht’s engines. Holding the phone to his ear, he stood and walked to the railing and peered over the side. Gazing down into the crystal clear water, he saw the rippling image of the sandy white seafloor below.

“He modeled it after the kibbutz he was raised on,” Leo said.

“Modeled what? I think your phone cut out, Leo.”

“Sorry … I was thinking about the villa he built on the coast. He wanted everything on his property to look like the kibbutz he was raised on, including the vineyards, the houses, and the fields around them.”

“Oh, yes, of course. It’s beautiful there. But Israel’s still a dangerous piece of real estate. That’s why people banded together on collective farms in the first place.”

“Did he ever tell you about the other compounds like his around the world?”

“You mean those communes he’s always talking about?”

“Yes, he just told me about them.”

“I think he was afraid you would think he was some kind of whacko. Lev grew up on an Israeli kibbutz that was formed for protection against the Arabs. Coincidentally, his wife’s parents were nomadic hippie types, and she was raised on a farming commune in America. Lev told me one time that her parents had moved there so they could grow their own pot. They felt the government was forcing them to associate with drug dealers, which is true when you think about it, and they wanted to be free from that scene. Because of their unconventional upbringing, Lev and Carmela were very much alike, and they instinctively gravitated to each other. The fact that they gathered around them an intellectual and inquisitive group of college professors and graduate students from the university was totally in keeping with their upbringing.”

“I loved it when I was staying at the villa in Israel,” Leo said. “Everyone works together to grow their own food, raise livestock, make wine. No one pays any rent and they all take turns patrolling the property against the threat of terrorist attack … it’s a very communal atmosphere. That’s where all the members of the Bible Code Team live.”

“I know, Leo. I’ve been going there for the past five years … remember? Speaking of the Bible Code Team, have you seen any of them yet?”

“So far, only John and Ariella, but I hear they’re all here on the yacht except for Daniel. He stayed behind in Israel.”

“Tell them hello for me when you see them. Have a safe journey, Leo.”

“You too, Anthony. Take care, old friend.”

Leo hit the off button and laid the phone on the table. The rattle of the anchor chain preceded another shudder beneath his feet as he heard the rising throb of the engines and caught a brief whiff of diesel fuel in the air. Soon, the yacht’s bow was slicing through the water, and the briny smell of seawater had replaced the smell of diesel. Reclining in his chair, he watched the village of Portofino grow smaller in the distance, and within minutes, the wine and motion of the boat had lulled him into a deep sleep.

When he awoke, the sun was setting directly in front of the boat. He rubbed his eyes and sat up, unsure for a moment where he was. Someone had covered him with a blanket. The yacht … of course. He must have been asleep for hours. Looking around, he could see that darkness was already beginning to settle over the wake of the boat. He stood and shook his head to clear his mind. They were headed west. That fits. We’re heading toward the coast of Spain.

Leaning against the roll of the boat, he entered the plush, main-deck salon and climbed the circular, mahogany-paneled stairway until he reached the bridge three floors above. Looking out through a wall of thick windows, he saw the bow of the ship below, rising and falling as it pushed through the oncoming waves. At the helm, Leo saw Alex Pappas, sitting in his captain’s chair studying the darkening ocean with unblinking eyes, his Greek features highlighted by the red night lights and the glow from the multicolored navigational screens lining the console before him.

“Where is everyone, Alex?”

“Hi, Cardinal. Last time I checked they were all gathered around the entertainment area behind the bridge. There was a lot of smoke … Alon is grilling something again.” The captain turned his attention away from looking out at the sea long enough to give Leo a sly wink. “I believe there’s also some wine involved, Cardinal.”

Leo reached out and shook the captain’s hand. “It’s good to see you, Alex. Thanks for getting the Carmela to Italy so quickly.”

“No problem, sir. We upgraded both turbines about six months ago. We’re as fast as any naval warship on the ocean now.”

“How long before we reach the coast of Spain?”

“We’ll be making an all-night passage … I’d say around four in the morning. We’re heading for El Port De La Selva. It’s about fifty miles north of Barcelona along the Costa Brava. None of the docks at that particular harbor are large enough to accommodate the Carmela, so we’ll have to anchor just inside the breakwater and take one of the small boats to shore like we did in Portofino. I’ve been there several times. The harbor has a beautiful crescent beach with clean white sand.”

Alex lifted the binoculars to his eyes and continued staring forward through the bridge windows at the darkening clouds on the horizon. “I’m afraid we’re in for some nasty weather tonight, Cardinal.”

“There you are,” a voice called out from behind them.

Leo turned to see Lev standing in the doorway.

“Come on, Leo … all your old friends are dying to see you.”

CHAPTER 15

Sarah Adams sat curled up in her hospital bed watching the news on TV. She was feeling much better and wanted to leave, but the doctors from the CDC refused to let her go. They ran test after test, but all of them were inconclusive. Inconclusive! Sarah was so tired of hearing that phrase she wanted to scream. As the only known survivor of the pathogen, she was a living and breathing medical mystery. Everyone else who had come into contact with the virus had either died or been completely unfazed. She alone was the only one who had been infected and survived.

Tired of the constant needle sticks and multiple exams by different doctors, Sarah was now refusing to cooperate. After much discussion, the authorities had decided to post a guard outside the door to her room to prevent her from leaving the hospital. The government had taken legal custody of her by enforcing an obscure law giving the state the right to quarantine a person for medical reasons if they believed she was a threat to the well-being of the community. Some in the medical community referred to it as the “Typhoid Mary Law”.

Sarah was furious. As thankful as she was to all the talented medical people who had saved her life, hospitals in general creeped her out, and she wanted nothing more than to be home in her own bed with a cup of hot tea and a good book. Afraid of what might come next, her eyes darted back and forth to the door. How dare they keep her here against her will! The authorities were even preventing her own family from visiting her.

Looking up at the wall-mounted TV above her head, Sarah saw a female newsperson talking to the camera. Slowly rising from her bed, Sarah crept to her window and peered down at the street below. It was full of large white vans with satellite dishes aimed at the heavens, and a small crowd had gathered around police barriers set up around the front of the building. Climbing back into bed, Sarah grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.

“According to our sources, the sole survivor of the virus is inside this hospital.” The camera panned away from the news woman to show the outside of the hospital.

Sarah let out a gasp.

“Hospital officials here have refused to release the name of the patient, but sources have informed us that she is a young woman in her twenties who hails from Long Island.”

Sarah sat up in the bed. They were talking about her! She was on the news, national news, and soon, word of her identity was bound to get out. Things were spinning out of control. Not only was she a prisoner, but she was now at the center of a huge news story that was about to propel her picture onto every TV screen and newspaper in America.

If only she could call Daniel. He must be frantic by now.

The sound of a metal cart rolling down the hallway and stopping outside her door caused her heart to race. She waited for the door to open but nothing happened. God only knows what they are planning to do to me next, she thought to herself. She had become a specimen-a specimen that, unlike a poor lab rat, was totally aware that she was about to be probed and prodded again against her will in the name of science. There was no way they were going to release her now. This was insane! She had to get out!

She watched a bird circle outside her window and land on the ledge before pecking at the glass and flying away again. If only it was that easy for her.

Sarah jumped when, without a knock, the door to her room suddenly opened.

Stepping from the shadow of the doorway, she saw a short, dark-haired man wearing a white lab coat. Without hesitating, he pushed a wheelchair up next to her bed.

“Sarah Adams?”

Sarah stared at the man defiantly and refused to answer.

The man tried to smile. “You need to come with me. Do you need any help getting into the wheelchair?”

“I’m not going anywhere for any more tests. I’ve already told every doctor and nurse who’s come into this room that I want to go home.”

The man moved toward the bed while looking over his shoulder. Turning around, he brought his face level with hers. His attempt at a smile had been abandoned. “I’ve been sent to take you out of here … out of the hospital.”

“Are you one of those creeps from the CDC? I overheard two of their doctors talking in the hall this morning. They were talking about taking me to some kind of special lab at a military base on the outskirts of Washington. They called it Sam Rid … or something like that.”

“USAMRID. It’s an acronym for the army’s biological warfare center. Believe me, you don’t want to go there.”

“Who are you?”

“If it’s any consolation, I can tell you that I’m definitely not a soldier, my dear. I’m from the Vatican. Now, we must hurry, because the guard outside your door who just left to answer a phone call from his headquarters will be back very soon when he discovers there is no such call.”

CHAPTER 16

Smoke from the grill stung Leo’s eyes as he stepped out onto the top deck behind the yacht’s bridge. There, lounging around a small hot tub-sized pool next to an outdoor grill, sat the entire Bible Code Team, minus Daniel.

“Father … I mean …Cardinal Leo!” A fit-looking man in his late fifties rushed up to embrace Leo. It was Moshe Ze?ev, the former Israeli Defense Force General and current chief of security for the Bible Code Team. With his tanned, shaved head and signature handlebar moustache that twirled up at the ends, he was wearing a pair of lime green shorts and a bright orange fly fishing shirt.

Although Moshe possessed one of the brightest military minds Leo had ever encountered, he smiled at the fact that the man was obviously color blind, a trait Leo had noted on more than one occasion.

“It’s good to see you too, old friend. How’s your lovely wife?”

Leo was hoping Moshe’s wife was onboard. Hadar Ze?ev was one of Israel’s most famous chefs and had been responsible for all of the delicious meals he had enjoyed the last time he had sailed onboard the yacht.

“She’s cooking for the crew tonight. Alon decided to barbecue for you.”

“Oh … great.”

A spasm of coughing erupted behind Leo. He turned to see Alon Lavi waving his hands in front of his face in an effort to clear the dense smoke rolling up from the grill. With short black hair shaved to the skin on both sides of his head, the former Israeli Special Forces Captain towered above everyone else and had the build of a professional weight lifter. In short, he resembled a linebacker in the NFL. He was also Moshe’s second-in-command of security and was a formidable foe to anyone who was foolish enough to threaten him or those he loved.

“I see you’re still working on your cooking skills, Alon.”

“Ah, Leo … sorry I can’t shake your hand right now.” Flames shot from the overheated grill and licked at the blackened carcasses of objects that had once been thick, juicy steaks.

“I think they’re done, Alon,” Leo said, squinting in the smoke. “I kinda like mine rare.”

Alon grinned through the haze. “Just a few more minutes and they’ll be perfect.”

A feminine giggle erupted from the darkness next to the railing. “He’s hopeless, Leo,” Rising from one of the blue-cushioned lounge chairs, Nava walked under the tiny white lights strung over the deck and gave Leo a kiss on both cheeks. “I’ll put some more steaks on when he’s done. I like mine rare too.”

Nava was Alon’s fiancee as well as the pilot of the small blue helicopter that sat cloaked in darkness behind them on the yacht’s small landing pad. The petite brunette pilot had recently resigned her commission as the commander of a helicopter squadron in the Israeli Defense Force and was now a full-time member of the Bible Code Team.

“As you can see, Leo,” Lev said, “everyone is here except for Daniel. He’s using every connection we have to get through to Sarah, but he’s been met by a brick wall of silence from the Americans.”

“I heard she’s doing better.”

“That’s what they’re saying on the news.”

“Where’s John and Ariella?”

“Down in their cabin catching some sleep. They were in the command center all night making sure there were no reports of the virus around Portofino before the yacht dropped anchor.”

“It’s really good to see all of you again, especially now,” Leo said, standing upwind of the smoke. “I only wish I was here under different circumstances, but I’m afraid we’re facing a threat that is just as monstrous as the one we all battled last year. This invisible enemy is unlike anything man has ever encountered before, and I don’t have to tell you that we’re all going to have to be at the top of our game in the days ahead.”

The others sobered noticeably.

Lev shoved a bottle of cold water into Leo’s hand. “Why don’t we go down into the command center and call Daniel. I’d like to see if he’s uncovered anything new in the past few hours.”

Alon forked a piece of meat off the grill and clunked it down on his plate. “Sure you don’t want one of these before you go, Leo? The char on the outside is what makes them taste so good.”

Leo eyed the smoking object on Alon’s plate. It resembled the remains from a napalm attack. “No thanks, Alon. I think I’ll wait for Nava’s version.”

“Suit yourself, Cardinal. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

To Leo, this was like a homecoming. These people were like family to him, and he actually felt more comfortable among this tight-knit band of Israeli Christians than he did with some of his more pious contemporaries back at the Vatican. He had missed the camaraderie he had shared with them the year before, and it made him wonder now why he hadn’t spent his short sabbatical with them in Israel instead of at Morelli’s country house all by himself.

Leo followed Lev back into the bridge and descended a steep set of stairs to a narrow hallway that led to the yacht’s communications center. Stopping in front of a thick steel door, Lev punched in a code on a wall-mounted keypad and the door slid open to reveal a darkened room that looked more like a combat information center on a naval warship.

Above a row of computer screens that highlighted the people sitting in front of them in a bluish glow, two six-foot-high screens at the front of the room displayed digital maps and satellite images of the Spanish coast. Everyone in the room was so absorbed in their work that they were oblivious to the two men standing behind them in the back of the room.

At one of the computer stations, they could see a split-screen display of a satellite link between the communications room they were standing in and the command center back in Israel. Hunched over his computer console beneath the villa, Daniel Meir sat staring back at them. His long brown hair and a short beard highlighted his intellectual features, and as he pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up on his forehead to rub his bloodshot eyes, he caught sight of Leo standing next to Lev. “Leo … how long have you been on the boat?”

“I came on board in Portofino … right before we put to sea.”

“You guys have already left Italy?” Daniel yawned. Time usually became irrelevant to him when he was working on something important, and they could all tell from the drawn expression on his face that he probably hadn’t slept for days despite their dire warnings about the effect it was having on his health.

“When’s the last time you took a break or had something to eat?” Lev asked.

“I’m heading for bed right now … I’m starting to see double. What time is it where you are?”

Lev glanced at his watch. “It’s almost eight o’clock.”

“Morning or night?”

“Night.”

Daniel put his glasses back on and ran his hands through his hair. “I was just finishing up a long sequence scan using our new Bible Code software. I think I’ve found something interesting.” He hit a button on his console and a page from Genesis flashed onto one of the large screens. Circled in red at the top of the page was the phrase a plague for some, followed by the number 5771. Then, below that, the name Orsini was spelled out vertically next to three letters-DNA.

“Interesting,” Lev said.

Daniel stroked his beard as he stared at the screen. “Yes … very. I’m pretty sure the phrase a plague for some refers to the two biological incidents, but I couldn’t figure out the number. I decided to take a long bike ride around the compound, and when I was trying to remember what day it was, it finally dawned on me that the number 5771 corresponds to the current year using the Hebrew calendar … the calendar that would have been used when the Bible was written. After I did some quick math, I found that the biblical year of 5771 equates with the Gregorian calendar year of 2011. That leaves us with the name Orsini, the cardinal who just died, and the three letters … DNA. I don’t know if it’s just because I haven’t had enough sleep, but these last two things have me stumped. It’s driving me crazy but I’ve got to take a break. Any ideas?”

Taking a seat in front of the console, Lev peered into screen that mirrored the same data Daniel was looking at. “The three letters that spell out DNA refer to the way the pathogen chooses its victims.”

Daniel blinked at his screen. “Am I missing something, Professor?”

“The virus was engineered. I’m sending you something.”

Lev scanned the paper Morelli had given them into the computer. Daniel’s fatigue appeared to evaporate as he read the classified document that had just flashed onto his screen. “These shaded blocks … they’re like a map of the virus’s DNA makeup. This pathogen was designed to target a specific DNA sequence.”

“Exactly,” Lev said, leaning back in his chair.

Daniel rubbed his eyes again. “Now it’s starting to make sense. Where did you get this?”

“Can’t say.”

“Hmmm. At least now we have the key to a very mysterious lock. Can you give me any information on this cardinal who just died in a plane crash, or how he might be related to the virus?”

Lev leaned forward and stared up at Daniel’s face on the large screen. “That, my boy, is why we’re on our way to Spain.”

CHAPTER 17

Scrunched down in a wheelchair, Sarah pulled the blanket up close to her face as the man pushed her past the nurse’s station and into a waiting elevator. Once on the ground floor, they followed a long hallway until they came to a service door that opened onto a back alley behind the hospital. Fortunately for them, the crowds seemed focused on the main entrance to the building. Looking up and down the alley, the man extended a hand and guided her from the wheelchair into the back of a black Lincoln Town Car that sat idling by the door.

After sliding in beside her, he motioned to the driver and the car sped away through the maze of traffic that had already returned to the streets of Manhattan in the wake of the epidemic. Sarah blinked in the sunlight as they passed a street filled with news crews huddled in front of their satellite vans waiting for something to happen. “Is all of this because of me?”

“Yes, my dear, I’m afraid it is.” The man removed his white coat and shoved it under the seat in front of him.

Sarah felt slightly disoriented. She had been growing stronger every day, but the virus had taken a toll on her body. With the sudden exposure to bright sunlight, combined with the motion of the vehicle, her head began to spin. A wave of nausea brought beads of sweat to her forehead, forcing her to grab the armrest and brace her head against the back seat of the car.

As if in a dream, she looked over at the man with heavy black eyebrows sitting beside her. He was talking quietly on his cell phone. Did he say he was from the Vatican? Sarah tried to shake off the nausea by focusing her attention outside. She watched as they sped up a freeway ramp and joined the flow of traffic on an expressway that led away from the island of Manhattan.

She lowered her window and felt the cool morning air against her face as her nausea began to subside. Feeling a slight chill, she took in another deep breath before raising the window and glancing back over at the man seated beside her. Slowly, as if awakening from a long night’s sleep, it began to dawn on her that she had allowed herself to be whisked away from the safety of the hospital and the people who had saved her life by a complete stranger.

Then again, those same people had kept her confined in a tiny hospital room against her will. At least now she was free from the threat of becoming a living specimen for the doctors at the CDC or whoever else they decided to let prod and probe her without her consent-like those guys at some army bio-warfare institute. She had been a virtual prisoner of the government while civilian and military doctors from all over the country lined up outside her room just to peek at her. Yes, at least now she was free from all of that, and it felt good to be outside.

With her head now beginning to throb, the mere act of thinking was difficult as the car turned off the Van Wyck expressway and drove through a gate onto a wide expanse of concrete surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. The car continued on past an enormous metal building, and in the distance, Sarah could hear the unmistakable whine of jet engines.

“Where are we?” she asked, massaging her temples.

The man snapped his cell phone shut. “JFK Airport.”

Glancing outside, Sarah saw a small, baby-blue executive jet parked in front of the gigantic doors of the tall metal building. The door to the aircraft was open and the stairs were extended. A young man with short blond hair and wearing the uniform of a pilot could be seen walking around the jet, peering into the engines and checking the tires.

Sarah tried to stifle a yawn. “Are you planning on taking me somewhere in that?”

“Yes … we’re flying to Rome.”

“Rome? Why Rome?”

The man smiled but his eyes narrowed. “Like I said before, Miss Adams, I’m from the Vatican. I believe you have a friend there … Cardinal Leo Amodeo.”

“Oh … Cardinal Leo … yes, but I’d rather go to Israel.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, my dear. All commercial flights are grounded, and I don’t have permission to take this aircraft to Israel. Don’t worry … you’ll be safe in Rome. After your friend the Cardinal heard that the CDC was planning on transporting you to a military base, he decided you would be safer at the Vatican away from all the attention.”

“Actually, I was already making plans to escape from that hospital when you showed up. This is quite a coincidence.”

The man adjusted the lapel on his jacket and ran a stubby hand through his thinning hair before peering over at Sarah. “Yes … quite a coincidence. I just happened to be in New York on business when Cardinal Amodeo called. We’re all just happy that you survived an illness that took so many lives.”

As soon as the car rolled to a stop, a man in a dark suit rushed forward to open Sarah’s door. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she stepped out onto the concrete, but her head began to spin once again and she swayed back and forth. Fearing that she was about to fall, the man with the heavy dark eyebrows took her by the arm and carefully guided her toward the stairs of the jet.

“Sorry … I’m still a little dizzy.”

“That’s quite alright, Miss,” the man said. “Please … we must hurry.”

They were halfway up the stairs when Sarah suddenly stopped. Her vision blurred as she clutched the railing.

“I don’t know … you’ve been so nice … maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

The man’s eyes began to dart about as he tightened his grip on her arm. “I understand your fear, my dear. You need to rest so that you can regain your strength. Once we’re onboard you can sleep. Our doctors will look after you when we arrive.”

“I’m sorry,” Sarah said with half closed eyes as they entered the cabin. “Did you tell me your name?”

“My apologies, Miss. My name is Emilio. Now come, you must sit.”

Seconds later, she felt a blanket being draped over her body, and the last thing Sarah Adams heard before she drifted off to sleep was the roar of the jet’s engines as the baby-blue jet streaked down the runway and disappeared into the clouds.

CHAPTER 18

The southern French region of Provence was in grip of a local weather phenomenon known as the Mistral, a powerful wind that blows from the north in late winter and spring. For days at a time, residents are forced indoors to escape the blustery weather and spectacular thunderstorms that form offshore when descending masses of dry, cold air mix with the warm blanket of humidity that hovers over the Mediterranean Sea.

Around midnight, the Carmela was just passing off the southern French coast when the yacht began to encounter building seas. Without waiting for orders from the captain, the yacht’s experienced crew had sprung into action. Working quickly, they tied a large tarp over the helicopter before going through the boat and securing all loose objects as the yacht began her dance with the storm-tossed ocean.

Lightning strikes briefly illuminated the swirling blue-green water as the captain powered the yacht up the side of an approaching wave, then quickly reduced the throttles as she slid back down into a foamy trough to await the onslaught of the next mountain of water.

Inside the rolling boat, no one was finding it easy to sleep. Inside his pitching cabin, Leo slipped on a pair of borrowed jeans and a T-shirt before stepping out of his stateroom into the wood-paneled hallway. Bracing himself against another sudden roll of the boat, he grabbed the brass handrails that ran along each side of the narrow passageway and made his way forward until he came to a tight stairway that led to the main salon above.

Topping the stairs, he saw several members of the Bible Code Team sitting on couches and peering quietly into the stormy darkness outside the windows. The boat lurched, throwing Leo back into the stairwell just as a strong hand attached to a muscled arm grabbed him by the shirt and jerked him up into the salon. It was Alon.

“You don’t want to hang around these stairwells too long when the boat’s moving like this, Cardinal.”

A rogue wave crashed against the side of the boat, causing everyone onboard to take a deep breath as the yacht tilted precariously before righting itself once again.

“Things should calm down a bit once we get closer to the Spanish coast,” Lev said, looking up from his laptop computer. “I just talked to Alex … he doesn’t expect this to last much longer.”

“That’s good,” John said, turning away from watching the rain smash against the windows in horizontal sheets. He slid down beside Ariella onto one of the two long white couches inside the main salon. Filled with priceless art, this exquisite space had inlaid blue marble floors and a white grand piano that was thankfully bolted to the floor.

Ariella patted John on the knee. “You look a little green, sweetheart.”

“How come I’m the only one on this boat who seems to be seasick?”

“Probably because you didn’t spend a whole lot of time on boats when you were growing up on a ranch in New Mexico.”

“What about Leo? He’s from Pennsylvania.”

“I have a special prayer for seasickness, John”

John closed his eyes and moaned. “I just hope this is the storm before the calm.”

Ariella smiled. “I think you got that backwards.”

“That was a joke, Ariella.” John sat up on the couch and held his hand to his mouth before bolting from the salon.

“Poor kid,” Alon said. “I’m afraid the only sure cure for seasickness is dry land. Speaking of dry land, I’d like to know what our plans are once we reach the coast.”

Lev looked up and closed the cover on his laptop. “Since we’ll be flying to the crash site in the yacht’s helicopter, we’re limited to four people. Leo and I will be going… and of course, Nava, our pilot. That leaves space for one more. I think that should be you, Alon. I understand that you’ve been to crash sites before.”

“You mean besides the one I was in last year?”

Lev smiled. “Yes. I was referring to your experiences in the military.”

Alon looked down at his reflection in the polished floor. As a former Israeli commando, he had witnessed several military aircraft crashes and been assigned to investigate two particularly suspicious crashes that had occurred along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Those crashes had not been accidents. He was haunted by the memories, not only because he had lost several good friends in some of those incidents, but also because the woman he loved was a career pilot who loved flying.

Another wave slammed against the side of the yacht.

“This is getting ridiculous,” Moshe said, still trying to take his first sip from a sloshing cup of coffee. The relentless march of towering ocean swells continued to pitch the boat up and down, forcing the old general to finally give up on his coffee and stare out into the uncertain blackness. Moshe didn’t like storms. He was also concerned by the fact that he would be in overall command while Lev was away from the yacht, and that if any problems with the Spanish authorities arose, he would be the one who would have to deal with them. “How long are you planning on being away from the boat, Lev?”

“Hopefully, we’ll only be gone a few hours. We don’t want this to be a long, drawn-out ordeal. Spanish bureaucracy can be a tedious process, and because our time is short, I don’t want to advertise our plans to them just yet. Most likely there will be a few snags when we try to land at the site, so we’ll just have to play it by ear and try to bluff our way in. The fact that we’ll have a Roman Catholic Cardinal onboard the helicopter will go a long way to keeping official interference to a minimum, especially since the crash involves a Vatican official in a country that’s predominately Catholic.”

Lev winked in Leo’s direction. “For now, I think we should try to get some rest before the Carmela arrives in port.” Lev closed his eyes and leaned back on the couch, and to everyone’s amazement, he was snoring softly within seconds.

For the next several hours the others tried to catch quick cat-naps as the yacht slugged it out with the Mediterranean, until finally, the wind and rain stopped and the sea began to smooth just as the Carmela arrived at the entrance to the harbor at El Port De La Selva. The storm had delayed their arrival by almost two hours, and behind them in the east, the sun was rising majestically, painting the reflective surface of a calming sea with varying hues of sparkling yellow and gold.

Now fully awake, Leo and Lev climbed to the yacht’s landing pad behind the bridge, where they watched as the big blue and white yacht glided into the harbor and dropped anchor two-hundred yards from shore. Joined by Alon and Nava, they gulped down the last of their coffee as two crewmembers removed the waterproof tarp from the dark blue helicopter.

Climbing onboard behind Alon and Nava, each placed a pair of earphones over their ears. Leo could hear Nava verbally reading off the mandatory pre-flight checklist as a shrill whine overhead preceded the startup thump from the turbines.

Within minutes, the helicopter was rising above the Carmela’s deck and heading for a long crescent beach that separated the harbor from the rising green landscape. In the distance, they could see the jagged tops of the Pyrenees as Nava increased the angle of the blades and the chopper began to gain altitude.

From the back seat, Lev leaned forward and tapped Nava on the shoulder. “How far is it to the crash site?”

“About 40 miles from where we are now. We’re passing over the Catalonia region of Spain, just to the north of Figueres … Salvador Dali’s home town. The crash site is further inland on the side of a mountain ridge next to the small village of Setcases.”

“Any reports of the pathogen in this region?”

“I talked to Daniel before we took off. There’s been no report of any new outbreaks.”

“Keep monitoring the radio. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of our little viral friend soon.”

The snow-capped mountains of the Catalonian Pyrenees filled the chopper’s windshield as they flew over deep canyons still locked in early morning shadows. Below, they could see the headlights of cars making their way along the twisting roads, while wispy patches of dense fog concealed the tops of mountain foothills as the small helicopter passed overhead.

Leo peered into the cockpit over Nava’s shoulder at the rising needle on the altimeter. “I didn’t think this helicopter was designed for mountain flying. How much higher do we have to go?”

“Setcases is 1,200 meters above sea level.”

Leo quickly tried to make the mental conversion from metric to English units, but Nava beat him to it. “That’s around 4,000 feet, Cardinal. It’s well within our altitude range. Setcases is a beautiful village on the road that leads to Vallter 2000.”

“What’s a Vallter 2000?” Alon asked.

“A ski resort that opened back in 1997. I was there several years ago with a small group of IDF helicopter pilots. We spent a few weeks with the Spanish Air force in the Pyrenees learning the finer points of mountain flying. One weekend, we all decided to go hiking, so one of the Spanish instructors told us to check out Setcases. It’s a charming medieval mountain village with winding streets and houses made of stone. I’ll never forget the day we drove up there. The weather was beautiful and the sky was blue … the air was so clean you could practically taste the freshness. It was the kind of day that takes your breath away. We hiked across mountain streams over miles of rolling green hills until we exhausted ourselves and returned to the village for dinner. It’s one of those places where all your worries seem to disappear.”

In a rare public display of affection, Alon reached over and stroked the long black ponytail hanging from the back of Nava’s helmet. “Sounds idyllic. Too bad we can’t stay longer.”

Nava turned her head and fixed Alon with a stare known to men around the world. “Maybe we can make time when all of this is over.”

Guiding the chopper over a ridge, Nava pointed to a cluster of red-tiled roofs along a narrow road that led to the top of the mountain. Setcases literally meant “seven houses”. The village dated back to the 10th century, when seven houses were built by a father and his seven sons when they were stuck with their herds in the deep snow of winter.

Skimming overhead, Nava tilted the helicopter to circle the area so they could check out any activity on the ground. They could see both military and police vehicles lined along the road leading into and out of town, which seemed strangely deserted.

“That’s not a good sign,” Lev said, peering down at the silent village.

Nava looked off to her right and saw a Spanish military helicopter rising up to meet them. “What do you want me to do, Professor?”

“Head straight for the GPS coordinates of the crash site and set down outside their perimeter.”

Nava dipped the nose and hugged the treetops, confusing the pilot of the Spanish helicopter who tucked in behind them in a classic attack maneuver.

A Spanish-accented voice speaking in the universal aviation language of English suddenly filled their headsets. “Israeli aircraft, you are in restricted Spanish airspace. Please turn around immediately and follow us.”

“What now?”

“Don’t answer. Keep going.”

Nava looked up as two Spanish fighter jets streaked by overhead. “These guys mean business, Professor.”

Just then they saw it-a long scar of blackened earth that crossed a green mountain pasture and ended at a solid rock wall. Olive-drab-painted military vehicles lined a rutted dirt road, while on the other side of a farmer’s fence, yellow tape surrounded bits of glinting metal that littered the countryside. It was obviously the crash site, although strangely, no soldiers were visible.

“This is getting weird,” Alon said. “Maybe we should do as they say and turn around.”

Lev peered down at the wreckage and adjusted the microphone on his headset. “Land.”

Nava simply nodded her head and swung the helicopter around into a descending arc. After a brief hover, she set it down outside the yellow-taped perimeter and switched off the engine. They remained inside with the doors closed, surrounded by an eerie silence as the main rotor rotated to a stop. The Spanish helicopter following them had mysteriously disappeared, as had the two fighter jets that had flown by earlier.

Had the pathogen been onboard the downed aircraft and somehow survived the impact and fire? Was it now raging through the Spanish countryside while they sat inside their helicopter in the middle of a hot zone, blissfully unaware of the danger outside? Is that why they saw vehicles-but no people?

Looking through the windows of the helicopter, they all stared out at the blackened spot in the distance, a stark reminder of what can happen when a hurtling state-of-the-art piece of modern technology comes into contact with a billion-year-old wall of solid rock at almost five hundred miles per hour.

A knock on the left side of the chopper made everyone inside jump. Turning around, they saw several smiling men and women dressed much like college backpackers on holiday in Europe. A tall, blond-haired man wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, shorts, and hiking boots, reached out and opened the helicopter’s rear door.

“Professor Wasserman?”

“That would be me,” Lev said, grasping the back of the seat as he climbed from the chopper.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. We’re from the university in Madrid. My name is Dr. Javier Mendoza. These are some of my associates. Please, come with us … there is no longer any danger from the pathogen.”

Slowly, the surprised group inside the helicopter stepped out to an enthusiastic welcome from what appeared to be a group of academics.

Mendoza walked up to Leo and bowed slightly from the waist as he extended his hand. “You must be Cardinal Leopold Amodeo. I recognize you from your pictures. It’s an honor to meet you, Your Eminence.”

“Thank you. Likewise Javier. Where are all the soldiers?”

“They’re all around us. Their commander has them out patrolling the fields to keep anyone from getting too close to the site. There are several soldiers in that communications van over there watching over us.”

“Is that how you knew who we were?”

Mendoza smiled. “Yes. The Spanish authorities received a call from the Vatican just as the fighters were receiving orders to shoot you out of the sky.”

Nava removed her helmet and threw it into the pilot’s seat while glaring back at Lev. “Sometimes you play it a little too close, Professor. Next time we call ahead.”

“Sorry, Nava. I guess I’m a product of the old school. Back then, Israeli soldiers were taught to think on their feet and take chances. We wouldn’t have won the Six Day War if we had called ahead to our commanders for permission to advance.”

“Excuse me, Doctor,” Alon said, staring at Mendoza’s tie-dyed T-shirt. “But if this site’s safe, why do you still have soldiers patrolling the area?”

“Ah, a good question. You must be a soldier yourself. The soldiers were just preparing to leave when they heard there was a helicopter with Israeli markings headed this way. The army commander thought it might be a cover for terrorists looking to gather samples of the pathogen.” Mendoza paused before looking Lev right in the eye. “We’ve heard rumors that it was artificially engineered.”

Lev cleared his throat and looked at Leo, but the two remained silent. After speaking with one of the female members of the Spanish group, Nava turned and walked back over to them.

“These people are some of Spain’s best scientists. The girl I was just talking to is a microbiologist. They were dropped into the area yesterday in bio-hazard suits to look for signs of the pathogen. They didn’t find anything. Either the virus was never onboard, or it was incinerated in the crash.”

“I think it’s time we offered prayers for Cardinal Orsini and the others who were onboard,” Leo said. “Can we move a little closer to the site?”

Mendoza motioned them toward the grassy mountain pasture. “Of course, Cardinal … please, follow me.”

“Are you a medical doctor, Javier?”

“I’m an anthropologist. Our group is part of a multi-disciplinary rapid response team formed by the Spanish government to investigate bio-terrorist threats.”

“So you think this was an act of terrorism?”

“Who knows, but after the events in New York and Italy, we’re not taking any chances, especially since this aircraft was flying directly from New York.”

As they neared the site of the crash, they could all smell the unmistakable odor of burnt jet fuel lingering in the air along with the smell of something else not so easily identified. Except for the tail section of the aircraft, none of the other wreckage was recognizable. Looking ahead at the rock wall at the end of the field, they saw the starburst pattern of a high-speed impact and the dark evidence of an intense post-crash fire. Tendril-like sections of burned grass extended outward from the site, along with pieces of metal mixed in with churned and blackened mud still moist from the efforts of the first firefighters at the scene.

Leo walked ahead and stopped. The others watched as he raised his right hand in the sign of the cross and said a brief prayer before motioning them forward. Slowly, hesitantly, they all walked forward across a debris field usually inhabited by grazing sheep. Quickening his pace, Mendoza soon caught up with the cardinal and walked beside him in silence for a moment before speaking. “Our team has been instructed from the highest levels in the Spanish government to give you any assistance that you might need, Your Eminence.”

“Thank you, Javier. Were you able to recover any bodies?”

Mendoza lowered his eyes. “Only parts, Your Eminence. They were removed to the morgue in Barcelona. I’m afraid we’ll have to rely on DNA testing for identification.”

“Anything else?” Alon asked. “Sometimes we find papers from the aircraft scattered around the impact site.”

“We found some napkins, but that was about it. Oh, we also found a small crucifix, but it looked so old we weren’t sure if it was from the crash or had been here in the ground for years. People have lived up here since Medieval times. We sent it to Barcelona with the human remains.”

“What about that?” The others turned to see Nava pointing to the ground twenty yards from the center of the impact zone. Following her gaze, they saw something reflecting the sunlight. There, in a patch of unburned grass, lay a gold ring radiating a bluish light. Looking closer, they saw that the ring held a brilliant blue sapphire.

“We’ve been over this area at least ten times with metal detectors,” Mendoza said, “and the only things we found besides that crucifix were pieces of the aircraft.”

Lev bent down and picked it up. “That’s probably because your detectors weren’t adjusted to look for gold, Doctor. When I was a new archaeologist, I quickly discovered that metal detectors can be very unreliable when it comes to looking for certain metals.” He briefly examined the ring before handing it over to Leo. “Have you ever seen a ring like this?”

Leo raised his right hand. On his ring finger was a ring that looked identical to the one they had just found. “It’s a cardinal’s ring.”

Turning the bent and slightly scorched ring over in his hand, Leo peered down at the inner side of the bezel. “This ring bears the arms of Pope Michael. Each cardinal’s ring is conferred on each cardinal by the pope himself in the consistory in which the new cardinal is named to a particular title. Monetarily, they’re usually of no great value, but these gold rings are always set with a sapphire and bear the arms of the pope conferring them. This is Cardinal Orsini’s ring.”

CHAPTER 19

Sarah Adams peered through a window of the baby blue jet as it broke through the clouds and descended over miles of vineyards tucked between the rocky hills of the Loire Valley. Their descent took them directly over an immense chateau as the little jet made a sweeping, low-level turn and circled down to a private airstrip surrounded by acres of forest.

Sarah continued watching as the plane rumbled across the tarmac and stopped next to a long, dark blue Mercedes limousine. Turning to the short man sitting across from her, she saw that he was staring directly at her with an unwavering gaze. Returning his unconcealed stare, she waited for him to say something, but he remained silent. This guy’s kind of creepy. “Are we in Italy?”

Emilio stood and retrieved his briefcase. “No, my dear. We’re in France.”

“France? I thought you said we were going to the Vatican.”

“Just a brief stopover. Unfortunately, one of our engines seems to have a slight problem, so we were forced to land here until they can repair it.”

Emilio immediately noticed the first signs of doubt beginning to cross Sarah’s face.

“I can assure you that there is no cause for alarm. A close friend of mine owns a beautiful chateau nearby. As you can see, he’s already sent a car for us. The pilots have informed me that we will be here overnight, so my friend has instructed his staff to prepare a lovely room for you. I’ve been told that their new chef is one of the best in all of France, so you’ll be able to enjoy a nice dinner and finally get some uninterrupted rest. Our plane should be ready in the morning for our flight to Rome.”

“Dinner at a French chateau?” Maybe this guy wasn’t so creepy after all. “That actually sounds pretty good right now. All I’ve had for the past week is hospital food, and I threw most of it in the trash can. It’s totally inedible. You would think they would feed their patients food that was nutritious and tasted good … like in a restaurant … something to stimulate your appetite and help you get well, but it just makes you feel worse.”

She saw that the man continued to study her in icy silence. He was obviously not interested in making small talk about hospital food. Sarah decided to probe him with another question.

“Must be nice to have rich friends who own the kind of place where you can just drop in on them at a moment’s notice in your private jet.”

“Yes, such things do seem to make life a little easier.”

This guy was a block of ice.

The two descended the aircraft stairs and entered the back of the limo. After a short drive along a narrow road shaded beneath a canopy of trees, the long car pulled up to the main entrance. Staring up at the front of an enormous French chateau that had remained virtually unchanged since it was constructed in the 16th century, Sarah noticed that its thick stone walls had taken on a golden hue from the slanted rays of the setting sun. Stepping from the car, she was wondering how many sunsets this Renaissance structure had seen over the years when the bark of a large dog startled her. Glancing to her right, she saw a man in a dark suit restraining a massive black dog at the end of a leash.

Sarah’s fear of large dogs caused her to wince as she stepped to the side and followed Emilio up the worn stone steps into the chateau’s grand foyer. Standing just inside the door, she instantly spotted a handsome, dark-haired man with eyes that seemed almost black. His appearance was striking.

Walking toward her, he carried himself with the assurance of someone who was used to getting his way, and an air of power seemed to radiate all around him. Bowing from the waist, he took her hand and bent to kiss it in the manner of a patrician gentleman, all the while watching her response, his dark eyes narrowing in an expression she had seen before on men’s faces-men she had quickly turned down when they had asked her out on a date.

“Good evening, Miss Adams. My name is Rene Acerbi. Welcome to my humble home.”

Before she could utter a reply, a shiver ran down her spine.

CHAPTER 20

After several hours of searching, the two teams at the crash site concluded that, short of digging up the entire area, they had done all they could to uncover anything else of importance.

“We need to think about heading back to the Carmela,” Lev said. “It will be dark soon, and the accident investigation team that just arrived will be moving the rest of the wreckage into a sealed warehouse in Barcelona tonight, so there’s really not much else left for us to do here.”

“Excuse me, Professor,” Mendoza said, “but we were all hoping that you would be our guests this evening down in the village.”

Lev hesitated just long enough for Nava to step forward. “I’ve got more time flying in the dark than I do in daylight. Besides, we haven’t eaten all day.” Nava leaned close and whispered in Lev’s ear. “I’d like Alon to see the village … I want us to spend our honeymoon here someday.” One look into her pleading eyes made it impossible for him to say no.

“We would be happy to have dinner with you, Javier. Lead the way.”

With that, the two groups piled into several waiting cars and made their way down the twisting mountain road into the village of Setcases. Alongside the main street, a clear mountain stream had been channeled right through the middle of the village, providing a gurgling backdrop to the sights and sounds of the main square as they entered a quaint-looking inn.

Inside, beneath a ceiling lined with carved wooden beams, a long table bathed in candlelight and draped with fine Spanish linen sat in front of a massive stone fireplace that crackled with the drippings from various meats on a spit being roasted over an open fire.

Once seated, the owner and his staff rushed forward with bottles of Spanish wine and an assortment of tapas that included local sausages, olives, sardines, and steaming earthenware bowls full of Trinxat, a traditional Catalan dish made with potatoes and cabbage.

Leo took a large green olive and popped it in his mouth.

“They serve the best Spanish olives in the country here, Cardinal,” Mendoza said, beaming like a proud father.

“I’m relieved to hear there’s been no report of illness in this area, Javier. We were worried when we didn’t see any people in the streets when we flew over earlier.”

“The military told them to remain in their homes until we were sure there was no longer any danger from the pathogen. They were more than happy to oblige.”

Mendoza sat back and surveyed the scene, happy that he had been able to persuade this world-famous group to dine with him and his friends. “I’m still curious, Cardinal. What did you hope to find back at the crash site?”

“To be perfectly honest, Javier, we have no idea. We made this trip at the request of the Holy Father.”

A murmur went up from the Spanish scientists, along with a few gasps from nearby patrons who were listening in on the conversation.

“No idea whatsoever?”

“No. I believe our mission was a matter of faith … faith in ourselves and faith in God to lead us in the right direction.”

“Surely you must have been looking for something connected to the pathogen, yet there is no evidence of it here.”

“True,” Leo said. “But I believe His Holiness had hoped that we would find something here that would help us in the battle against this new kind of plague. He sent us here for a reason, and he’s never let us down yet.”

Eavesdroppers at the surrounding tables nodded their approval as waiters flowed from the kitchen with steaming bowls of Civet De Senglar, wild boar in a stew, along with heaping platters of Carn A La Brasa, a mixture of lamb, quail, sausage, chicken, and artichoke, all grilled on an open fire.

Mendoza leaned across the table and spoke quietly to prevent those nearby from hearing. “I’d like to go back to something I mentioned earlier, Cardinal. Was the pathogen artificially engineered, as we have heard?”

With a spoonful of hot stew halfway to his mouth, Leo looked up from his food and fixed Mendoza with a look that backed him away. “I’m afraid that is something I am not at liberty to discuss at the moment, Doctor.”

“My apologies, Your Eminence. I see that I have offended you. I only ask out of scientific curiosity.”

“You haven’t offended me in the least, Javier. I wish I could be of more help to you, but we have to be careful not to spread panic based on unsubstantiated rumors.”

A barely perceptible smile crossed Mendoza’s lips, a sign that he understood the cardinal’s dilemma.

Leo was beginning to like this man … a fellow academic like himself, but no matter how much he wanted to help the Spanish scientists in their quest for the truth, he was bound for the moment by secrecy born of necessity.

“This food is delicious,” Alon said, coming to Leo’s rescue. “We should come back here someday.” Nava nudged Lev and winked.

As the evening wore on and the remaining guests filtered out into the crisp night air, the group of scientists saw that they were the only patrons remaining in the restaurant, and as the wine continued to flow, they found their discussions were taking on a decidedly more philosophic tone.

Mendoza picked at the last of his dessert, a delicious Flam Blanc made from milk and berries. “You know, Cardinal, I have to say, I find it very interesting that the College of Cardinals picked a Norwegian for your current pope. Of course, although I am not a Catholic myself, I believe it would be safe to say that the people of Spain would like to see a Spanish pope again one day.” The twinkle in Mendoza’s eyes betrayed a slight mischievousness. “However, after the behavior of the last one, I can understand the hesitancy.”

Leo nodded his head at the obvious reference to the last Spanish pope, a man who had the distinction of being the most notoriously corrupt leader in Catholic Church history.

“Well, times have changed, Javier. The Church, not to mention civilization itself, has come a long way since 1492, when the pope you’re referring to, Rodrigo Borgia, became Pope Alexander VI. Personally, I believe the Church is long overdue for a pope with Spanish blood, especially if he brings food like this to the Vatican.”

Mendoza and the others laughed as they raised their glasses in Leo’s direction. Once again, the unconventional cardinal had proven his ability to win the hearts and minds of everyone around him.

“Pope Michael is very popular here in Spain,” Mendoza continued. “But we find it strange that he comes from a country that is made up of mostly Protestant Evangelical Lutherans.”

“Yes, that’s true. That demographic makes up almost eighty-five percent of Norway’s population. Do you know what the second largest religion in Norway is?”

Mendoza’s good-natured but self-assured demeanor began to collapse. “Catholic?”

“I wish. No, actually it’s Islam … at 1.9 percent. We Catholics come in third at only 1.1 percent.”

“Surely you jest, Cardinal. Islam … in a country like Norway?”

“I found it a little surprising myself.”

Those at the table could see a slight change of color in Alon’s face. “Surprising is not the word I would use.”

“Nor would I,” Mendoza said. “I lost two close friends to a group of radical Islamic terrorists who blew up that train in Madrid a few years back. You have to wonder, when did blowing people up become a way to convince people to join your religion? You know, Cardinal, if this pathogen was engineered, I would have to put Islamic terrorists right up there at the top of the list of suspects. Have you ever heard of Institute 398?”

“I have,” Lev said, surprised that someone outside the intelligence community had heard of the facility. Since this Spanish “anthropologist” obviously knew something about the institute, Lev decided to open up a little to see just how much Mendoza knew.

“Institute 398 is located in North Korea at a place called Sogram-ri. It’s a huge complex surrounded by three battalions of troops. That should give you some indication of how important it is to them. The North Koreans have over 250 geneticists working there, along with ten who just arrived from Iran. They’re all working on just one project.”

“And I can tell by the look on your face that you know what that project is, Professor,” Mendoza said.

“I’m afraid I do, Doctor. Institute 398 has been tasked with creating a genetically engineered virus to strike the white, Anglo Saxon populations of the earth.”

The members of the Bible Code Team exchanged quick, furtive glances with one another. In view of his line of questioning, it was becoming increasingly evident that Mendoza knew more about the pathogen than he was letting on.

“Why are we allowing this?” Alon said. “Are we so afraid of world opinion that we’re just going to sit back and allow ourselves to be wiped off the face of the earth? A few years ago, Israel had three nuclear subs sitting on the floor of the Arabian Sea waiting for orders to take out Iran’s nuclear program. That is until some politicians in Washington talked us into calling it off. We’re going to politically correct ourselves right out of existence.”

Leo set his glass on the table and folded his hands. “I’m reminded of the old proverb. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Interestingly, the proverb is both Arabic and Chinese. I think this fact is quite fitting, actually, because what we’re fighting here, Gentlemen, is not an ideology, or a religion, or any ethnic group for that matter. What we’re fighting … what mankind has always been fighting … is evil. Evil will always use the most expedient route to achieve its goal of destroying humanity. It doesn’t matter what the battle is about. From the recent bloodletting over religious ideology to the hatred of another man just because of the color of his skin, evil will use whatever triggers the urge within us to hate.”

Mendoza smiled as he raised his glass in Leo’s direction. “Now I know why Pope Michael made you a Prince of the Church, my friend.”

“A mistake that I’m sure he regrets every waking moment, Javier.”

The others laughed nervously, but Mendoza had one final point to make. “You know, Cardinal, as an anthropologist, I’m well aware that we are all descended from a species of hunter-killer apes, so it’s not much of a stretch to see how the human race has evolved into a species where one tribe constantly provokes war with another. On the one hand, you have the brilliant and artistic minds that have created all that is good in a civilization, while on the other hand you have those who just want to tear civilization down. It’s almost as if the earth were inhabited by two completely different types of humans.”

“Three types,” Leo said. “We haven’t quite figured out what Alon is yet.”

Alon almost choked on his wine, while Nava practically fell from her chair laughing.

Mendoza couldn’t help but smile at Leo’s humorous attempt to prevent him from delving further into another philosophical discussion that might drag well into the early hours of the morning. It was the Spanish way, of course, and according to their timetable, the night had just begun. The Spanish had invented the institution of the afternoon siesta just so they could stay up into the wee hours of the morning, drinking their excellent wine and enjoying good conversation.

“Well,” Lev said, standing, “I’m sure I can speak for all of us when I say that we’ve thoroughly enjoyed your hospitality this evening, but I’m afraid we really must be getting back to the yacht. The next time we come to Spain, you’re all invited onboard for dinner.”

“Maybe you should think about starting a Spanish chapter of the Bible Code Team,” Mendoza said.

“That’s not such a bad idea, Javier, considering the fact that we’re going to need all the help we can get in the days ahead, especially from scientists such as yourselves. We’ll stay in touch.”

“Oh, I almost forgot.” Mendoza pulled a small plastic bag from his pocket and handed it to Lev. “It’s probably nothing, Professor, but Alon asked earlier if we had found any papers at the crash site. This is all there was … a few napkins we found blowing around in the field.”

Lev gingerly pulled a white paper napkin from the bag and turned it over in his hand. There, right in front of his widening eyes, he saw the words Acerbi Corporation-Agricultural Division spelled out in red script. Above that was the company’s logo-a golden stalk of wheat.

CHAPTER 21

It was shortly after nine o’clock at night when the helicopter touched down on the rear deck of the Carmela. Climbing from the tight confines of the small chopper, the group that had gone ashore immediately headed for the yacht’s communications room.

Ariella was the first to greet them when they walked into the room.

“What did you find, Father?”

Lev held up the plastic bag in his hand for all to see.

“What is it?”

“Napkins.”

“Napkins?”

“Yes. Napkins with a specific company logo printed on them. They were found at the crash site. Evidently, the cardinal was flying back to Rome onboard a jet owned by the Acerbi Corporation.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure yet. Normally, I would brush it off with the fact that a corporation was trying to gain favor with the Church by allowing the cardinal to use one of their private jets. At least that would have been my first instinct until I saw this.”

Lev pointed to the company logo on the napkin.

“It’s just a stalk of wheat,” Ariella said. “What’s so special about that? I mean, it says Acerbi Agricultural Division on it.”

“Yes, but the logo is an exact match in every detail with the ancient painting we found on the chapel wall.”

Ariella looked closer. “How is this possible?”

“Right now I have no idea, but I’m going to scan this napkin into an onboard computer and send it to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv. Like everyone else, the only thing I know about this Acerbi Corporation is that it’s big and headed by a very wealthy family, but this is definitely a lead we need to follow up on.”

Lev handed one of the napkins to the communications officer. “We need to make a copy of that and send it to Tel Aviv. Also, send a copy to Bishop Morelli at the Vatican and one to Daniel at the villa.”

Five minutes later, Morelli’s face filled their computer screens. “A golden stalk of wheat! Are you kidding me? Where did you find those napkins?”

“Evidently, our Spanish friends found them in the field where Orsini’s plane crashed. In one of those strange little twists of fate, these little paper cocktail napkins survived the crash when they drifted out over the field after the impact. We also found this.” Lev held the cardinal’s ring in front of the computer’s camera. “This belonged to Cardinal Orsini.”

Everyone could see Morelli’s eyebrows arch. “Are you sure it’s his?”

“No question about it,” Leo said, crowding in next to the console. “It’s his.”

“I guess there’s no doubt then. That pretty much confirms the fact that the cardinal is no longer with us.”

“I think we need to focus our attention on the Acerbi Agricultural Corporation now,” Lev said. “Have you ever heard Orsini talk about them, Anthony?”

“No, I can’t remember anything specific. I only know about them from my dealings in the stock market. Their stock price took a nice jump last week for no apparent reason.”

Leo and Lev traded looks but said nothing.

“I’ll bet you guys almost fainted when you saw that napkin,” Morelli continued. “This is just too weird. How could a modern corporate logo match perfectly with a two-thousand-year-old painting that was just discovered on an ancient chapel wall? There’s obviously a connection somewhere. What did the Spanish guys say?”

“They don’t know about the painting on the chapel wall, and for now we’re keeping a tight lid on it. We’ve also asked them not to mention the napkins for now … even to their own government. Let us know if you find out anything about this Acerbi guy, Anthony. We may be on to something or nothing at all, but it’s worth looking into.”

“No problem. I’ll put our people to work researching that corporation.”

A yellow light began blinking on the console in front of the communications officer. “Flash traffic from the villa in Israel.”

Lev picked up the phone and listened intently as the others watched the color drain from his face. Slowly, he laid the receiver down and turned to face the others.

“The pathogen … it just hit Pakistan.”

“I guess that kind of rules out the theory of radical Islamic terrorists being behind all of this,” Nava said, squeezing Alon’s shoulder.

Leo sat down beside Lev and leaned back in the chair. “Just when you think you’re onto something, the mystery deepens. It’s beginning to look like entire sections of the human race are being exterminated, and there’s no common thread.”

CHAPTER 22

Sinking into the west, the pastel vestiges of the setting sun painted the snow-capped mountains of the French Alps in tones of pale orange, while wisps of fog curled over the moist bed of pine needles layering the floor of the forest below. Hidden among the trees, subdued yellow light radiated from the windows of a massive log structure, reflecting against the polished black finish of the limousines parked in front.

If it weren’t for all the trappings of luxury that had been integrated into the enormous mountain lodge and the campsites surrounding it, the entire setting could have been mistaken for a rustic summer camp for kids-but this camp was far from rustic, and it was definitely not a place for children.

In a room upstairs, Rene Acerbi pulled on a white shirt and peered through the window at the fog covered grounds outside. He smiled. The thick fog seemed to give the surrounding forest a foreboding, medieval look. How appropriate, he thought.

The phone on the bedside table rang. “Yes?”

“We’re ready sir. Everyone is here.”

“I’ll be right down.” Acerbi grabbed a black leather jacket from the back of a chair and stepped out into the red-carpeted hallway. Checking his watch, he made his way down a rustic stairway lined with animal carvings into a towering wood-beamed room decorated to recreate the ambiance of an old hunting lodge. Entering the room, he was greeted by the faces of some of the most powerful men and women in the world. They were all seated around a massive river-stone fireplace, talking and laughing as they plucked hors d’oeuvres from circulating silver trays and washed them down with imported wines that had been specially chosen for the occasion.

Acerbi smoothed his thick, black hair straight back and took a seat in one of the oversized brown leather chairs next to a tall young woman with short blonde hair. Her name was Dana Waters, and she had just taken over the helm of the largest chemical company in America. His gaze then shifted to a short, slightly overweight Texas oilman by the name of Alan Thorn. Loathed by most of his contemporaries, he had a short temper and a well-known inability to hold his tongue in social situations, especially after a few drinks.

Rene tried to ignore the fact that it looked like Thorn had already had a few too many. Instead, Acerbi focused his black eyes on the other members of the group. They all nodded their heads in his direction in an obvious acknowledgement to the fact that he was the guest of honor, destined on this night to take his place among the twelve leaders who governed their faith.

The gathering was permeated by the casual familiarity shared by the ruling elite who traveled in the same social circles. Like the Rothschilds and Vanderbilts and Morgans before them, they reveled in the intricate and elusive connections that assured their continued prosperity as they waited for the evening’s festivities to begin.

Although very few people were aware of its existence, this select club had been around longer than most of the present-day governments currently in power around the world. In fact, its roots reached all the way back to the Middle Ages, to one of Acerbi’s distant ancestors, a female warrior by the name of Catherine Acerbi.

A Joan of Arc-like figure, Catherine had led a small band of former Templar Knights in hit and run battles against a French nobility loyal to the Catholic Church, a nobility whose northern army had swarmed across her ancestral lands in a holy crusade against the people of her faith-people the Church had labeled as heretics.

Her struggle to assure the survival of her kind had enmeshed itself within every fiber of her being, and as she embarked upon her own crusade of rebellion, all of her waking moments were dedicated to revenge as her small force nipped at the heels of the great army from the north. For a few brief years, she had seemed invincible, until that fateful day when she was finally betrayed by a spy and burned at the stake as a heretic.

However, before she died, Catherine had gone to great lengths to assure the Acerbi bloodline. Along the way she had given birth to a son, the product of a brief interlude with a Templar Knight who had left on the last crusade to the Holy Land shortly before the birth of his child. In his absence, she had denied the knight his right and given the child her own family name, for continuing the Acerbi bloodline had been the sole purpose of her union with the knight all along.

But at the moment of Catherine Acerbi’s death, in the pain-induced delirium brought on by the searing flames enveloping her fair skin, she had made a horrible mistake. She had called out to the wrong god. She had called out the name of the evil one, asking him to make the Acerbi clan powerful enough to destroy the institution responsible for the deaths of her parents and the other members of her faith who had died by the thousands at the hands of a holy army cloaked in the vestments of righteousness as they swept across their lands.

To add to her torment, the man who had condemned her to the stake had forced her only child to witness her death. Upon hearing her screams, Catherine’s young son had instinctively run toward the pyre. Those who had witnessed the last moments of her life had seen her look directly at her son. As the flames rose higher, their eyes met for a brief moment, the same moment when she uttered her terrible last words-words that Catherine Acerbi could never recant, because as soon as she had spoken them, her spirit passed from her body.

As he was being led away from the grisly scene by Catherine’s aunt, the child spotted a man in the distance. He was dressed in finery and sitting atop a white horse. And he was smiling.

Although his mother’s last words had been an aberration, it was too late to undo what had been said. The words, along with the images of her fiery death and the smiling man on the horse, would remain with the boy for the rest of his life and fill him with great hatred, for a dark hitchhiker had just attached itself to his soul.

Taking the young boy into her home, Catherine’s aunt had raised him as her own. It was she who now guarded the scrolls her sister Marie had sent with Catherine on the day when their castle had been attacked by the army of the north. All along, she had planned on passing the scrolls to Catherine’s son on the day when he came of age, however, once again fate had intervened, and before she could tell the boy where she had hidden them, she died suddenly from a fever, thus denying succeeding generations of Acerbi’s their message of salvation.

After being passed from one family to the next, the boy grew cold, and at the tender age of fourteen, he went looking for the smiling man on the horse, only to find that he had already died at the hands of a mysterious Templar Knight who had just returned from the Holy Land. As he grew into manhood, Catherine’s son wandered the land, learning the ways of a hard world. He grew to be powerful, but his power was tinged with ruthlessness as he remembered his mother’s last words, words that had been etched into his memory, words that would alter the destiny of the Acerbi family forever, for unbeknownst to the coldhearted young man, his mother had unwittingly made a lasting pact with the devil.

Over the years, the wealth and power of the Acerbi clan grew stronger with each succeeding generation, until finally, backed by a dark force they barely understood themselves, they had become almost as powerful as the institution they sought to destroy.

Acerbi inhaled deeply as he fixed Alan Thorn with an icy stare. “That little oil well fire of yours in the Gulf of Mexico attracted a lot of attention … attention we don’t need at a time like this.”

Returning Acerbi’s stare, Thorn brushed some cigar ashes from his flannel shirt. “Such is the oil business, Rene. Drilling at that depth has its rewards, but also its risks. Besides, the incident in the Gulf is the last thing on people’s minds right now.”

“We all understand that, but we must be extra vigilant when it comes to bringing unwanted attention to any company we own, especially now that the first stage of our plan has gone into effect.”

“What about the girl?” Dana Waters asked.

“We’re keeping her at my chateau for now. She’s being treated like royalty. We’ve reinforced our story about how the doctors at the CDC planned to use her as a guinea pig, so she believes we are protecting her. After she heard that the virus had struck in Italy, she was more than happy to remain in France rather than going on to Rome.”

“Taking her from the hospital in New York attracted as much attention as my little oil well fire … if not more,” Thorn said, slurring his words. The smirk on his face revealed his obvious distain for Acerbi.

“A calculated risk, I admit, but necessary.”

Dana ran her hand across the back of Acerbi’s chair. “What have you learned so far, Rene?”

“We told her that we hired a private physician to look after her because of her recent illness, so she allowed him to take some blood samples. All of our tests to date have shown nothing out of the ordinary. To be honest, our scientific team is mystified. There was nothing unusual about her DNA profile, and she had been primed like the other victims. Her only medical problem was a previously undiagnosed allergy to wheat that she was unaware of. But the question still remains-how did she survive the unsurvivable?”

An elderly gentleman picked up a faceted crystal decanter from the table beside him and poured an inch of brandy into his snifter. “Could the pathogen have mutated in any way?”

“Look,” Acerbi said, the color rising in his face. “The possibility of a random mutation has been a concern from the beginning, but I’ve been assured by some of the top people in the field that this will not happen. We will continue our testing of the girl … it may even take a full autopsy, but we will get to the bottom of this. The pathogens we have developed have all been rigorously tested time and time again, and not once has one mutated in the lab.”

“That is exactly our point, Rene. It is no longer in the lab, and random events occur all the time in nature.”

Acerbi looked around the room. The eyes of a very powerful group of men and women were all staring directly at him. Their questioning expressions of doubt were barely concealed beneath their stoic facades, and unlike the lackeys who worked for him, it was obvious that these people had no fear of throwing hard questions in his direction.

A cold fury rose up within him. Were they really that stupid? Couldn’t they see it? The result of untold years of research and planning was coming down to the wire, and now was not the time for weakness and second-guessing. Besides, there was no possibility for mutation, for Rene Acerbi knew a secret-a secret he would reveal to the world when the time was right.

Acerbi swallowed and put on his biggest smile. “Come now, people. This should be a time to celebrate. The world will be a much better place to live in a year from now. Please, join me in a toast, a toast to the future and a new world order … may we finally live in a world that is truly ours and ours alone.”

Together they all stood and held their glasses high before drinking down the last burning gulp of the thick, golden liquid.

“Now,” Acerbi said proudly, scanning the room for further dissention. “I believe the ceremony is about to begin. I want to extend my sincere gratitude to all of you for being here with me tonight.”

The group stared back at him in respectful silence, for tonight Rene Acerbi was about to undergo a transition. In less than an hour, he would be among the Twelve.

Moving outside, they looked up and saw that the sun had finished its arc in the west, leaving a star-filled sky as the only outside witness to what was about to come. Listening to the cries of small wildlife all around them, they followed a winding path lit by flickering torches deep into the forest.

Nearing their destination, they saw a distant glow through the trees that spurred them onward until they found themselves standing in a towering grove of some of the most ancient trees on the planet. Despite the fact that all of them had been to this spot in the forest before, the sight took their breath away. Towering above them, a gigantic sculpture rose forty feet into the air. To some, it looked just like any other massive piece of undefined modern art one sees erected in front of corporate and governmental buildings the world over, but to those who understood its true meaning, it resembled a bird of prey.

Hollow inside, the sculpture had been constructed to look as if it had been carved in place from a natural rock formation. Running diagonally across the front was the engraved image of a large red snake, an explicit allusion to the Acerbi bloodline that had stretched across the centuries, while tall flames leapt into the air from a sunken fire pit at the base of the sculpture, lending a primitive aura to the proceedings.

On the moss and lichen-covered ground below the stage, a large gathering of lesser group members sat in rows of chairs placed in a semi-circle. In the background, as if the entire scene wasn’t bizarre enough, the stage suddenly erupted in pulsating white light, while strange and melodic music began to emanate from inside the gigantic sculpture.

“It appears that everyone is here,” Rene said, turning to the select few who had followed him to the grove. “Please, take your seats up front.”

When the audience spotted Acerbi, they began to applaud and shout out his name. His presence seemed to stir something within them, much as it had for his father when he had stepped upon this same stage for a similar ceremony years before.

For centuries, this hidden grove had been a place of refuge for the members of this secret cult. It was a place where, united by their true heritage, they could gather yearly to celebrate their beliefs and make plans for a new world-a world where they would not have to wonder if they would once again be hunted down like their ancestors and persecuted for who they were or what they believed in.

Acerbi peeled off from the group and made his way behind the stage before entering a hidden door that led inside the massive sculpture to a dressing room. Assisted by others, he donned a black silk robe and turned to stare into a full length mirror, his black eyes staring back at him. With the others watching, he pulled a pointed black hood over his head and stood back to admire the sight.

Rene Acerbi was about to be reborn.

Lingering to take a few deep breaths, he turned and walked out onto the stage through a cloud of red smoke that flowed from the sides. Before him, eleven hooded men wearing dark blue robes stood in a circle, while off to the side stood another hooded figure dressed in flowing white robes-the leader.

As soon as the audience saw the black-robed figure of Rene Acerbi standing motionless under the huge sculpture, they grew quiet. Against the backdrop of the smoke and flames, the clandestine fraternity of men and women began to sway to the strange music as flickering, shadowy images danced in the tall trees surrounding the grove.

Suddenly, the music stopped, prompting the man dressed in white to thrust his arms up toward the sky. For a few seconds, all was silent, and then the chanting began.

The man in white lowered his arms and walked over to Rene. After clasping him on both shoulders, he took him firmly by his left arm. Without fanfare, he led him to the circle of blue-robed men and stood by his side as the chanting increased. Those gathered below were witnessing an ancient rite that had remained virtually unchanged since the 13th century.

Rene would be the twelfth member of the circle, mimicking the number of apostles in the New Testament. Within his faith, these twelve were known as the Perfecti, a religious rank on par with that of the cardinals in the Catholic Church, but that was where any similarity stopped.

Acerbi’s entrance into the circle signaled the beginning of the ancient rite of consolamentum. It was a baptism of the spirit, a spiritual regeneration. It was absolution and ordination rolled into one, and when it was all over, Rene Acerbi would be one step closer to his birthright of replacing the man in white. Not only would he sit at the head of one of the largest corporate empires the world had ever seen, but he would also be the ultimate leader of their faith, thus making it almost impossible for anyone anywhere in the world to ever challenge his authority again.

He had already proven his ability to lead them in business, and now Rene would be given the chance to prove that he could hold sway over their religious beliefs as well. Until then, the spiritual well-being of the Acerbi clan would rest in the hands of the man dressed in white, and he had no plans for stepping down anytime soon. It’s only a matter of time, Rene thought to himself … a very short time indeed for the man in white.

The black color of Rene’s robes was symbolic of the fact that he still remained in darkness, waiting to be reborn as a Perfecti. Once the transition from darkness to light had taken place, his black robes would be removed and replaced with ones of blue, the color of the Perfecti, signifying his membership among the spiritual elite.

Ever since the day their previous leader, Eduardo Acerbi, Rene’s father, had disappeared, the Perfecti had wisely decided to keep their leader’s true identity a closely guarded secret. Many found it difficult adjusting to the fact that no one except for the Perfecti had any idea who their leader truly was. It had become fashionable at social gatherings to jokingly refer to one another as leader, because no one except for the Perfecti knew which powerful man sitting among them was the man in white. They could be sitting right next to him at a meeting and never realize who he really was.

On those occasions like tonight, when their leader was required to be physically present according to the sacred laws governing the ancient rite of the consolamentum, his identity was hidden by the white hood that concealed his face from others.

When the chanting stopped, the man in white stepped forward and faced Rene. For a full minute, their eyes were locked, each man searching the soul of the other. The audience was spellbound while Rene stood there, transfixed, like a serpent under the gaze of a snake charmer, until suddenly he stumbled backward. He had just seen something. Although he had only seen the eyes, a flash of recognition had just jumped full force from his subconscious into his conscious mind.

Impossible!

His breath began to come in short, shallow gasps, and he could hear his heart pounding in his ears as the ground swayed beneath his feet. It was as if time itself had come to a grinding halt in a disorienting symphony of emotions.

No! It couldn’t be!

But it was.

Rene watched as the man reached beneath his white robes and produced three scrolls along with a letter. Looking deeply into Rene’s disbelieving eyes the man reached out and gently placed the scrolls in Rene’s trembling hands. Then, without a word, the old man suddenly turned and disappeared into the thick red smoke drifting across the stage.

Rene felt like he was dreaming, for he had just come face to face with someone even more powerful than he … someone he never thought he would meet in this world … or any other for that matter.

CHAPTER 23

In the yacht’s dining room, Leo and the others sat drinking coffee with glum faces. News of the pathogen’s return had put a damper on a day that had been filled with promise, and none of their attempts to find any new information about the source of the pathogen had proved fruitful.

“I’ve just received another message from the villa,” Lev said, finally breaking the silence. “They’ve received word that other compounds have begun to seal themselves off from the outside world. People are beginning to think this is Armageddon.”

“They may have a point,” Alon said. “I mean, sooner or later this thing is going to land on our own doorstep, and we’d better be prepared.”

Lev rubbed his temples and stared down at the floor. “I believe this plague is part of a much grander plan. If we’re to succeed, we need to step up the pace and start using all of our resources. Right now, the only ace we hold in our hand is the code in the Bible … a code put there by God Himself. I’ve always believed that the real purpose of the code is to authenticate the fact that the Bible was divinely inspired and that it is the true word of God, but there may be other reasons for its existence. God, in His infinite wisdom, left us a code meant to be deciphered now, at this exact point in history. If I’m right, it may also hold the key to this plague.”

John pinched his lips together in thought before finally deciding to join the conversation. “You know, I’ve been thinking, no one really understands the Book of Revelation very well. I mean, it reads just like a code … it probably is a code … and a lot of people have a lot of different interpretations of it. Maybe we are looking at Armageddon.”

Leo frowned. “That dog just doesn’t hunt, John.”

The cardinal’s countrified response not only brought smiles to all the faces around the table, but it also revealed a tough, working-class upbringing that sometimes surfaced when Leo was faced with a difficult problem. As a man who had once fought in the ring and worked in the coal mines beneath the rolling farmland of central Pennsylvania, Leo’s scarred left eyelid and blunted nose revealed a past not always spent in quiet introspection.

Leo had always believed that his scholarship to Georgetown University had been a gift from God, but from the moment he had received it, he had always felt that he had a debt to repay-not to man, but to God. Leo’s method of repayment had been the priesthood, and for the past thirty years he had risen through the ranks of a group of sanctified commandos known as the Jesuits to his present position as a Prince of the Church. He had made the journey from a coal mine in Pennsylvania to the Vatican. From the rough, unpolished upbringing of his youth to the halls of academia as a highly educated professor of history, God had delivered him this far for a reason. Leo was sure of it as he slammed his fist down and glanced around the table at the others.

Everyone was taken aback by the sudden display of emotion from the usually reserved cardinal.

Ariella leaned over and laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Leo … what is it?”

“We’re missing something. I can feel it. The answer is right there, right beyond our grasp. We need quick, honest answers and fresh minds. I was just thinking, this whole thing reminds me of a cave-in we had at the local coal mine in my hometown. When men are trapped underground, miners from all over the country come to help with new equipment and fresh ideas. Now, it seems as if mankind itself has suffered a cave-in of sorts. We’re at the bottom of a deep, dark hole with no light shining in from above. We need light and we need fresh air. I’m calling Morelli … and then I think we should call Mendoza and his team of scientists and ask them to join us. After our discussion last night, I’m convinced they know more than they’re telling us. This is a war, and some of the best people in the world are out there waiting to fight it with us.”

Lev rubbed his beard and leaned back from the table. “If we are going to get more aggressive in our approach, then we need to make it a priority to find out just who or what the real enemy is.”

Lev’s last statement made Leo pause. His Israeli friends, some of the most accomplished tacticians and fighters in the world, lacked a visible enemy. None of them had any idea what they were really up against. The pathogen was an invisible enemy that drifted on the wind, and the lack of something more concrete to target had become a roadblock to people with no experience in fighting a microscopic foe. Leo was about to give them one they could see.

“Listen, everyone. This thing didn’t just spring forth from nature … it has a maker. We need to concentrate on finding him, or them, or whoever. I mean, what’s their goal? There has to be a payoff for them. In fact, that may be the very thing that leads us to them. We’ve got to think outside the box. There are clues all around us, but we aren’t seeing them yet. We need a common denominator, and by some strange twist of fate, I think we might have just found it … the Acerbi Corporation. We’ve got to keep our focus on them. Their logo is an exact match with the image of the stalk of wheat painted on the chapel wall. There’s no way they could have copied it exactly, because it’s been buried underground for two millennia.”

“Excuse me, Cardinal.” Everyone looked up to see a female crewmember standing in the doorway to the dining room. “We just received a call from the Vatican. Bishop Morelli would like to speak with you right away.”

Leo quickly rose from his chair and made his way up to the communications room. “Anthony, I was just telling the others we needed to call you. What’s up?”

After a brief conversation, Leo walked out onto the deck surrounding the bridge. He gazed out across the dark water at the lights rising from the distant shoreline into the hills of the Spanish countryside. The lights were a comforting reminder that people were still in their homes, eating supper and talking to their children. Life was still going on … but for how long? Holding on to the railing, he felt as though the force of gravity no longer applied to him. Any moment now, an invisible switch with his name on it was about to be flipped, and he would float up into a dark void and disappear. Of course, life would still go on for others. People would still go about their daily lives, and the fact that a well-known Catholic Cardinal had suddenly disappeared would only be a side note to their evening discussion around the dinner table as they listened to the TV news in the background.

The yacht’s captain was watching Leo from behind the windows of the wheelhouse. As with most seagoing men, Alex preferred watching the sea to listening to other men’s troubles, but Leo had become a friend, and tonight he had a feeling the cardinal needed someone to talk to. Walking outside, he stood by the rail and lit a cigarette before tossing the match overboard. “What’s wrong, Cardinal?”

“Sarah Adams.”

“Who?”

“Sarah Adams … Daniel’s girlfriend. She was the flight attendant who was in the plane crash with us last year. She was also on the Carmela when we sailed from Israel to Italy.”

“Thin, blond-haired girl?”

“Yes.”

“What about her?”

“She just happens to be the only person in the world who’s contracted the virus and survived.”

“Well, that’s good news, isn’t it?”

Leo continued staring straight ahead, as if not making eye contact with the captain made the words come easier. “She’s gone missing from her hospital room. They think she’s been kidnapped.”

CHAPTER 24

After spending the night in his cabin trying to catch a few hours of fitful sleep, Leo showered and made his way up to the main deck. Sitting at an outside table, Nava and Ariella were having coffee under a blue awning stretched overhead.

“Good morning, Leo,” Nava said. “Sleep well?”

“Not really.”

“Neither did we.”

Leo poured a cup of coffee as he looked out at all the seemingly empty boats rising up and down in the gentle swell of the harbor. Peering inside the main salon, he saw several of the yacht’s crewmembers gathered around a TV. News of the hit-and-run epidemics, as they were now being called, was being broadcast on every television network in the world. Even the sports channels had switched to running bulletins about the evolving plague since all large sporting events had been cancelled.

People in every nation on earth were waiting to see when and where the pathogen would strike next. It was like trying to look for a tsunami headed toward the shoreline, but like the virus, the submerged mountain of water was invisible as it ran just beneath the surface at the speed of a jet aircraft.

The sound of a boat racing across the water caused Leo to look up. Heading toward them, he saw one of the Carmela’s speedboats slicing through the calm blue water of the harbor just before the driver pulled back on the throttles and let the boat glide up next to the yacht’s boarding stairs.

Walking to the railing, he could hear the throaty idle of the boat’s powerful engine as the driver watched the rise and fall of the water to time his final approach to the yacht’s teak wood boarding platform suspended at the bottom of the stairs just above the waterline. After all three of his passengers had safely made the jump, they stared up at the gleaming white superstructure before climbing the swaying stairway to the main deck.

Javier Mendoza flashed a toothy grin when he stepped on the main deck and spotted Leo. “Ah, Cardinal. I knew it would be you who would call us. From the sound of your voice on the phone, I could tell you needed some good Spanish wine.”

As the two men shook hands, Leo noticed a crewmember struggling up the stairs with what appeared to be a case of rare Palo Cortado Sherry. Behind him, a strikingly beautiful woman stepped onto the main deck, followed by an older, heavyset man wearing a loose-fitting, Hawaiian-print shirt.

“I see you’ve brought some new faces with you, Javier.”

“Yes. My new colleagues are more suited to the job at hand. Also, since we don’t know where the pathogen will strike next, we took a vote and decided only volunteers should join your little expedition. I believe you will be very impressed when you see their resumes.”

Leo looked at the heavyset man in the colorful shirt. With long but thinning white hair and a short-cropped moustache, the out-of-breath man resembled the famous newsman, Walter Cronkite.

Standing next to him was a stunning woman that fit the cliche description of a raven-haired beauty. She had the kind of looks that made men stop whatever they were doing so that they could stare shamelessly at her when she passed. They stared even when they were with other women, because the women who were with them also stared.

“Please, allow me to introduce two very talented scientists who have very generously volunteered their time to be here. This is Dr. Evita Vargas. She specializes in epidemiology and statistics.”

“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Vargas,” Leo said, trying consciously to keep his eyes focused above her shoulders.

“Likewise, Cardinal.” Her lips were perfect and her eyes positively sparkled when she looked at him. “I look forward to working with you, Your Eminence.”

“And I you. Please, call me Leo.”

“And this is my good friend, Dr. Raul Diaz,” Mendoza continued. “Dr. Diaz is a world-class molecular biologist and heads the genetics research program at the University of Madrid.”

“I read a magazine article about you last year, Cardinal,” Diaz said. “They called you God’s Commando.”

Leo smiled. “I only indulge in spiritual combat, Doctor.”

“We’ve heard the situation in Pakistan has eased somewhat,” Mendoza said, clearing his throat. “It seems the pathogen is dying out more quickly than it did in New York or Italy..”

“We’ve heard … very puzzling.” Leo noticed the new arrivals’ eyes had taken on a look of awe as they looked around the gigantic yacht. “Why don’t you let me show you to your rooms? We’ll be putting to sea soon.”

Diaz looked surprised. “Putting to sea? I thought we’d be working from the boat here in the harbor.”

“We thought it would be a good idea to put some distance between us and any population centers for the time being. After you’ve all settled in, we’ll introduce you to the rest of the team.”

The Spanish scientists all exchanged glances before shouldering their backpacks and following Leo and Ariella down below decks to their rooms. When they had stowed their gear, Leo introduced them to Lev, who immediately began showing them around the yacht.

Built in Holland in 2002, the boat was immaculate. Painted white, the brilliant superstructure contrasted sharply with a dark blue hull highlighted with two gold stripes that ran the entire two-hundred-thirty-foot length of the yacht just below the main deck.

Lev began the tour in the wood-paneled hallway just below the main deck. Antique brass lamps gave off a soft yellow glow and provided a fitting ambiance for Lev’s collection of classic oil paintings of sailing ships at sea. This region of the yacht was reserved for guests and contained twelve staterooms, all superbly decorated with their own private baths.

To the rear of the guest’s quarters, a large, garage-like space held some of Lev’s favorite water toys. A wall full of scuba diving gear provided a backdrop to the two speedboats and several jet skis stowed in front of a large hydraulic door that could be lowered down to the surface of the water at the stern of the yacht.

Climbing up a set of narrow stairs at the end of the passageway, they found themselves standing on the main deck. This was the area that served as the focal point for most of the socializing that occurred onboard the yacht. The first half of the deck just outside the grand salon included a seating area and bar that was covered with a blue-and-white-striped canvas awning, while the back area of the deck along the stern railing was left open to the sky so that guests could sit under the sun or the stars and sip their drinks as they watched the yacht’s wake recede into the blue-on-blue horizon.

Moving through thick glass doors into the formal grand salon, they encountered an elegant space filled with antiques and museum quality artwork. They marveled at the blue marble floor that caught the reflection of a white grand piano as they continued forward into a large dining room next to a fully equipped gourmet kitchen large enough for a team of chefs to prepare a dinner for at least fifty guests.

Beyond the dining room was a small foyer that held the yacht’s main stairwell beneath a round stained glass skylight. Three flights of stairs followed a circular wall of carved mahogany panels crafted by some of the finest wood workers in the ship building industry. Climbing the stairs to the second deck, they stepped out into the more informal atmosphere of the mid-deck salon. This was the acknowledged party room on the boat and resembled a hotel bar.

Furnished with several cozy, red leather booths facing a cherry-wood bar topped in black granite, two flat-screen TVs above the bar were linked to one of the yacht’s many satellite dishes so guests could watch sporting events from all over the world. The aft portion of the salon held a spacious seating area surrounded by large horizontal windows that ran the entire length of the space, giving it a bright and airy feel. Again, thick, oversized glass doors opened outside onto a covered deck furnished with several tables and built-in bench seating that followed the curvature of the railing.

Reentering the salon, they continued up the stairwell to the bridge, where the captain gave them a brief demonstration of his state-of-the-art navigational equipment before Lev led them out to the top deck and showed them the yacht’s small blue chopper with the name Little Carmela stenciled in gold below the pilot’s window.

“Amazing,” Mendoza whispered to Leo. “This boat has it all. Your friend Lev must be a very wealthy man.”

“He is, but I’ve never seen a man put his money to better use. There are a lot of people who own their own homes and have college educations due to his generosity.”

They watched as Lev headed back toward the bridge. “Come on, Javier. I think the professor has one more thing he wants to show all of you … something most outsiders never see.”

After following Lev down a narrow hallway behind the bridge, they were ushered into the yacht’s command center.

Standing inside the darkened room, all three scientists stared open-mouthed at their high-tech surroundings.

“If I didn’t know better, I would think I was standing in the combat information center on a warship,” Mendoza said. “I was in the Spanish Navy when I was younger.”

“Well then,” Lev said, “you should feel right at home in here, Doctor. I hope you haven’t lost your sea legs.”

“No, but I’m afraid Dr. Diaz has never been onboard a boat of any kind before.” Looking behind him, Mendoza noticed that Dr. Diaz was no longer with them. Evita Vargas smiled and pointed to one of the consoles. Sitting in front of one of the computer monitors, Diaz was totally absorbed by a glowing green image of the pathogen that was displayed on the screen before him.

“You’ll have to excuse Dr. Diaz,” Mendoza said. “I’m afraid he’s not much on social graces.”

“Is this the pathogen?” Diaz asked, his question thrown to the air and aimed at no one in particular.

“Yes, it is,” Lev said, glancing around the room. The fact that they possessed an image of the pathogen had not yet been discussed with the new Spanish members of the team. Normally, this would have been considered a serious breach of security, but in this case time was of the essence and soon it would become necessary for the Bible Code Team to share everything they had learned about the virus with their new Spanish friends.

“We just received that image this morning. Have you ever seen anything like it before, Dr. Diaz?” Lev asked.

Diaz looked shaken. “Uh … no … no I haven’t.”

Lev shrugged as he watched Evita pull a pair of thick, black-framed glasses from her purse and take a seat next to the heavyset Spanish scientist. Looking back over her shoulder, she smiled at Lev. “Nice yacht.”

“I’m glad you like her.”

Watching her, Lev thought how much she reminded him of his late wife-beautiful, yet down to earth and all business when it came to getting things done. If only Carmela could be standing here with him now. A knot formed in his stomach. Some days were better than others, but even after all this time, she was constantly in his thoughts.

A slight shudder beneath his feet signaled the start-up of the twin turbines in the engine room below. Ten minutes later, the big yacht began easing out of the harbor.

CHAPTER 25

A pod of dolphins took turns surfing the crest of a wave created by the Carmela’s bow as it sliced through the sparkling blue water of the Mediterranean Sea. In an effort to avoid coming into contact with the virus, the team had decided that the yacht should remain at sea, sailing just off the French coast.

It was noontime, and lunch was being served outside on the main deck. All the major players had gathered at a long table lined with pitchers full of iced tea nestled between baskets full of freshly baked bread and heaping platters piled high with grilled fish and vegetables.

“For the benefit of our new team members, I think this would be a good time to go over everything,” Leo said.

The others nodded their approval.

“What have we learned so far about the Acerbi Corporation?”

“Well, we were able to do a computer analysis on the napkins found at the crash site,” Lev said. “As we suspected, the Acerbi Corporation’s logo is an exact match with the painting on the chapel wall. To me, this is the most puzzling connection to date. The images we found at the chapel last year portrayed actual events that came to pass … but this … it’s an enigma. There’s the biohazard sign, which by itself is significant, but nothing to connect it to a specific event. We believe it’s a general warning. I did some checking, and the Acerbi Corporation is a multi-national conglomerate begun after World War II by a man named Eduardo Acerbi. His son, Rene, now runs the company and is one of the richest men in the world. Agriculture is only one of many divisions within the company. They also have oil, pharmaceutical, chemical, and green technology divisions.”

“The aircraft that crashed in Spain belonged to the corporation,” Alon added. “It was registered in France. I called Morelli this morning, and he said that Cardinal Orsini often accepted rides on corporate jets, but he seemed to favor the Acerbi Corporation for some reason.”

“Their agricultural division houses one of the largest genetics research labs in the world,” Lev continued. “Have you ever heard of them, Dr. Diaz?”

All heads at the table swiveled toward the molecular biologist. “Yes. Anyone in the field of genetics has heard of the Acerbi labs. They have labs outside Washington D.C., as well as in France and Switzerland. They also donate huge sums of money to various political entities on both sides of the Atlantic. Because of all the controversy that seems to surround any form of genetic engineering, they employ a dozen lobbyists to patrol the halls of Capitol Hill in Washington. It’s been estimated that most of the wheat in the world is now grown from genetically altered seed that’s been developed in their labs.”

“Are they capable of altering anything other than plants?” Leo asked.

“Of course.” Diaz set his cup of coffee on the table and leaned forward. “Genetic engineering is a wide-open field. Basically, any human modification of an organism’s genetic material that does not occur in nature is genetic engineering. The technique involves the manipulation of recombinant DNA instead of the traditional way in which animals and plants reproduce. The first organisms to be genetically engineered were bacteria in 1972.”

“What about viruses?” Mendoza asked, casting a sideways glance at Leo.

“Yes, viruses have also been altered. Just recently a virus was genetically modified to produce a more environmentally friendly lithium-ion battery by a division of the Acerbi Corporation in Switzerland.”

Leo noticed Mendoza looking straight at him with his eyebrows arched. The cardinal knew that the time for secrecy had passed.

“Ok, Javier. I’m pretty sure you’ve already guessed what I’m about to tell you, and since we’re all going to be working together, we’ve decided to lay all our cards on the table. The pathogen is manmade. It’s a virus artificially engineered to target the specific DNA code within a certain target population.”

Mendoza leaned back in his chair and looked at the other two Spanish scientists. “We know, Cardinal. It’s true, I am an anthropologist, but for the past five years, the three of us have been working for the CNI.”

“CNI?”

“The Centro Nacional de Inteligencia. It’s a counterpart to your CIA in America and the Mossad in Israel.”

“You’re a spy?”

“He’s an analyst,” Lev chimed in. “He’s one of their resident experts in pattern recognition.”

Mendoza practically choked on his coffee. “How did you …?”

Lev lit a cigar and blew out the match. “You forget, Senor, I was once a Mossad officer. So was Moshe. Surely you knew we still had connections within the Israeli intelligence community. No one comes on this boat unless I know who they really are. You revealed yourself the night we all had dinner together in Spain. Not too many people in the world know about Institute 398, even in the scientific community, so I had you checked out by some old friends. I knew all about you thirty minutes after we returned to the yacht the day we met.”

“Wait a minute,” Leo said, looking at Lev. “Just what’s going on here? And what in the world is pattern recognition … was anyone going to let me in on any of this?”

“I was waiting for Javier to tell us himself. The fact that he’s admitted who he’s really working for proves to me that he’s on our side. Sorry, Leo.”

“Yes, Cardinal. I apologize for not telling you sooner, but the people I work for also have rules I must go by. In answer to your question, the science of pattern recognition is the study of random events … meaningless bits of data that coalesce into a recognizable pattern. In the intelligence community, we’re constantly on the lookout for seemingly unrelated events and activities by individuals or groups that come together in a point of focused activity … a goal as it were. There are actual mathematical algorithms that ferret out such things, but in many cases we get our best intel from a working knowledge of human behavior along with our intuitive gut instinct. In the past, we had psychologists performing this kind of work, but we found that they were usually too far off the mark when it came to matters of intelligence because they were working on a model derived from abnormal behavior. Our decisions are based on what any normal person would do in a given situation. As an anthropologist, I’ve studied cause and effect based on decisions made by literally hundreds of different civilizations throughout history, and that enables me to see patterns in a historical perspective. It’s very useful for deciding what kind of action a particular group is going to take when they’re seeking to achieve an outcome that is in their best interest.”

Leo sat back for a moment and tried to take in all of what Mendoza had just said. The man was obviously brilliant, and he was exactly what they needed right now.

“What about Dr. Diaz?”

“Also CNI, as is Dr. Vargas. We’re fighting a war right now, Cardinal, and we’re here to help. Dr. Diaz is one of the world’s premier molecular biologists, and like me, he’s also an expert in pattern recognition. The only difference is that he uses it to study the random behavior of viruses, especially those that have been engineered. We believe that only a manmade virus could behave like the one we’re facing … killing some, while leaving others virtually untouched.”

“What about natural selection?”

“In relation to what?” Diaz asked. He was frowning impatiently as he slurped his coffee. He wasn’t the most warm and fuzzy guy in the group, but he was smart, very smart.

“In relation to the natural hereditary mutation of a species versus one artificially created by man.”

“Ah,” Diaz exclaimed. “Mendel’s peas.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Mendel’s peas, Cardinal. Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian priest who observed the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants back in 1865. He is considered to be the father of modern genetics. His observations led to experiments proving that certain hereditary characteristics are passed from parent organisms to their offspring, and when the theory of Mendelian inheritance was integrated with the chromosome theory of inheritance by Thomas Morgan in 1915, they became the core of classical genetics.”

“So, they are one and the same?”

“In a way, yes. Humans have been altering the genomes of species for thousands of years through artificial selection.”

“Artificial selection?”

“Yes, fiddling around with their crops by weeding out the unhealthy plants. Now we can do it with genetic modification in the lab. Take, for instance, wheat. Ancient man took his best and most hardy plants and used their seeds for the next year’s crop. They kept doing this until soon they had bigger and better grain yields and had weeded out the plants that didn’t seem to fare as well. In other words, through human intervention, they weeded out the genome for crop failure and thereby created a hardier, more productive species. They did the same thing with animals.”

“What about men?” Leo asked, thinking back to the painting on the chapel wall.

“As far as we know, no one’s tried it yet, at least not out in the open. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that genetic modification of humans was tried by the Nazis using artificial selection. Mendel altered bees using the selective process, but the hybrid bees that resulted were so vicious they had to be destroyed.”

A sudden realization jolted Leo with all the subtlety of a cattle prod. Wheat same as man! Were the images on the chapel wall referring to some kind of chance evolution of a hybrid species of man that had sprung forth thousands of years earlier? Was this what the paintings were trying to tell them?

“Good versus bad … the Cain and Abel dichotomy,” Leo blurted out loud.

“I beg your pardon, Cardinal?”

“Good against evil … strong wheat versus bad wheat … good bees versus vicious bees.”

“Really, Leo, what on earth are you talking about?” Lev said.

“I know I’m not being clear. This might sound crazy, but we’re living in crazy times.” Leo gazed out at the hazy outline of the French coastline in the distance and took a quick sip of coffee.

“Do any of you think it’s possible that, sometime in the past, two distinctly different species of humans evolved on the planet?”

Alon was the first to break the shocked silence at the table. “What did you put in your orange juice this morning, Cardinal?”

“I know that statement is pretty much out there, but that’s what thinking outside the box is all about. We need to explore every possibility. The theory of two species would explain a lot about human behavior over the past few thousand years, especially when it comes to questions of why some people want order and peace in their lives, while others thrive in an environment of chaos and hate … why some seek knowledge and want to create beauty, while others want only to destroy all that is good and seem to derive their pleasure from cruelty.”

The demure Dr. Vargas finally spoke up. “And how do you propose to prove this theory, Cardinal? As an epidemiologist and statistician, I can tell you now that it would take years of worldwide sampling to discover the genetic variant of a different species within the same genome, and that’s only the beginning. You would then be faced with the daunting task of matching that variant with the traits you describe and proving that the genetic variant is the source of the behavior.”

“I think there’s an easier way, Doctor. What if you and your team could compile a quick profile of all the people who died in New York and Italy?”

“All the people? No way.” Evita’s gaze took on a faraway look as she thought. “On second thought, it might be possible if the authorities from both countries would be willing to share their data with us. It might be easier in Italy, especially if the request for information on the victims came from the Vatican. Obtaining anything from the CDC in America is a different story. We’ve dealt with them before. The only way we could get them to cooperate is if they were ordered to do so by someone pretty high up the chain of command … someone like the President.”

“I’ll put in a call to Tel Aviv,” Lev said. “Maybe they can have their counterparts in America deal with the CDC.”

“What about Italy?”

“I think we know someone pretty high up there,” Leo said.

Evita smiled back at him. “Well, if you can get that kind of data, we need to know what the victims had in common, including their DNA profiles. At least that would enable us to look for unusual variations not found in a normal population. There may be additional components we aren’t yet aware of.”

“What kinds of components?”

“I’m still thinking about that. Behavioral traits linked to a specific genetic profile … who knows? I would think that if there had been another species of humans living among us with different DNA, they would have already revealed themselves through certain traits … like wheat that’s gone bad in the middle of a field of healthy plants.”

“What if you’re right?” Ariella asked, suddenly joining the conversation. “What would be the outcome of discovering that there are two different species of humans living on the planet? I mean, if that were true, we’ve been living alongside each other for thousands of years.”

Raul Diaz looked indignant “Which brings up another point. Through the natural intermingling of the two species, some of the same basic DNA sequences, along with certain variants, would be found in both species by now.”

“You say some, Doctor, but not all,” Leo said. “There could be a mutated gene within a certain population we haven’t discovered yet.”

“Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you’re right, Leo,” John interjected. “That there are two species of humans living on the planet now. Are we looking at segregating the human race, one species against the other … racial profiling? Civilization would be destroyed by that kind of prejudice.”

Leo took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I think we’re dealing with an entirely new concept. Look, everyone, we’re not talking about race here. Maybe we’re looking at a genetically induced tendency toward good versus a genetic predisposition toward evil … something that would exist within every race, because we’re talking about species, not race. I mean, have you ever been in a room with someone that made you so uncomfortable that you wanted to excuse yourself and leave for no apparent reason? Or met someone on the street with cold, lifeless eyes, and there was no doubt in your mind that they could probably kill you with no remorse just as easily as they could order up a hamburger? No one, especially me, is advocating any kind of a witch hunt here. All I’m saying is that we should be looking at every possibility when it comes to finding out why specific groups of people are being singled out to die. There’s got to be some kind of commonality. I’m certainly not putting myself out there as any kind of expert, but if there’s a pattern to this plague that can explain why some people are dying while others go about their daily lives without so much as a cough, then we need to consider any new angle that will help us solve the puzzle … no matter how bizarre it sounds.”

“I’d like to add an opinion,” Mendoza said. He had been strangely quiet throughout the entire exchange. “Despite the fact that I believe the answer lies elsewhere, as an anthropologist, I think that the cardinal has some valid points. The very thing he describes has happened before in our past, although we’re not quite sure how it happened.”

“What are you referring to, Javier?” Leo asked.

“The Neanderthals. They lived in the last glacial age for a span of about 100,000 years. Evidence suggests that they ranged across most of Europe and parts of Central Asia. Most laypeople have always assumed that they lived in Africa, but no true Neanderthal fossils have ever been discovered there. In fact, none have been found further south than Israel. Genetic evidence suggests interbreeding took place with Homo Sapiens, better known as modern humans, around 50,000 years ago in the Middle East. We’ve recently discovered that roughly 4 % of the genome of people from Eurasia was contributed by Neanderthals. In other words, a part of the Neanderthal species still resides within the human population today.”

“What happened to them?” Ariella asked, her eyes growing wide. She had received one of the finest educations in the world, yet she had never heard any of this before.

“Basically, there are two theories. The Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record about 25,000 years ago. The last traces of their culture have been found at Gorham’s Cave on the remote south-facing coast of Gibraltar. One scenario postulates that the more docile Neanderthals were a separate species from modern humans and became extinct due to interaction with them after they moved into their habitat. Some evidence even points to violent conflict. The other theory is that the Neanderthals were actually a contemporary human subspecies that bred with Homo Sapiens and disappeared through absorption. That’s called the interbreeding hypothesis.”

Leo leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “Which theory do you subscribe to, Javier?”

“Personally, I believe that, to some extent, interbreeding led to their eventual fate. But I also believe that there were other populations that remained totally Neanderthal and were driven to extinction by modern humans, who were much more aggressive. The evidence of them holding out in an isolated cave on Gibraltar, surrounded by water, almost 25,000 years ago, suggests a last stand scenario by a desperate and peaceful group who wanted only to survive and be left alone.”

Mendoza’s observation made it obvious to Leo that things weren’t so neat and tidy after all. Mankind had been fighting for survival and dominance for thousands of years before organized religion and political ideology came on the scene-fertile ground for a primitive and evolving species to decide which direction it wanted to go.

“But that still brings us back to the point of some kind of target group, if there is a target group,” Lev said. “Surely some kind of pattern would have emerged by now.”

“The dispersal in New York was very small and died out very quickly,” Diaz said. “It didn’t have the chance to affect everyone. That one fact alone leads me to believe that those responsible for the attack are still concerned that the pathogen they created might somehow mutate and end up affecting everyone, including themselves. That would explain why the pathogen was designed to die out quickly … so it wouldn’t spread. It’s possible that these outbreaks were only trial runs to rule out possible mutation.”

Ariella drummed her fingers on the table. “But going back to what you said earlier, Dr. Diaz, over time it would have been impossible for two different species of humans to live side by side without each inheriting most of the DNA of the other. If there had been two separate species, their unique DNA makeup would have been mixed thousands of years ago due to the inevitable interbreeding between the two, just like the Neanderthals. At this point, wouldn’t it be utterly impossible to engineer a virus that would target only one of them and not the other?”

“You know, all of this talk about two different species has made me think,” Diaz said. “The cardinal here is a very astute fellow. Whether or not he realizes it yet, he may have just stumbled on the key to how the virus picks its victims. Carrying forth his hypothesis on two different species, it would seem likely that, in order for this virus to target only one group, the members of that group would have to be somehow predisposed to its effects. In other words, if their DNA makeup was not already different from that of other humans, it would have to be altered somehow by whoever is spreading the virus, otherwise it would affect everyone. The only way they could make this happen is if they created a mutated gene within a certain population … an artificially engineered gene we haven’t discovered yet. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but I believe that the people responsible for spreading this virus are somehow prepping their victims.”

Everyone at the table stared in silence at Dr. Diaz. In a give and take scientific discussion that had lasted all of thirty minutes, he had nailed it. His was the most logical explanation as to why the virus targeted some and spared others.

Leo felt a sudden vindication for his decision to ask for help from the Spanish scientists. Running his fingers over the surface of the table, he looked up and saw Evita Vargas staring at him. “In view of what Dr. Diaz just said, Cardinal, I believe the data you requested on the victims will still be a critical piece of the puzzle. The details on the lives of those who died will help us determine not only how they came into contact with the pathogen, but may provide clues as to how they were prepped to make them susceptible to it.”

Finishing the last of his coffee, Mendoza reached into his pocket and tossed a small metal tube across the table to Leo.

“What’s this?”

“The lab in Barcelona sent that to us while we were waiting on the dock this morning. The military found it at the crash site.”

“What is it?”

“See for yourself. I think you’ll recognize the contents.” Mendoza saw the worried look on Leo’s face. “Don’t worry, Cardinal, the lab checked it out for any contamination. It’s clean.”

Unscrewing the top, Leo saw something he handled every day … a stack of small round communion wafers.

“We believe that metal canister probably belonged to Cardinal Orsini. We were told that it was part of a kit he used to say mass when he was away from the Vatican.”

Leo let some of the round wafers fall out into his hand. Looking closer, his eyes widened when he saw that they had the seal of Pope Michael imprinted on their surface.

“Something’s not right here,” Leo said.

“What is it, Cardinal?”

“These hosts … only one person in the world is allowed to use these … the pope. They were made specifically for his private chapel. No one else should have had them in their possession, even Orsini. These need to be sent back to the lab, Javier.”

“But they’ve already been checked for contamination.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about. I want them to check the variety of the wheat used to make these … and Javier, make sure they include a genetic profile.”

CHAPTER 26

Lev’s flip-flops dangled from his tanned, calloused feet as he sat in the bridge and looked out over an empty sea. “I suppose we should put into a French port soon.”

“We don’t have much choice,” Alex Pappas replied. The Carmela’s captain was looking through his binoculars for signs of other ships in the area. “Our fuel tanks are less than half-full and we need to top them off while we still have a chance. The spread of the virus is shutting down ports all over the world.”

“Maybe we should have planned ahead and purchased a sailboat.”

“Then I wouldn’t be your captain, sir. The biggest thing I’ve sailed was a small fifteen-footer my father gave me when I was a teenager. Besides, a mainsail for one of those mega-yachts costs almost as much as an engine.”

“Let’s head into Monaco. They’ve just expanded their harbor to accept large yachts. Bishop Morelli and I were there last year during the Grand Prix.”

“I suppose you stayed at the Hotel de Paris?”

“No, we didn’t. Why are you grinning at me like that?”

“Because I know how you are about the hotels you stay in.”

Lev grunted and sipped his coffee. “You think I’m a snob when it comes to hotels?”

“I just know you enjoy your comforts. Can’t say I blame you … you get what you pay for.”

“Actually, we stayed in Menton on the Cote D? Azur. It’s only about seven kilometers from Monaco on that narrow coastal road close to where Princess Grace had her fatal accident. I have a friend in Menton who owns a beautiful turn-of-the-century mansion that was converted into a hotel after the war. Most of his guests are English tourists getting on in age. I once put in an order to have breakfast delivered to my room at seven. A pretty, dark-haired girl knocked on my door with my breakfast tray at exactly seven … not one minute before or one minute after. It’s that kind of place. You can probably get that kind of personal service at the Hotel de Paris, but you’ll pay ten times the price.”

“My father used to love going into the harbor at Monaco when he was a captain, but he said that things have changed over the years. Apparently, even the dock boys act like they’re rich and famous.”

“Yes, it’s gotten much worse there, especially when they’re hosting the Grand Prix. Back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Formula 1 racing was still all about individuals who built and drove some of the finest racing machines in the world without any backing from major corporations. The teams would actually park their race cars right on the street, and you could walk up and peek inside the cockpit while the mechanics worked on them. It was wonderful. Now, it’s all about corporate sponsors and computers and cars with automatic transmissions. Automatic transmissions! Can you believe it? Instead of driving talent, aerodynamics is the new buzzword, and the cars are fenced off from public view. You can’t get within 100 yards of them now without being tackled by twenty security guards.”

Alex was smiling at Lev’s Grand Prix rant as he walked over to the navigation computer and began punching in GPS coordinates for the Principality of Monaco. The large yacht began a slow arc toward the northeast as the intercom buzzed on the center console. Lev picked up the receiver and listened briefly before setting it back down.

“Dr. Vargas wants to see me in the command center. Let me know when we’re approaching the harbor.”

“Will do.” Alex brought the binoculars back up to his eyes and began scanning the horizon in front of the yacht.

Walking down the narrow hallway behind the bridge, Lev descended a short set of stairs to the command center. Once inside, he let his eyes adjust to the darkened space before taking a seat next to a frowning Evita Vargas as she peered at her glowing computer screen without looking up.

“What’s up, Evita?”

Evita nodded toward the computer. “I’m linked to Daniel’s computer in Israel. He was teaching me how to run skip sequences in the code when we found some phrases in Leviticus. The first thing we noticed was a name. I think you’ll find it very interesting.”

On the screen, Lev could see the name, Eduardo Acerbi, running in a horizontal line across the top of the page and circled in red.

“Eduardo’s been missing and presumed dead for almost forty years,” Evita continued. “Daniel and I were kind of hoping the code would give us some clue as to what happened to him. His son, Rene, is now in control of the Acerbi Corporation. Below Eduardo’s name, we found two more encoded words.”

Lev pulled his glasses down from his forehead and leaned in closer to the screen. The words dark guardian jumped out at him as a bead of sweat began to form on his brow.

Dark guardian of what? Visions of the dark forces they had all faced in the past flooded his mind. “Has Leo seen any of this yet?”

“No, I wanted to show it to you first, Professor. Evita gasped as she began pointing to her computer screen. “Look!”

With frightening clarity, another phrase appeared beneath Orsini-He will never wear the shoes of the fisherman.

“What does that mean?” Evita asked.

“It think we’ve just received confirmation that Orsini was never going to become the leader of the Church. The expression, shoes of the fisherman, is a reference to Saint Peter, the first pope. He was a fisherman, and all those who have followed in his footsteps are said to be walking in the shoes of the fisherman.”

Evita’s self-assured demeanor was rapidly evaporating. “I’m finding it hard to believe that the name of the cardinal who just died in the plane crash is actually encoded in the Bible!”

The computer program jumped to the next page as it continued to scan for hidden words and phrases. Both Lev and Evita physically jumped when they saw a new phrase suddenly pop up on the screen.

The evil one is near.

Evita was so shaken that she pushed herself away from the computer in an unconscious effort to get as far away from the words as she could. An icy chill ran down her back as she stared at the screen from a distance.

“Interesting,” Lev said.

“Interesting?” Evita was trembling. “The evil one is near? I’d say that was a little more than just interesting. Are you always so analytical, Professor?”

Lev cast a mischievous grin in her direction. “Only when I’m analyzing.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he saw that she was trembling. “I’m sorry, Evita. Would you like to take a break and go topside for some air?”

She looked at him as though he had just tossed an insult at her. “Of course not. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from this right now. I’ll be fine.”

Lev patted her on the shoulder and reached for the satellite phone to call the villa.

Daniel’s sleepy voice answered. “What gives, Professor?”

“Are you seeing all of this?”

“Yes, Dr. Vargas and I have our computers linked.”

“We need to combine the code with all incoming intelligence data, and since you have direct access to the mainframe computer at the villa, you’re in the best position to monitor both. I’m depending on you to be our canary in the coal mine if you spot any threats headed our way.”

“I understand, Professor.”

“Good, and keep an eye out for any new outbreaks of the virus. We’ll be arriving in Monaco within the hour.”

CHAPTER 27

Luxury high-rise apartment buildings overlooked the dazzling harbor of Monte Carlo where, every May, Formula 1 race cars from around the world gathered to chase each other through its fabled streets.

Stepping onto the dock, Alon and John made their way past an Olympic-sized swimming pool to the harbormaster’s office. After making arrangements for fuel, they headed across the famous tree-lined boulevard to a small sidewalk cafe. Within minutes, they were enjoying steaming cups of cafe au lait and buttery croissants, watching a parade of Ferraris and Lamborghinis as they sped past their outdoor table in a blur of color.

Surrounded by elegantly dressed people soaking up the sunshine at the nearby tables, Alon was beginning to feel a little underdressed. “Did Leo mention to you that Sarah disappeared from her hospital room in New York?”

“Only briefly. Do you think she was kidnapped?”

“No one knows. She just disappeared from her room and hasn’t been seen since. There are rumors that she is being kept against her will by government doctors at some secret lab. They must be very curious why she was the only one who became ill and survived. It’s also possible she just got scared and ran away and is hiding somewhere.”

“She would be a very valuable commodity, especially to the researchers trying to find a cure for the virus.”

“Or the people who engineered it in the first place,” Alon countered. “I heard Dr. Diaz say that these outbreaks have been kept small because those who created it are afraid the pathogen could mutate and affect everyone. A mutation could be the reason she survived, so I think they would be very interested in finding her … if they haven’t already.”

“Dr. Diaz seems to know quite a bit about this pathogen.”

“He’s a molecular biologist, John. I think he knows a lot about viruses in general.”

“Yeah … that would make sense, but there’s just something about the guy I can’t tag.”

“He’s kind of a loner, but I’ve met a lot of guys like him in the academic community. They just don’t have the capacity for small talk, but when they say something, you’d better listen.”

“True. I’m also starting to worry about Leo. I can tell that he’s having a hard time dealing with the fact that Sarah’s disappeared. He seems to clam up about things that are really bothering him.”

“I know. His mind has been somewhere else today. I guess the thought of what they might do to her is probably too horrible for him to think about … much less talk about.”

“I wonder how she survived the virus. I mean, that’s really something to think about.”

“I’ll leave that to the scientists to figure out, but there is one thing I can tell you. We’ll be going after her. You can count on that.”

The theme song from Mission Impossible began playing in Alon’s pocket.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” John said. “Your ringtone is the theme from Mission Impossible?”

Alon grinned as he fumbled for his phone. “It’s one of my favorite movies … seems kind of fitting right now.”

Alon answered and listened briefly before shoving the small phone back in his pocket. “We have to go … now. They want us back on the yacht yesterday.”

“What’s up?”

“Alex didn’t say. He just said they wanted us back onboard ASAP.”

Alon tossed some Euros on the table before they both began dodging cars as they raced across the street to the dock. Running toward the yacht, they saw an official-looking vehicle drive away as Lev stood on the bridge and watched. He waved them up before disappearing back inside.

As soon as they arrived on the bridge, they saw the captain on the phone and felt the rumble from the engines below, signaling an imminent departure.

“Where’s Lev?”

Alex jerked his thumb back toward the navigation table around the corner. They could see that Leo and Lev were hastily poring over charts with Moshe. Something was definitely up.

“What’s going on?”

Lev glanced up from his charts. “We’ve been ordered out of the harbor.”

“What?”

“The authorities here in Monaco were pretty tight-lipped in giving us a reason. They said something about being short on fuel and told us to leave.”

“John and I just spoke to the harbormaster. He said they had plenty of fuel.”

“We know. Something’s going on and they don’t want us here. They can do what they want … it’s their harbor, but the Carmela’s never been turned away before … anywhere.”

“What about the pathogen?” Alon asked. “Have there been any reports here locally?”

“Nothing.”

Moshe was twirling one end of his moustache. “It’s possible they believe we’ve come into contact with the virus, but whatever the reason, we’ve touched a nerve somewhere and they want us out of here.”

“This place is a haven for international yachts,” Alon said. “A lot of very powerful people live here … rich people with influence …” Alon’s voice trailed off when he realized the significance of his last statement.

Lev looked up from his charts. “Exactly … rich people with influence, and some of them don’t want us here for some reason.”

“What are we going to do?”

Alex flicked a switch on the console. “We’re leaving.”

“Where to … Israel?”

Lev looked out through the expansive windows at the dazzling harbor of Monte Carlo before answering. “No … we’re going back to Spain.”

CHAPTER 28

Fourteen hours after they had eased away from the dock at Monaco, the Carmela glided into the harbor at El Port De La Selva and dropped anchor.

Below decks, Lev was lowering the yacht’s large stern door down into the water when Moshe came running down into the aft compartment, waving a sheet of paper.

“The pathogen!”

Lev froze. Moshe looked frightened. Moshe never looked frightened … about anything.

“It’s a bulletin from the World Health Organization. The virus … it’s popping up all over the world! All commercial aircraft have now been permanently grounded, and every seaport in the world has suspended their shipping operations. The world is shutting down.”

Lev lit a cigar and watched the smoke drift out over the water. “I’ve had a feeling all along that this was coming. Call Daniel at the villa and tell him to have the staff seal all the entrances and double security … and lock down the boat. Don’t let anyone go ashore.”

“What about the Spanish scientists?”

“They can go if they want, but they have to understand that if they decide to go they won’t be allowed back onboard.”

“I’ll tell them.”

The two men crossed the compartment’s aluminum grating and climbed the stairs to the main deck. “Where is everyone?” Lev asked.

“I believe they’re all gathering in the command center.”

A sudden, ear-splitting blast from a siren startled both men as a patrol boat from the Spanish Navy motored up next to the yacht. Standing on the bow, they saw a white-uniformed officer holding a megaphone in his hand as he braced himself against a large deck-mounted gun.

“Ahoy there on the Carmela.” The Spanish naval officer waved and tried to remain upright on the rolling deck of his boat. “We’ve been ordered to inform all boats in the harbor that they are now under quarantine. You may anchor here, but no one will be allowed to come ashore. There will be no exceptions. Anyone trying to land on Spanish soil will be arrested and sent to a quarantine camp. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, but these are emergency measures and will be strictly enforced. Spain’s borders are now closed until further notice.”

The young officer managed an apologetic smile before the patrol boat turned and sped away toward a large ship entering the harbor.

“This kind of changes things,” Moshe said.

Lev puffed on his cigar as he watched the navy boat grow smaller in the distance. “Yes, it does.”

The two men looked at one another-two old warriors who had seen combat together more times than they could remember. Lev calmly snuffed out his cigar before both men trudged up to the command center. Once inside, they immediately spotted the small red dots lighting up all over the large, multi-colored electronic map of the world above their heads.

“I assume those dots indicate the spread of the pathogen?” Lev said.

Holding a phone in each hand, the female communications officer looked back over her shoulder. “Yes, sir. The computer is automatically updating the display as we receive new information. I have the Vatican on line one and the command center at the villa is on the sat phone. I could use a little help here.” She shoved the ship-to-shore radio phone into Lev’s hand.

“Hello …”

“Lev … is that you?” It was the voice of Bishop Morelli.

“Yes, Anthony. What’s happening in Rome?”

“Nothing right now. We think that Rome and the parts of Italy that have already been hit by the pathogen are probably safe from this new outbreak, but we’re not taking any chances. People have been told to remain in their homes for now.”

“Has there been even a hint about where this virus is coming from or how it targets its victims?”

“Nothing. It’s like a gigantic black hole. The pope’s been in contact with scientists from all over the world, and they’re totally stumped.”

“The way this thing is behaving, it’s got to be DNA based,” Lev said.

“Have the Spanish scientists come up with anything new?”

“For now we’re all staying with the DNA angle while we look for a source. So far, it looks like both our immunity and our vulnerability to the pathogen are somehow linked to our genes.”

“Sounds like a workable hypothesis, Professor, but if it is DNA based there doesn’t appear to be any commonality to the way it’s spreading. It’s crossing all ethnic lines equally.”

“We’re starting to lose our satellite connection, Anthony. We’ll stay in contact and let you know how things are progressing. I’ll call you back later today. Take care, old friend.”

Lev pushed the off button and looked around the command center. “We’ve got to get off this boat.”

Alon stopped what he was doing and stared at him with his mouth hanging open. What was he thinking? “I hate to state the obvious, Professor, but this is probably one of the safest places in the world to be right now.”

Ariella nodded her head. “Alon’s right, Daddy. Besides, the Spanish authorities won’t let us go ashore.”

Lev held up his hands in the face of the rising protests. “Everyone, just hear me out. No one knows how long this will go on. Our ability to remain mobile and independent is determined by the amount of fuel we carry, and due to the fact that we were unable to refuel the yacht in Monaco or here in Spain, we don’t have enough diesel fuel left to return to Israel. Also, because of the quarantine, we can’t resupply the vessel with fresh food or water here, so at best we only have a few weeks of supplies left before we run out.”

The room grew quiet with the realization that Lev was right. They were prevented from going ashore or returning home, and soon, they would be on a floating steel island with no food or water.

“What about Italy?” Leo asked. “I’ll notify …”

A buzz indicating an incoming call on the secure line prompted Lev to reach for the red phone on the console. After listening briefly to the caller, he replaced the receiver and looked around the room.

“I believe the question of where we must go has just been answered. I’ve just received word from Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv that Sarah is in France … at Acerbi’s Chateau in the Loire Valley.”

Without being asked, the communications officer brought a map of France up on the main screen.

“Are you sure she’s there?” Leo asked.

“Yes. My contact in Israeli intelligence wouldn’t divulge his source, but he assured me the information is solid. He said Sarah was flown to France on a private jet leased by a dummy corporation belonging to an attorney who works for Acerbi. Evidently, this guy Acerbi has several fictitious shell companies spread around the world to cover his tracks.”

“Just where in France are we headed?”

“Do you remember that compound I told you about earlier … the one in the French countryside near Carcassonne?”

“The hippies?”

Lev smiled. “They just look like hippies. It’s about two-hundred miles south of the Loire Valley. It will make a perfect staging area for a rescue attempt.”

“We still have to take into account the fact that the French authorities have also closed their borders, and that we’ll be faced with the same greeting we received here, or worse.”

“There are ways around these things.”

“Even so, I don’t think a survivalist-minded group of people who’ve taken the time to build a self-sufficient compound will be too excited about letting a bunch of strangers just walk onto their farm and potentially expose all of them to a lethal pathogen.”

Lev’s eyes telegraphed the fact that he had already formed a plan in his mind. “I guess I forgot to mention something to you about the compound in France … I own it.”

Leo was becoming exasperated by Lev Wasserman’s tendency to reveal things at the last moment. He had to keep reminding himself that Lev had spent a large portion of his life working with the Israeli intelligence community, so it was natural that he would tend to withhold operational details of things he was planning until the last minute.

“Go ahead, Lev. Let’s hear the rest of it.”

“That land once belonged to my family before they were uprooted by the Holocaust. After the war, my mother and father fled to Palestine to build a new life for themselves in Israel. Before he died, I promised my father that I would buy the land back one day and rebuild the farm for future generations of our family. A few years ago the opportunity presented itself, so I purchased the property and brought the old farm back to life, but I also had another motive. We needed another home base like the one we have in Israel in case things got out of hand in the Middle East.”

“Amazing. You guys always seem to have a backup plan.”

“Unfortunately, Cardinal, we are a people surrounded by enemies, and the need for defensive planning has become intertwined with our whole way of life. Now that the jihadists have decided to export their hatred to the rest of the world, people everywhere will be forced to start thinking the way we do in Israel.”

“That’s a good point. I really hadn’t thought of it like that, but it’s true. The terrorists are forcing the rest of us to change the way we live.”

“Yeah … a few crazies have made the world a different place, but they’re only sowing the seeds of their own destruction. I have several close Muslim friends, and their community is growing weary of the radicals within their midst. There are rumblings that many are preparing to clean their own houses. I hope they succeed, because if they don’t, I fear a lot of innocent people will die in a bloodletting the likes of which mankind has never seen before.”

Lev grew silent as his eyes took on a vacant look, as though an unseen vision was playing in his head. It was a look Leo had seen before … in the Negev desert.

“Lev.”

The professor’s mind slowly returned from wherever it had taken him. “Oh … what were we talking about … the farm … yes, of course. I make visits there on a regular basis. There’s plenty of room for all of us, and as far as food is concerned, they have enough to last for years.”

“Sounds perfect, but we still have to get there.”

“We’re leaving tonight, Leo. After we clear the harbor, we’ll make a short run and drop anchor off the southern coast of France before the sun comes up. We’ll have to use the helicopter to ferry people ashore.”

“But the chopper holds only three passengers. Why not use the speedboats?”

“Because the compound is located several miles inland and we don’t have the means to travel overland. Nava will be forced to make several trips flying in total darkness under French radar, but she’s a good pilot, and if everything goes according to plan the French authorities won’t even know there’s a foreign yacht in the area until we’re all safely inside the compound.”

“Then what?” Leo asked.

Lev looked up at the multi-colored display on the large screen above their heads.

“We make a plan.”

CHAPTER 29

A nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach told Sarah Adams that something was wrong. The chateau and the grounds surrounding it were beautiful, the food was fantastic, and the staff seemed friendly enough, but for some reason she felt more like a prisoner.

Rene Acerbi had left on an overnight trip for a meeting at the World Health Organization, but before he left, he had warned Sarah not to try to contact her family back in Texas for fear that the CDC would find out where she was and send the French authorities after her.

“It’s for your own good,” he had said. “For now, this is your home. You don’t want to end up being a guinea pig for their experiments, do you?”

If there was one thing Sarah Adams knew for sure, it was the fact that she never wanted to go back to being isolated in a tiny hospital room, probed by government doctors. God only knew what they had in store for her. At least here at the chateau, she was free to roam the grounds, although the man with the dog was always close behind, following at a distance for her protection.

Sarah bounced down the stairs and exited through the chateau’s grand entrance. A grizzled old gardener glanced up from pruning the nearby shrubs and smiled at her as he wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. “Good morning, Miss Adams. Beautiful day for a walk.”

“Yes, it is. I think I’ll go around back and check out the woods today. I’m getting bored with the scenery in front of the chateau.”

The gardener looked nervously at the man with the dog standing next to the entrance. “I wouldn’t do that, Miss. Those woods are full of wild bees. They’re very aggressive, especially if you stumble onto one of their nests.”

“I’ll be fine. My grandparents used to raise bees.”

“These bees are different, Miss.” The gardener saw the man with the dog glaring in his direction. “Please, Miss, we’re not allowed to let anyone go back there. Mr. Acerbi would be very angry with me if anything happened to you.”

“Oh, Alright. I wouldn’t want anyone to get in trouble because of me.”

“Thank you, Miss. Why don’t you go for a swim in the pool? We just filled it for the summer and the water is nice and warm now.”

Sarah paused. “That actually sounds like a good idea, except I don’t have a bathing suit with me.”

“The chateau keeps a large stock of clothing for visitors, including swim suits of all sizes. Try the laundry. It’s down a long hallway that runs from the kitchen to the east wing. Ask for Martha … she’ll find something in your size.”

“Thank you … I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Fredrick, Miss. You can call me Fredrick. Enjoy your swim.”

The man turned and resumed his pruning of the sculptured topiary that lined the circular driveway in front of the chateau.

Sarah bounded back up the steps and through the front doors before making her way around the immense staircase to the kitchen. Peering inside, she saw large copper pans hanging over a row of black and silver ovens, and an entire team of chefs were bustling around, prepping the noon-time meal.

They must be cooking for all the guests that have arrived here over the past few days, Sarah told herself. She had tried to make small talk with a few of the new arrivals that seemed approachable, but they had usually excused themselves and hurried off into another part of the chateau. Even her one attempt to explore the chateau had met with resistance when she approached the stairway to the third floor and was stopped by the man with the dog and told it was closed for renovations.

Walking through the kitchen, Sarah came to an open doorway that led to the long, white-tiled hallway the gardener had told her about. No one seemed to be paying any attention to her as she walked past a flurry of servants in their crisp uniforms, coming and going through the back service entrance.

She tried a door to her right. It was locked. She crossed the hall and tried another door. Also locked. Since there were no signs, there was nothing to indicate where all these doors led to, and now it seemed that all the servants she had seen running around earlier had suddenly disappeared. Where was the laundry?

Sarah was almost to the end of the hallway when a door opened. A woman holding a tray of metal instruments stopped and looked at her for a moment before walking by without speaking. As the woman passed, Sarah reached out and caught the door before it closed. Stepping inside, she closed the door behind her and flicked on the light switch. She was standing in a green-tiled room with a huge metal light fixture suspended above a narrow stainless-steel table in the center of the space. Behind a glass wall, she could see three, waist-high metal sinks lined in a row, and off to her left was a wall filled with glass cabinets containing the same kind of metal instruments she had seen the woman carrying. Sarah inched closer to the wall and peered inside the cabinets. On closer inspection, she saw that the instruments seemed very specialized, and some were obviously designed for cutting. Surgical instruments? This was definitely not the laundry.

Sarah backed away and stared at the room. Her breath began to come in short, shallow gasps. She was standing in the middle of an operating room! Why did the chateau have an operating room? Her mind began to run back over the events of the past several weeks. Think! Why would someone rescue her from an isolated hospital room, only to keep her isolated in a remote French chateau? This Acerbi guy had told her that one of his companies was a pharmaceutical company. He wanted her here for a reason!

Sarah felt the room sway. She should have realized something was wrong the minute they refused to let her call home. I’m still a guinea pig! Tears of rage and fear welled up and streamed down her face. She had to get out. She had to get out now!

Moving along the wall, Sarah reached into one of the glass cabinets and pulled out a scalpel. She wasn’t going without a fight. Had anyone seen her come in here? Were they already on their way? Were they standing outside the door? Her hands began to tremble as she reached for the door handle and jerked it open.

No one was there. She poked her head into the hallway. It was empty. So far so good. Sarah palmed the scalpel and stepped out into the hall. Walking quickly, she began putting as much distance between herself and the operating room as possible before anyone else came along. When she reached the far end of the hall, she could feel the increasing humidity in the air as she entered the area she had originally been looking for-the laundry.

A stout Germanic-looking woman with her hair tied in a tight blonde bun looked up from a table stacked high with linen. Looking around, she quickly motioned for Sarah to move closer. “Are you Miss Adams?”

“Yes.” Sarah eyed the woman suspiciously as her grip on the scalpel tightened.

“I’m Martha. Fredrick called me … he’s my husband. We keep all the bathing suits in that room over there.” Martha pointed to an open door that led to a tiny side room. Sarah saw that it had a window that overlooked the pool.

Martha fixed Sarah with a steady gaze and winked. “There’s usually no one in back of the chateau at this time of day.”

“Uh, Ok … thank you, Martha.”

Just then they heard men’s voices in the hallway outside.

“Security men,” Martha said. “They’re probably down here looking for whoever triggered the alarm to one of their secret little rooms.”

“Secret rooms?”

“Yep. They have cameras too.” Martha winked again. “Let’s just say you don’t have time for a swim.”

Sarah froze. Why was this woman helping her? The time for questions had passed. She had to act. “If anyone tries to open the door to that room, will you please tell them I’m changing into a swim suit?”

“Lock the door. You need to hurry. As soon as you get through the window head for the woods … and keep going. Head south.”

“Thanks, Martha.” It was obvious now that Sarah had no choice but to trust this woman and do what she said.

“Please, Miss … go … now!” Martha quickly crossed the room and closed the main door to the laundry. “I can only stall them so long.”

Without answering, Sarah fled into the tiny side room and locked the door behind her. Unlatching the window, she pushed, but nothing happened. Was it locked from the outside? Looking closer, it was obvious from the layers of white paint that had built up over time that the window had not been opened for years. Taking the scalpel, she began slicing through the layers of paint along the bottom edge before pushing up on it once again. The window still refused to budge. She heard men’s voices outside the door as she franticly sliced at the dried paint along the edges of the window frame and pushed again. Slowly, the window began to inch open, but just barely.

The doorknob began to turn. So much for Martha stalling them. She pushed again with all of her strength until finally she had the window open just enough for her to squeeze through.

A knock on the door. A man’s voice. “Miss Adams, could you please come out here for a moment? We’d like to have a word with you.”

“Just a moment, please. I’m changing clothes.” Without hesitating, Sarah lifted herself up and squeezed her body through the half-open window. Landing in a flower bed next to the pool, she crouched down behind some bushes and looked around. Surrounding the pool, she saw a short iron fence topped with pointed spikes, and in the distance, across a football-sized field, she could see the thick woods the gardener had warned her about.

She began to run. She ran as fast as she could until she reached the short fence. Looking around, she climbed on top of a lounge chair and threw herself over the fence, barely clearing the iron spikes. Landing on her feet, she kept running across the open field toward the thick woods. To hell with the bees, she thought. I can handle bees!

Sarah heard the unmistakable bark of a large dog. It wasn’t close, but it wasn’t very far away either. Afraid of what she might see, she didn’t look back as she thrust herself into the woods and ran for her life. Pushing against low branches, she let them snap back into place behind her as she ran. The underbrush was growing thicker. It was as if the trees themselves were trying to grab her, wanting to hold her back as she tried to run.

Sarah heard the bark of the dog again. Was it closer this time? She heard voices, then shouts. “There she is!” she heard a voice call out.

Blood was now running from several small cuts on both arms as she continued to struggle through underbrush that was growing thicker. There must be another way!

With a final lunge, Sarah pushed as hard as she could and fell forward into a pile of leaves. She blinked as she sat up and looked around. She was lying in the open next to a paved road that ran through the middle of the woods. A road! Lifting herself up, she began to run. She stayed next to the road and began to run faster in an effort to make it around a bend ahead. The men chasing her had to be close, and she didn’t want them to catch sight of her.

Then she heard it. The unmistakable sound of a car approaching from behind. She didn’t look back as she kept running. Oh God, it was right behind her-it was keeping pace.

Exhausted, confused, and bloody from the scrapes on her face and arms, Sarah slowed and finally stopped. She eyed the thick woods off to her left and sighed before she turned around and saw a dilapidated old truck idling on the road behind her. Sarah breathed in deeply and remained motionless. The rusty truck’s gears ground as the driver shifted into drive and drove up beside her. Peering inside, she saw the old gardener behind the wheel, and Martha was sitting beside him.

“Get in Sarah!” Martha shouted. “We don’t have much time!”

CHAPTER 30

It was well after midnight when the Carmela dropped anchor in the deep blue water off the coast of France near the mouth of the fast-flowing Aude River. As Lev and the captain had predicted, their departure from the Spanish harbor after dark had been uneventful. Short on manpower and tasked mainly with stopping new arrivals, the Spanish Navy had decided not to concern themselves with boats trying to leave, thus allowing the Carmela to slip past the harbor entrance without interference.

Down in the yacht’s grand salon, almost everyone onboard was watching CNN via satellite. All across the globe, in every city, town, and village, people had gathered around their televisions to watch the latest news on the spread of the pathogen and the efforts to bring the epidemic to a halt. They sat in their homes and waited, because in truth, there was nothing else they could do. Their fate was out of their hands, and those who believed in God were praying for deliverance.

In the United States, where millions had already succumbed to the virus, the President was in the Oval Office preparing to address the nation. He was sitting behind the familiar Resolution Desk, the same desk used by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II-the same desk used by Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis-and as the President looked down at its polished but nicked surface, he was struck by the fact that the word resolution had been an appropriate moniker for a desk used by the leader of the free world. So, it was with a sense of resolution that the President now faced a row of cameras, waiting for his cue to begin speaking.

In small towns across the country, people had come together to form little islands of safety across a land filled with terror. In these areas, the rule of law had prevailed, and people shared and sacrificed for the sake of their neighbors. In other areas, mostly urban, panic and lawlessness had begun to rule the streets as the people fought for food and supplies while trying to protect their families from marauding bands of thugs who crawled from their dens to take advantage of the grim situation. Waiting for the President to speak, people from coast to coast gathered behind locked doors, hoping against hope that he was about to announce the crisis was nearing an end and that life would soon return to normal.

When at last the gray-haired image of the President appeared, he looked tired and defeated. Peering into the camera with a blank expression, he began to speak in a halting monotone.

Good evening. Tonight … as I speak to each and every one of you … it is with great sorrow. As many of you undoubtedly already know, a deadly virus is now spreading across our nation. Because of the sheer number of victims, our ability to ensure that you receive the best medical care, along with other basic services such as food, power, and clean drinking water, has been greatly diminished by the enormity of a crisis that no one could have imagined.

Many experts, both at the Centers for Disease Control and at many of our finest medical institutions, believe that, for the most part, the virus has run its course. For the past several hours, reports of new cases have begun to dwindle, but the cost in human lives and suffering has been staggering in its magnitude.

America is not the only country experiencing this plague against mankind. It has circled the globe and has affected almost every country on earth. Nowhere in the world is safe from this disease. For years now, we have feared that the day would come when a deadly epidemic like this would suddenly appear, leaving millions of victims in its path. Tonight, I am deeply saddened to announce that day has arrived.

Over the next twenty-four hours, I will be meeting with other world leaders to discuss our options for the future in the wake of this terrible assault against humanity. Something must be done to prevent something like this from ever happening again, and it is to that end that the world must come together as a single unified force for the survival of our species. For now, I can assure you that your government is doing everything in its power to bring aid and comfort to those in need. Please, for everyone’s sake, try to remain in your homes, and above all, let calm and reason dictate your actions. Thank you, goodnight, and may God bless America.

Onboard the Carmela, those going ashore turned away from their TV screens and began making preparations. Some of them had mixed emotions about leaving the yacht. For many, it was their home, a place of safety away from a world in turmoil. A few still believed that going ashore was foolhardy, while others saw the wisdom of it in the face of dwindling supplies.

Standing on the top deck next to the helicopter, Leo and Moshe felt the stiffening breeze on their faces as they looked out at the lights along the French coast.

“Beautiful night, isn’t it, Cardinal?”

“Yes. Everything looks so normal from here. Have we been able to communicate with the farm?”

“The compound has a state-of-the-art command center modeled after the new Mossad communications facility in Tel Aviv. They can talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. We can even monitor images in real time anywhere in the world using satellites that belong to other countries.”

“Isn’t that kind of like a government thing?” Leo asked. “I mean, what do the French have to say about having a facility like that in their country?”

“They don’t know about it. The fact that we possess that kind of technology is a closely guarded secret. For the past several years, red tape and government permits have delayed the open export of new military technology from other countries to Israel … probably to appease the Mid-East peace process.”

“I guess it goes without saying that your intelligence community had a hand in some of this.”

“They did,” Moshe winked. “They play a large role in acquiring the technology we need to survive as a nation, and to that end they installed the equipment we’re using at the farm in France. Our government needed another surveillance base in Europe, just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“Just in case,” Moshe smiled. “You said it yourself, Cardinal. We always have a back-up plan for everything.”

“Why are you telling me all of this, Moshe?”

“Because, Cardinal, you are a part of us now. We’re like one big family, and we have to trust one another. The Spanish scientists who have recently joined us are a different story. They have yet to prove themselves, so for now we all have to be in agreement before we share anything of a sensitive nature with them.”

“What about the people at the compound in France?” Leo asked.

“Most are all sayanim … volunteer non-Israeli Jews and Christians who provide logistical support around the world to the State of Israel. The farm leaders are all former Israeli katsas. All those at the compound have proven themselves to be trustworthy, as have you. You are part of an inner circle now, and as such, you must be constantly on guard in your discussions with others.”

Leo watched Moshe’s lime green fly fishing shirt billowing in the wind. The former IDF general and Mossad field agent, or katsa, as they were called, was usually a man of few words. Leo had no doubt that this discussion was not the result of a chance encounter on the top deck, but a focused warning about just how much information the Israelis wanted to share with outsiders.

Message received, Leo thought to himself as he looked back out toward the coastal lights.

“I’ll be careful what I discuss with outsiders in the future, Moshe.”

Moshe laid his hand on Leo’s shoulder. “No harm, no foul, Cardinal. But even though we already knew the Spanish scientists were aware that the virus was manmade, we still don’t know exactly how they found out about it. We need their help in the fight against this plague, and so far there’s no reason to believe they are not what they appear to be, so please feel free to discuss any scientific information about the pathogen with them unless we specify otherwise. As far as our operational capability, that must remain our secret unless we decide they have a need to know for some reason.”

Lev ambled up to the two men and pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket. Holding his hand to block the wind, he lit it with a match and gazed out at the dark sea as the bluish smoke whipped away in the breeze. “The wind is beginning to pick up. We need to launch the chopper and get the first group ashore as soon as possible.”

“How many people are going ashore?” Leo asked.

“All of the Bible Code Team, along with the Spanish scientists, plus some of the security and communications people here on the Carmela. Alex and the rest of the crew will remain onboard. We can resupply them from shore if need be, and they have the two speedboats if they have to make a quick run to shore for some reason.”

“We need to call Nava,” Moshe said, running a hand over his shaved head. “I’m sending Alon in first with John and Ariella. You two will be on the second flight with Dr. Mendoza, followed by Evita and Dr. Diaz. I’ll be on the last flight after some of the others have been ferried ashore. I figure Nava will be making at least seven flights tonight.”

In the bluish glow of the moonlight above, they saw Nava walking toward them dressed in her flight suit and holding a pair of night vision goggles in one hand and her helmet in the other. She tilted her head and sniffed at the breeze.

“The wind’s picking up.”

Lev smiled down at her with the cigar clenched in his teeth. “We know. We were just getting ready to call you.”

CHAPTER 31

In the greenish glow of her night vision goggles, Nava viewed the rising curves of the surrounding hills as she guided the small chopper toward the farm. Below, she could see the rushing water of the Aude River descending from the Pyrenees into a rugged gorge before entering the rolling French countryside where it slowed on its way to the sea. The river’s cool water was the lifeblood of the valley. It provided the much-needed irrigation for the lush fields, while at the same time it gave the workers who lived along its banks a place to escape the sun’s heat on those long summer afternoons when work became impossible.

Spotting a large hill rising from the fields, Nava circled to land without the benefit of landing lights. A recent rain had moistened the ground, thus keeping the swirling dust at bay as the helicopter touched down in the center of the compound.

The rotors were still turning when a thin man dressed in an olive-drab shirt and matching shorts approached the chopper. Opening one of the rear doors, he had to shout to be heard above the whine of the chopper’s turbines. “Lev … I’m glad to see you made it here safely!”

Lev jumped out and embraced an older man who looked like he hadn’t eaten a good meal in years. “Ephraim, my old friend. How are you?”

“Good … good. And this must be the famous Cardinal Leopold Amodeo.”

“Yes. Leo … I want you to meet one of my dearest friends, Ephraim Amit. Ephraim runs the farm here. He used to oversee the vineyards at the villa before we purchased this property. Now he swears his wine is better than ours at the villa.” Lev leaned close to Leo and spoke in a loud whisper. “He’s becoming a snob about his vineyard.”

“I heard that,” Ephraim said. “It’s the soil around here … you’ll see. Don’t listen to this old Israeli, Cardinal. One taste of my wine and you’ll be sold. I’ll send a case to the Vatican. I hear the pope’s been drinking California wine lately.”

Leo began laughing for the first time in days. “Do you people know everything?”

“Not everything,” Ephraim chuckled. “Come on, Cardinal. You’ll all be staying in the big house. I’ll show you the way.”

The men began heading across the gravelly surface of the compound as the sound of the helicopter’s engines increased in the background. Nava still had several more flights to make.

Looking past a large garden, they spotted a barn and several small houses scattered beneath the trees around the perimeter. Ephraim motioned them forward along a rocky path that wound up a steep, curving incline. Small rocks crunched beneath their feet until Leo finally spotted the dark shape of an immense stone structure at the top of the hill as they continued up the path in the bright moonlight.

Ephraim looked back over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Cardinal, we’re not having a power failure. The main house is blacked out so as not to draw attention to our location. This hill overlooks the entire valley, and any light from here can be seen from miles away. We’ve been hearing stories of small bands of criminals taking advantage of the plague to raid homes. Mostly they just take food … it’s the most valuable commodity right now, but there have been reports of more serious incidents. A farmer and his wife were found shot a few miles from here and their two teenage daughters are still missing. Everyone is hoping they’re hiding somewhere.”

“What about your perimeter defenses?” Leo asked.

“You talk more like a soldier than a man of the cloth, Cardinal,” Ephraim grinned. “Mostly, we have listening devices and old-fashioned tripwires along the perimeter, but we also have manned outposts scattered around the property equipped with forward-looking infrared radar linked to laser-guided weaponry. No one comes on this compound without us knowing about it, and if they do, well …”

As soon as they reached the top of the hill, the group followed Ephraim up some wide steps that led to a terrace fronting a stone structure that loomed five stories above their heads. Stopping to catch their breath, they looked out over the moon-lit fields below. The light from the moon, combined with the green of the valley, made the water of the Aude River appear blue as it wound its way along the periphery of the property.

In the valley below, Mendoza noticed several clusters of twinkling lights in the distance. “Shouldn’t those people be keeping a low profile too?”

“Those are police outposts,” Ephraim explained. “They want people to be able to find them.”

The creaking sound of old hinges caused Leo to turn as a pair of tall wooden doors opened behind them. Standing in the towering doorway, Leo spotted John and Ariella framed in the haze of the faint yellow light that was streaming out from behind them.

“You should see this place, Leo,” John said. “It’s an old castle.”

Ephraim hurried forward. “Come, Gentlemen. We need to get inside and close this door. Like I said, we don’t want to announce our presence. There are eyes all around looking for signs of life, and the light from that open door is like a beacon to anyone watching.”

Walking inside, Leo stared up at the thick wooden timbers supporting a roof three stories above their heads.

“How old is this place, Lev?”

“The original structure was probably built during the dark ages, but we’ve discovered evidence of some additional construction that was probably done during medieval times before gunpowder made castles like this one obsolete. It was pretty much a ruin when we started rebuilding it several years ago. Most of the walls are four feet thick in places. That’s probably the reason they were still standing after all these years.”

Looking around, Leo marveled at the exacting stonework that made up the immense entrance hall. A thousand years before, men who had lived in a completely different world had quarried the huge blocks of stone and somehow transported them up to the top of this steep hill just so that they could wall themselves off from other men. Things really hadn’t changed all that much.

Above their heads, they could see a row of multi-colored flags hanging between the timbered ceiling and a long, open gallery lined with stone pillars. To their left, an intricately carved archway led to a narrow staircase that wound its way up to the gallery, and to their right, they saw a mammoth dark hallway leading off into the rest of the castle. It was classic medieval architecture. Every angle had been planned well in advance to give the castle’s defenders every advantage over any attackers who made it past the front entrance.

Ephraim motioned the group toward the narrow staircase to their left. “Your rooms are upstairs. It looks like you could all use some sleep.”

“I need to stay awake until everyone makes it here safely,” Lev said.

Ephraim yawned as he removed his round, wire-framed glasses and ran a hand through thinning gray hair that ended in a ponytail. “I had a feeling you might say that. We’ll clear a space in the barn tomorrow so we can park the helicopter out of sight. We’ll have a real fight on our hands if one of those roving bands of thugs discover we have a chopper. We’re going to need it in the days ahead.”

“Sounds like you already know why we’re here,” Leo said, casting a sideways glance at Lev.

Ephraim winked. “That I do, Cardinal … that I do.”

CHAPTER 32

The castle’s thick walls had prevented Leo from hearing the chopper come and go throughout the night. He had slept soundly without waking, which was unusual, especially when he travelled.

After lying still for a moment, he slipped over the edge of an ornate canopy bed and walked across the stone floor to a tall window. Tossing open a pair of blue shutters, he blinked in the bright sunlight and squinted out at the stunningly beautiful river valley below. Sunflowers were everywhere, with trees planted in perfectly straight rows separating rolling vineyards from fields planted with everything from lavender to fruit trees to vegetables. Beyond the agricultural patchwork, he caught shimmering glimpses of rushing water through the thick foliage, announcing the presence of a river that wound its way toward tall limestone cliffs in the distance.

Turning away from the window, Leo noticed that, except for his bed and a red Persian carpet in front of a gigantic fireplace, the decor was rather sparse. After a year spent in the gilded atmosphere of the Vatican, he actually found the simplicity of the space refreshing. Grabbing his shaving kit, he headed for the shower and waited for the water temperature to rise to a level just below scalding, but it was not to be, for hot water in the castle had been temporarily turned off for repairs to the system. Damn. Leo hated cold showers.

Taking a deep breath, he immersed himself just long enough to lather up, then braced for a quick rinse before stepping out on the equally cold stone floor and reaching for a towel that wasn’t there. Shivering, he skipped the shave and ran into the bedroom where he dried off with a bed sheet before dressing in a black polo shirt and white shorts. All he could think about at that moment was hot coffee as he opened the door to his room and ran straight into Evita Vargas.

“Good morning, Cardinal.”

Leo took a step back. “Excuse me, Dr. Vargas. I didn’t see you. Are you on your way down to breakfast?”

“No, actually I was waiting for you.” She eyed his wet hair and bare feet. “Do you need a towel?”

“They forgot to put one in my bathroom. How long have you been waiting for me?”

“Only a few minutes … and please, call me Evita.” She looked up and down the hall. “Can I have a word with you … alone?”

Leo’s green eyes flashed instinctively for a fraction of a second. “Why, of course. Where would you like to talk?”

“Your room.”

“My room?”

“Come now, Cardinal,” Evita smiled as she studied his reaction. “My intentions are strictly honorable. Besides, you forgot your shoes.”

Leo tried to adopt a neutral expression, but his eyes had already given him away.

So, this man, this Prince of the Church, had normal desires like any other man.

Evita folded her arms across her chest. “Of course, we could walk outside if you prefer.”

“Uh, yes … let me get my shoes.” Leo darted back inside his room and quickly returned wearing a worn pair of leather boat shoes he had stuffed into his bag before he left the yacht. “I could really use a cup of coffee right now.”

“I noticed that they were serving breakfast on the terrace when I was down there earlier,” Evita said. “We could grab some coffee and walk down to the river together … if that’s ok with you?”

“Sounds good. Lead the way.”

Together they circled down the stone staircase and out onto the terrace, where Lev and the others were sitting at small umbrella-covered tables, drinking coffee and enjoying some freshly baked croissants.

Lev motioned them over to his table. “Good morning Leo … Doctor Vargas … beautiful day. I trust you are both well rested, because we have a lot to discuss.”

“We were thinking of grabbing some coffee and taking a walk down to the river first,” Leo said. “Why don’t we join you in a few minutes?”

“I’ll let the security people know you two are out on the property, but I need you both back here in thirty minutes.” Lev’s expression took on the look of a stern schoolmaster who had just caught two of his prized students playing hooky. “There’s a nice little grassy spot along the bank under the trees where you can sit and drink your coffee. It’s at the end of the path that leads through the vineyard. Don’t wander off the path or you’ll set off our motion detectors.”

Evita began laughing as she bounded down the steps of the terrace. “I’ll try not to set off any motion detectors with the cardinal.”

Lev almost choked on his coffee.

“You’re bad,” Leo said, trying to keep the others from seeing him grin while he grabbed a cup of coffee and followed her down the steps. He was beginning to enjoy this woman’s quick wit.

“Sorry, Cardinal. I just can’t help myself sometimes. Men are just too easy. Come on, I’ll try to behave myself the rest of the morning.”

The two wound their way along the path through the vineyard until they reached the river. With the temperature already approaching the high eighties, they sat on the bank under an overhanging willow tree and took off their shoes so they could dangle their feet in the water.

“So, Evita, what’s on your mind?”

“I apologize for teasing you, Cardinal, especially since we don’t know each other all that well. It’s just that I’ve noticed you seem to have a good sense of humor and you remind me of someone I once knew. I guess I feel comfortable around you.”

“Good, then you can stop calling me cardinal. My friends call me Leo.” He sipped the last of his coffee before leaning back on the grass and propping himself up on his elbows. “Actually, I wish more people would just be themselves around me. People naturally tend to be stiff and formal when they see the red skull cap.”

Evita smiled. “I can see that would be a problem for you. You’re definitely a social creature. It seems almost cruel for you to be so isolated from everyday people.”

“I still get out and about, but it’s not the same nowadays. I sometimes fantasize about getting away for a while to a place where no one knows who I am.”

“Maybe I can help you with that.” Evita smiled and tossed her hair back over her shoulders. “Oh great, I’ve done it again. Sorry. Anyway, I know we have a busy day ahead, so I’ll get right to the point of why I wanted to speak with you alone. I didn’t mean to appear so mysterious. Frankly, the explanation is so juvenile that it’s really kind of embarrassing for me to even bring it up.”

“I’ve probably heard just about everything in the confessional. What’s on your mind? Something personal?”

“No, nothing like that … nothing personal. It’s just that I wanted to discuss some of my theories with you, and I don’t like talking about them in front of Dr. Diaz.”

“Dr. Diaz? Why not?”

“Well, even though I consider him a friend as well as a colleague, he’s still a chauvinistic stuffed-shirt. I know he can’t help himself … it’s just his personality, but he mocks every theory I put out there. Scientists are supposed to feel free when throwing their ideas out there. It’s how we operate … very much like free association. Evidently, he didn’t get the memo that there’s an unwritten law in the scientific community that you don’t marginalize someone else’s ideas, no matter how ridiculous they may sound. It only stifles debate and keeps ideas from flowing.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I noticed his attitude earlier on the yacht. From what I hear, he’s a very bright individual, but he’s also defensive, and some of his remarks have a caustic edge to them. I see this kind of attitude all the time in academia, because you’re dealing with some pretty big egos. Just remember, the desire to elevate one’s self at the expense of another is the mark of an insecure personality, so just consider the source and keep firing away with your theories. From what I’ve seen of you, you’re not kind of person who can be bullied easily.”

“You’re right, I don’t bully easily. I’m the oldest of seven children, so I’ve pretty much taken on the defender role in life. However, I find that opposition for opposition’s sake is exhausting and counterproductive, especially when we have so little time to get to the bottom of something this important. I mean, hello … we’re trying to save lives here. I just wanted some time alone with you to run over some ideas later today.”

“I’m flattered by your vote of confidence, Evita, but I’m not a scientist. There are others here much more knowledgeable when it comes to talking about things like genetic markers and DNA.”

“I’ve been watching you, Leo.” Evita leaned back and gazed up at the cloudless sky through the canopy of leaves above their heads. “You have a scholar’s mind. You absorb information from every source available and knead it into a single hypothesis that makes the most sense to you. Then, and only then, you present your case. You remind me of one of those analysts who work in high-level academic or government think tanks. Yours is a very unique talent, Leo, and from now on, if you don’t mind, I’d like to run my ideas past you first before presenting them to the group in an open forum.”

“Of course … I don’t see any harm in that. I just hope you’re not wasting your time.”

Evita pushed a strand of hair away from her face and fixed Leo with a steady gaze. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Cardinal, but any time I spend with you is definitely not a waste of time.”

Leo’s eyes narrowed. This woman was definitely coming on to him. She reminded him of an Olympic fencer. Parry and thrust, advance and retreat. Why her? Why now? In the secular world, she would have been a perfect match for him. Beautiful and smart, she was serious about her work, yet playful at times. If only-.

Leo listened to the sound of the river for a moment before slowly rising to his feet. “I think we should join the others. I have a feeling we’re in for a long day.”

Evita stood beside him. “I look forward to spending time together in the days ahead, Leo. Thank you for coming here with me.” She remained there motionless, staring up into his green eyes, waiting for a response.

Leo felt himself unconsciously tilting in her direction before he caught himself. What was happening here? He felt enchanted. Somehow, in this setting with this woman, he was a man like any other … a man without a title, and the feelings he was experiencing were almost overpowering.

The corners of Evita’s mouth inched up into a sensuous smile overflowing with an animal-like pull. With nature in control, man was at a distinct evolutionary disadvantage in this dance between the sexes, for it was a well-known fact that it was the female of the species who chose her mate.

Reaching out, she brushed away some leaves that were still clinging to Leo’s shirt.

Leo looked back at her with an expression that was neither warm nor cold, but its message was crystal clear.

“What’s wrong, Cardinal?”

“I think you know, Evita.”

Evita’s shoulders dropped in resignation. “You’re right. I guess I wasn’t being very subtle. Leave it to me to be attracted to someone I can never be with.”

Leo smiled. “Now you know the struggle I go through on a daily basis.”

“Then why do it? What about your life … your happiness? I understand sacrifice. Believe me, I’ve sacrificed plenty. I’ve given up some of the best years of my life working to earn my doctorate. I’ve spent endless days in the lab sitting in front of my computer, when I could have been floating down a river like the one we’re standing next to … drinking wine with a group of young people my own age. All the people I started college with have faded away; or rather I faded away from them. They grew tired of my constant rejections to their invitations and finally gave up. Even the boys I was truly interested in quickly discovered that it was easier to be with girls they could actually spend time with. Until this epidemic started, I was beginning to look ahead toward the future again … maybe even find someone to spend it with, but once more I find myself tied to the lab. Even so, I know that this too will pass, and that one day I will finally be free to have a life of my own. But you, Leo … you will never be free. You are forever tied to a life of continual penance. You should look in the mirror and ask yourself why your Church would want one of their most devoted servants to spend his life in abject loneliness. I mean, God created men and women so that they could live together … so that they could comfort one another and bring children into the world. Normal people require normal human bonding. It’s like eating and breathing.”

Leo was totally stunned. This woman understood. She understood it all. The carrot of waiting for your eternal reward … the delayed gratification and daily sacrifice. How was he to answer her in a way that made any sense, because long ago he had decided that the Church’s outdated requirements for priests to remain celibate made no sense at all.

“I completely agree with you, Evita. Celibacy is an archaic requirement … one that has no place in today’s modern world. I believe it actually detracts priests from the performance of their jobs. From the moment a new priest takes his vows, his life becomes riddled with guilt. From that day forward, idealistic young men are forced to expend vast amounts of energy denying their natural feelings for the opposite sex, not to mention their God-given right to marry and have children. They can never be socially ingrained within a society that values the sanctity of marriage, because they themselves are barred from that institution. Studies have shown that social isolation produces unstable individuals, and I believe that the requirement for celibacy is the single greatest reason we have so much deviant behavior within the priesthood today.”

“Why don’t they just have mistresses?”

“Many do, Evita, but then they are faced with the fear of discovery and the guilt of living a lie. Then there are those less enlightened ones who actually think they’ll be thrown into a burning lake of fire the day they die if they so much as think about having sex with a woman. This is something the Church is going to have to face head-on in the near future if they want to attract the right kind of candidates for the priesthood. We’re living in a new and different era. The sooner the Church wakes up to that fact the sooner it can move forward into the new millennium, and I plan on being at the forefront of that new awakening.”

Evita paused to look out across the river one more time before smiling up at Leo, the look of seduction replaced instead with one of understanding. Leo reached out and placed his arm around her shoulders as they began walking back toward the castle in silence. Both were aware that a bond had just been formed between them, but neither of them was aware of just what kind of bond it was. Like the early morning mist still clinging to the surface of the river, their feelings hung in the air, yet somehow, both felt strangely energized with the knowledge that an attachment had been made, and that, sooner or later, they would have to face the consequences … whatever those consequences might be.

CHAPTER 33

Mounting the top of the stairs to the terrace, Leo and Evita could hear shouts of excitement as Lev waved to them from his table.

“Leo, come quickly … Sarah’s escaped!”

“Escaped?”

“Our intelligence was right on the money. She was at Acerbi’s chateau, but she got away.”

“How … when?”

“We received a call a few minutes ago from Daniel. Apparently, Sarah was able to call to the villa in Israel. She didn’t want to go to the authorities, so Daniel told her to stay put and we would come to her. Evidently, she’s hiding with a couple who are trying to help her. She should be calling us any minute now.”

Leo took a seat next to Lev and poured another cup of coffee. “Are we going after her?”

“Yes, but it’s not going to be easy,” Alon said. “The countryside is a dangerous place to be right now, and anyone who ventures out onto the highway is a target of opportunity for the roving gangs. Luckily for us, the couple who rescued her headed south.

“What about the couple who rescued her?”

“I’m afraid that’s all the information we have for now.” The satellite phone in Alon’s hand began ringing.

“Hello? Yes, he’s right here.” Alon held the phone out to Lev. “It’s Sarah. She’s calling from a cell phone.”

“That’s impossible,” Moshe said. “The French government started shutting the towers down this morning because they were overloaded.”

Lev shrugged his shoulders and took the phone. “Hello … Sarah?”

“Lev! Thank God! Daniel said you were coming for me. When are you leaving?”

“We’re leaving right now. We’ll be coming by helicopter. Are you OK?”

“No. We’re hiding in the woods by a river. There are men after us!”

A look of horror crossed Lev’s face. “Men? What kind of men? Do they know where you are?”

“We think they’re Acerbi’s men. They’re searching the village for us. We don’t know how they found us, but we saw them outside the hotel and ran out the back door into the woods. They have dogs!”

Lev looked up at Alon. “They’re being chased by men with dogs!”

“Tell them to stay close to the river and to head for the chateau. We’ll spot them from the air.”

“Stay close to that river!” Lev shouted into the phone. “We’re coming. Keep your eyes peeled for a small, blue helicopter. We’ll be flying over the river by the chateau … the one that’s built out over the water.”

Alon suddenly reached out and grabbed the phone. “Sarah, this is Alon. Moshe said you were calling from a cell phone. Is that true?”

“Yes. It belongs to Fredrick and Martha, the people who rescued me.”

“Turn it off! Turn it off now. We’ll find you without it.”

“But …”

“Sarah, listen to me. All cell phone service throughout France has been cut off. The men chasing you probably activated the local towers to locate you. Turn off that cell phone right now, and remove the battery!”

In an instant, the phone connection went dead.

Alon hit the “Off” button on the satellite phone. “Let’s go.”

* *

The sound of the helicopter’s turbines could be heard warming up below as Leo, Lev, and Alon ran down the gravelly pathway from the castle to the landing pad in the compound below. Nava was already sitting in the pilot’s seat running through her pre-flight checklist when the three men piled onboard.

“Whoa … what do you think you’re doing?” Nava shouted from the cockpit.

Leo gave her a surprised look. “We’re going with you. Sarah and the two people who rescued her are being chased by men with dogs while we’re sitting here talking. Let’s get this thing in the air.”

“This chopper only holds four people, and that includes me.”

The sudden dilemma of their situation finally dawned on the men sitting behind her.

“She’s right,” Leo said, running his hands through his hair as he tried to think.

Nava glanced over her shoulder at the men in back. “I have to take one of you, and I think it should be Alon. The Loire River valley is only a couple of hundred feet above sea level, and at that low altitude, I can probably squeeze five people in here if we dump the life raft and some other gear. It’s going to be a little iffy, but if I’m going on a rescue mission, I want Alon with me.”

Leo and Lev nodded at one another and quickly jumped out. Since the helicopter had been equipped for a life at sea, there was over a hundred pounds of water survival gear on board. Alon threw out the life raft first, followed by life preservers and containers of survival rations stowed under the seats. He was just closing the back door when John came running up and thrust an Uzi sub-machine gun and a few clips of ammo into his hands.

“Just in case.”

Alon grinned. “Thanks, little brother.”

The sound of the turbines increased as the men on the ground backed away and the chopper lifted into the air. In less than a minute, it had disappeared over a hilltop headed north toward French chateau country.

“Godspeed,” Leo muttered to an empty sky.

CHAPTER 34

The helicopter skimmed the tops of the trees in the Loire Valley as Nava navigated toward one of the most beautiful Renaissance treasures in the world-the beautiful 16th century Chateau de Chenonceau. Construction of the storied chateau had begun in 1513, when Catherine Briconnet and her husband, Thomas Bohier, decided to build a turreted pavilion directly over the foundations of an old water mill on the banks of the Cher River. After Henry II of France acquired it, it became a royal palace and the home to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who extended the chateau out over the Cher River. Upon Henry’s death in 1559, his wife, Catherine de? Medici, who went by the title of Queen consort of France, expelled Henry’s mistress to a lesser chateau and took possession of Chenonceau for herself. Today, the chateau is owned by a family of chocolatiers and is open to the public.

In this historical setting, Nava and Alon raced to rescue one of their own, even though both knew the odds were already stacked against them. Sarah and the two people with her were being tracked by men with dogs, but it had taken the rescue flight an hour to get to them, an eternity under the circumstances. As the chopper approached the chateau, Alon and Nava traded looks. The banks and fields along the river appeared empty.

In the cold water along the bank of the Cher River, Sarah shivered among the tall reeds. Hiding next to her were Fredrick and Martha, the brave couple who had risked everything to save her life. Fredrick was in his late 60’s, but a life spent working outdoors, lifting and stooping, had left his tall thin frame as gnarled and twisted as the oaks he had once tended with loving care. Martha, in contrast, was a short and slightly plump woman of German ancestry, with braided blonde hair and fair skin with rosy cheeks. Both were now shivering in the cold river water as they listened to the sound of men’s voices in the woods close by.

“How long has it been since we called?” Sarah asked through chattering teeth.

Fredrick moved close to her and whispered into her ear. “It’s been almost an hour. They should be here any minute.”

“Ya,” Martha whispered. “It won’t be long now, Liebchen. It’s a good thing my Fredrick took care of those dogs.”

Earlier, as the three had been running for the hotel’s back door through the kitchen, Fredrick had grabbed a commercial-sized container of pepper before throwing the contents all over the floor. Needless to say, the pursuing hounds had been turned into a sneezing and slobbering group of whimpering canines that had been rendered useless for tracking. In addition, the men chasing them had suddenly lost the cell phone signal they were using to zero in on the trio.

From that point on, the men had been reduced to searching the old-fashioned way, using only their eyes and ears to scout the woods and roads surrounding the village until the helicopter with thermal imaging equipment arrived from Paris.

Peering skyward, Sarah and the others listened as their bodies stiffened in the cold water. There, off in the distance, they heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. The sound grew closer, prompting Sarah to lift her head slightly. Quickly, she ducked back down again. Twenty yards away, she had seen a man wearing a dark suit and speaking into a Bluetooth-like headset. He also had a gun stuck in the waistband of his trousers. Through the dry brush, they could hear him walking their way.

Fredrick held his finger to his lips and began leading the two women through the reeds along the bank of the river. Quietly, they waded through the freezing water toward the chateau. By now, the usual crowds of tourists were gone and the area appeared completely deserted. With the sound of the helicopter growing louder, Sarah lifted her head up again, only to see the man in the suit walking slowly along the riverbank. He’s looking in our direction!

Sarah grabbed Fredrick’s shirt and pointed. Quickly, they submerged their bodies up to their necks in the frigid water. The man walked by and stopped for a moment before continuing on his way.

“We’ve got to get out of this water,” Sarah said. Rising up, she saw that the chateau was right in front of them. “Do you think we can get inside, Fredrick?”

“There’s a door down below that was once used for water deliveries to the kitchen. It’s probably locked, but we can try.” He was shaking like a leaf.

The sound of a helicopter’s engines suddenly filled their ears just as a small blue helicopter swooped overhead.

“It’s them!” Sarah shouted. She watched as it turned and began flying back toward them along the bank of the river. Sarah rose up further to look for the man with the gun, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“It’s now or never.” Climbing up the bank of the river, she waved her hands in the air above her head just as the chopper passed by directly overhead. A wave of excitement warmed her shivering body when she saw the pilot wave back.

“Hold it right there!”

Sarah spun around to see the man in the suit pointing a gun right at her as he spoke quietly into his radio headset.

The chopper had spun around and was now hovering directly overhead as the man with the gun looked upward. He raised the gun and pointed it right at the pilot.

Instantly, the air around him turned red as he fell to the ground. Sarah looked up and saw a large man leaning out the side door with a smoking Uzi machine gun in his hands. It was Alon. Her friends had sent the right people!

“There are more of them moving through the woods in this direction,” Nava shouted. “We need to get those people out of that water … now!”

She spun the helicopter around and set it down hard on the bank of the river. Alon jumped out and pointed his gun at the woods. Without looking back, he shouted over his shoulder to Sarah and her friends. “Run!”

Immediately, Sarah and Fredrick were up running, but Martha slipped and slid back into the water.

Alon could see movement in the trees and began advancing on the woods. Behind him, Sarah and Fredrick had returned to the river to help a struggling Martha up the slippery bank. Seconds seemed like hours until finally, the three of them were sprinting toward the open door of the helicopter. Keeping his eyes locked on the woods, Alon began to back away, his gun pointed at the trees. He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Sarah, guiding him as he backed his way toward the door.

Looking over her shoulder, Nava watched their progress. Her fingers gripped the throttle, and as soon as they were through the doorway, she powered up and began lifting off. The helicopter rose a few feet in the air but seemed to stall before settling back to the ground.

“What’s wrong?” Alon shouted.

“Damn! We’re too heavy.” Nava slammed the turbines beyond their safe power threshold and urged the little chopper a few feet into the air. The helicopter’s engines were still struggling when the men in suits burst from the woods and began running toward them, firing their weapons.

In one of those moments, when a pilot has but a few seconds to make a life or death decision, Nava remembered the river behind them. She knew the air over the water was cooler, making it slightly denser than the warmer air blanketing the ground.

“Hang on!” she screamed. Shoving the stick forward, she pointed the chopper down and disappeared over the steep riverbank. The two men in suits exchanged puzzled glances and froze, waiting for the sound of a crash.

Inside the cockpit, Nava was busy trying to bring the aircraft to a hover above the water without letting it descend into the river. She worked the controls and increased the power even further into the danger zone before finally managing to bring the tiny chopper under control. Tilting the aircraft forward, she let the nose of the chopper skim the surface of the river as the whirling blades clawed at the air in a struggle to fly. The chopper shuddered, then dipped once more before picking up speed, slowly climbing away from the water until they were racing downstream at treetop level, leaving the surprised men standing on the riverbank with their mouths hanging open. Thirty seconds later, the little chopper had risen to five hundred feet, and within minutes, the village of Chenonceau was nothing more than a dot on the horizon behind them as Nava backed off on the power and tried to keep her feet from shaking on the foot pedals.

Alon reached in back and wrapped his big arms around Sarah. “Thanks for the help … it’s good to see you again, Sarah. Are you hurt anywhere?”

“No … thank you … thank you both for getting here so quickly.” Sarah’s teeth were chattering so violently she was having trouble speaking. “We … we wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I hate to think what those men would have done with us if they had caught us.”

“You’re safe now. Sorry we don’t have any blankets for you. We had to throw everything out to make the chopper lighter.”

Martha placed her arms around Sarah and frowned. “Smart thinking. Another pound and we would have sunk like a rock.”

“This is Martha,” Sarah said, laying her head on the woman’s shoulder … and this is her husband, Fredrick. If it wasn’t for these two, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

Alon studied the shivering couple sitting side by side next to Sarah. “That was a very brave thing you two did back there. Do both of you work for the Acerbi Corporation?”

“They’re a bunch of Nazi’s.” Martha practically spit the words out. “My husband and I have worked at the chateau for almost two years now, and things there are definitely not what they seem. Those people are up to no good.”

“What do you mean … no good?”

“Let’s just say it’s not a place you would want to spend your vacation.” Martha reached into her blouse and pulled out a plastic bag containing a thin, white folder. “And I have some papers here that will prove everything I’m about to tell you.”

Above the small blue chopper, an unmarked Blackhawk helicopter remained out of sight as it followed behind at a distance.

Inside the spacious cockpit, the co-pilot reached above his head and flicked a switch before looking over at the pilot. “Should we take them out now, sir?”

“No,” the pilot responded in a tone that was measured and calm. “Our orders are only to follow them and see where they go … nothing else. Mr. Acerbi wants to know where they land.”

CHAPTER 35

It was late afternoon when the small blue chopper emerged from the clouds and descended over the castle for a landing at the base of the hill. All through the day, several members of the Bible Code Team had been staring up at a large screen on the wall in the castle’s underground communications center, where they had been watching events unfold in real time from a tiny, forward-looking camera mounted on Nava’s helmet.

The room had broken into applause after Nava had pulled off one of the greatest feats of flying any of them had ever witnessed. After the rescue, she had decided to maintain radio silence until they were five minutes out from the castle. Everyone in the communications room could hear the concern in her voice when she told them her passengers were showing signs of hypothermia and that the chopper was running dangerously low on fuel.

Grabbing some warm blankets and a thermos full of hot coffee, the team rushed from the castle and down to the landing pad, where they all waited anxiously until the chopper was safely on the ground and the engines had whined to a stop. Sarah was the first to step out as Ariella ran to her and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders.

“You feel cold, honey.”

“I’ll be ok. It’s good to see you, Ariella!”

John and Moshe threw blankets over the other two passengers, while Evita began shoving cups of steaming hot coffee into their shaking hands.

“We have a doctor here on the compound,” Lev said to the shivering trio. “He’s waiting for you up at the castle.”

Sarah waved him off. “I think we just need to warm up a little. I’ve had enough of doctors for a while.”

“How did they treat you back at the chateau?”

“Great … until I climbed out a window and ran away.”

“Yeah, that really seemed to piss them off for some reason,” Alon said, climbing from the chopper with a machine gun in his hands. He pointed to Martha and Fredrick. “These are the brave people who helped her escape. They have something interesting they want to show you.”

“Ya … interesting.” It was all Martha could mutter in her frozen state.

“Let’s get everyone into some warm clothes first,” Lev said. “We’ll talk later.”

With the sun now beginning to drift down behind the surrounding hills to the west, they began making made their way up the winding path in a diffuse light reflected off the white limestone walls of the castle. It was a peaceful end to a day that had been fraught with doubt and fear, but for now Sarah and her rescuers were basking in the afterglow of a mission that had seemingly gone off without a hitch.

Passing through the castle’s main entrance, Alon could hear the rattle of a helicopter in the distance. Probably just a French military chopper … scouting the area, he thought to himself. Looking back out at the sunset, he slowly closed the door behind him.

An hour later, after Ephraim had finally fixed the plumbing, the new arrivals had taken hot showers and changed into dry clothes just as the smell of cooking infused with garlic and white wine began to drift up through the castle. It didn’t take long for the three Spanish scientists to migrate down to the large, candle-lit dining hall, where the rest of the team had already taken seats at a long wooden table.

With an unknown virus ravaging the world outside the castle’s doors, the cooks had been working all afternoon preparing a French feast in an effort to lessen the stress on the team of weary scientists. With the first course of the evening, Hadar and her assistants flowed into the dining hall with trays full of steaming bowls of Bouillabaisse, the famous seafood dish that had originated in Marseille. Once a seafood stew enjoyed only by working-class fisherman who had prepared it from their catch-of-the-day leftovers, this culinary delight had risen over time to the top of the list of luxurious French cuisine. On this evening, the cooks had started with a base of tomatoes, saffron, garlic, and olive oil. To that, they added the usual assortment of seafood, including monkfish, mullet, snapper, scorpion fish, conger eel, and mussels. Many of the customers who dined at Hadar’s four-star restaurant in Tel Aviv had been known to shed tears when they tasted her version of the dish.

Since Europeans always served salad after the main course to cleanse the palate, the Bouillabaisse was followed by Salade Nicoise, a simple and traditional southern French salad consisting of lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, black olives, eggs, and anchovies.

Picking at her food, Martha cast suspicious glances around the table. After emerging from the oppressing environment of constant surveillance at Acerbi’s chateau, where every move she and her co-workers made had been observed by security men watching from hidden cameras, her trust level was at an all-time low. Looking at her husband, she saw that he was oblivious to everything around him as he devoured his second helping of Bouillabaisse. No help there. She thought for a moment. Could these people be trusted? Clearing her throat, she laid her spoon on the table and made eye contact with Sarah, who in turn nodded in Leo’s direction.

Her decision made, Martha reached inside her blouse and produced a thin white folder before shoving it across the table to Leo.

“What’s this, Martha?”

“It’s from the chateau, Cardinal. Most of what’s in there is just scientific stuff that I don’t understand, but there is enough spelled out in plain English for me to see that those people are up to no good. I mean, just take a look at the title on the cover page.”

After fumbling for his glasses, Leo reached for the papers. Right away he saw the title centered on the cover page: Plan #322 for the genetically engineered viral extermination of a species.

The cardinal breathed in deeply before lifting his wine glass and taking a long sip. “Where exactly did you get this, Martha?”

“It came down the chute.”

“Excuse me … the what?”

“The laundry chute … the one that comes from the second floor living quarters at the chateau. It was mixed up in a pile of sheets. The only thing I can figure out is that one of the upstairs maids was changing the linen and didn’t see this little paper folder tucked in among the rumpled bed sheets. Whoever was staying in that room the night before was probably lying in bed when they were reading. My guess is they just left it lying there the next morning. The maid obviously didn’t see it when she gathered up the sheets and sent them down the chute. I discovered it when I was sorting through a pile of dirty laundry as I always do before I put it into the machine.”

Leo began thumbing through the pages as Javier and Evita leaned over in an effort to read along with him.

“What first grabbed your attention?” Leo asked without looking up.

“The word extermination jumped out at me right away. I’m German, Cardinal Leo. I was born there, but I’m also a Jew. Many of my family members were exterminated during the Holocaust. So you see, that word holds a special meaning for me.”

Martha was struck by the way the Cardinal’s green eyes blazed at the mention of the Holocaust.

“Yes, of course,” Leo said softly. “I can see how that word would tend to stand out.”

“After I read the cover page, I waited until no one was looking and stuffed the papers down my shirt. I had to wait until I got home that night to read the rest of it.”

“When did all this occur?”

“It was right around the time when Sarah showed up … about a week ago. There had been a lot of activity around the chateau … a lot more than usual.”

Leo continued to scan through the pages while Martha talked. He paused to push his glasses back up on his head and looked directly at the couple. The possibility that these two still worked for Acerbi was driving him to probe deeper. “Have you two shown this to anyone else?”

Martha laughed. “Are you crazy? If we had, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now. We’ve been listening to the news about the virus just like everyone else. The Acerbi Corporation owns a big drug company, so I just thought they were doing some kind of research on it. I was beginning to think that some of the research was going on right there at the chateau, because there’s a lab on the third floor that’s off limits to the regular staff. There was also a sudden increase in people coming and going from that area of the chateau, and we saw a lot of new faces arriving at all hours of the day and night in vehicles that had the words Acerbi Pharmaceutical painted on the doors. They were always talking about the pathogen, or the virus. They didn’t pay any attention to us. You know how it is-servants always seem to be like pieces of furniture, we’re invisible, and that’s a good thing. The kitchen staff told us they were serving twice the normal number of meals in the dining room.”

“What made you suspicious?”

“When I read through that folder, it was obvious they were describing how to spread a virus, not stop one. You might think I’m crazy for saying this, Cardinal, but when I read all that stuff it didn’t surprise me at all.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean those men guarding the chateau reminded me of a bunch of Nazi’s. You could see the hate in their eyes. They were some very tough and cold men. I never once saw any of them smile. The only time they talked to us was when they needed something. Other than that, they just patrolled the grounds with their dogs and their guns … watching everyone and everything. Sometimes it felt like we were working in a prison instead of a home. Everyone there was extremely suspicious of strangers.”

Leo handed the folder to Evita as he continued to probe Martha for more information. “What about Acerbi himself?”

“Oh, you mean Rene? I never trusted him. None of the staff liked him. I know I didn’t. He’s a hard man to figure out. I mean … he’s moody. One minute he would be walking around, smiling and saying ‘Hello’ to everyone, then suddenly his mood would change for no apparent reason. He would be yelling at people … threatening them. I always had a bad feeling when he was around.”

Leo heard Evita gasp and turned to see her staring back at him, her eyes filled with fear.

“I think we just found our smoking gun, Cardinal.”

Leo took the folder and looked down at the page Evita had just been reading.

The Executive Committee

Executive Order #322 — Eyes Only Communication — Incinerate after reading

Phase one of our plan to disseminate the genetically engineered pathogen has been a spectacular success. Our scientists have created a fertile breeding ground for an otherwise harmless virus by altering the DNA of unsuspecting populations through the use of genetically engineered wheat distributed in the form of cereal and free samples of baked goods.

Once a target population has ingested food made with our genetically altered wheat, a silent chain-reaction occurs within the DNA makeup of their cells, thus making them susceptible to the effects of the airborne form of the virus. In other words, they have no immunity to this new, artificially engineered pathogen and will die a quick and merciful death within hours of exposure. Those who have not eaten the modified wheat will suffer no ill effects whatsoever, and as a precaution against the possibility of mutation, the pathogen has also been engineered to die within 48 hours of being introduced into the atmosphere.

In a tribute to our scientific team, this ability to control the spread of the virus has been the true genius of our plan. By managing the dissemination of our genetically altered wheat products, along with the failsafe mechanism within the virus itself, we now have a means of containing the pathogen. As predicted, this random pattern of inexplicable life and death will breed fear and panic around the world, thus giving us the upper hand over the world’s governments as we enter phase two of our plan.

As you already know, the virus has been released in several widely dispersed geographical regions around the world, and to date, only the targeted populations in those areas have become sick. Within a matter of days, every government on earth will be looking to the pharmaceutical division of the Acerbi Corporation to come to their aid in the face of an unexplained epidemic they have no control over.

In clandestine meetings this morning with world leaders who are already under our control, we have assured them that their populations will not be affected by the virus. To those countries that are not currently under our sphere of influence, we will soon begin offering them the same guarantee if they agree to transfer control of their governments over to us.

Many of these countries will, of course, refuse to cooperate with us. However, we will make it clear to them that this is their only path toward salvation, both now and in the future. Any attempts to block our control will be met with immediate and fatal retaliation. Their countries will become barren wastelands heaped with corpses. Our plan is a simple one. Those governments who agree to our terms will survive with their current regimes intact under the umbrella of our shadow government. Those who do not will cease to exist.

Along with the governments, we will also begin taking control of the world’s resources; a vital piece of the puzzle if we are to assure the survival of our species. It has been widely recognized for quite some time now that our planet can support only a finite, mathematically pre-determined number of people, and that number has been exceeded.

Unfortunately, despite the dire warnings over the years, none of the world’s governments were willing to make the hard decisions necessary to ensure that their populations were kept to a level that could be sustained by the resources available. Therefore, because of this lack of disciplined leadership, our group has been forced into taking this drastic action.

The time for democratic rule by the masses is past. Society can no longer endure an antiquated system whereby a barely literate proletariat is given the power to elect their own rulers-rulers who by their very actions make it obvious that they have no idea how the world really works. The world must now be governed by those who possess the intelligence and foresight necessary to ensure that only those who contribute to the welfare of the planet be allowed a place at the table in a society of the future, a society under the banner of a one-world government.

Additionally, we can no longer tolerate the constant warfare attributed to religious differences around the globe. To this end, we will also be replacing the many primitive belief systems that are currently polluting the world. We will institute a new, one-world religion that will follow the words of our Master’s book.

Therefore, I am hereby directing that we continue with executive order #322 for the viral extermination of large segments of the world’s population so that we may herald in a new and glorious age for our future generations.

For the good of all mankind,

Rene Acerbi

The cardinal let the folder slip from his hands onto the table. A sound like that of rushing water pounded in his ears as he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. Acerbi was a monster.

Dr. Diaz had been correct all along. The victims of the virus had been prepped by altering their DNA, and now, armed with this new information, they knew how it was being done. The DNA of some was being modified by the food they ate, thus creating two genetically different populations who lived and died according to what brand of cereal they had eaten for breakfast. At least they had included a self-destruct mechanism within the virus, Leo thought. That explained why it died out so quickly.

The images of wheat and man painted on the chapel wall now made complete sense to Leo. In a way, a separate species of man was being created-one with immunity to the pathogen and one without, and the one without was doomed to extinction. Just like the variety of ancient wheat that had slowly been erased from existence by human manipulation, so too was a large percentage of the human population about to be manipulated out of existence, replaced instead with a new and different variety … wheat like man!

It was quickly becoming evident that the truth was much worse than he had first imagined. Acerbi was a monster, but what kind of monster? Did he truly believe his actions were justified for the good of all mankind? Sometimes the utopian monsters, those cloaked in veils of righteousness, could be far worse than the egomaniacal leaders who lusted after power for its own sake. Acerbi personified the short man syndrome run amuck-another Napoleon bursting forth onto the world stage in the new millennium.

But whatever kind of monsters Acerbi and his people were, it was obvious they now held the fate of every human being on the planet in their hands. This was a worldwide conspiracy of immense magnitude, and there was no telling who or how many people around the globe had already sworn their allegiance to this madman.

Lev and Mendoza grabbed for the folder at the same time. Mendoza politely deferred to Lev, who read the first page slowly with a mathematician’s organized eye to detail before passing it on. Running his hands through his hair, Lev collapsed back into his chair. Those who knew the professor well could tell by the look on his face that he had just noticed something everyone else had missed.

“What book?”

“What did you say?” Leo asked.

“What book?” Lev repeated. “That memo references a book he calls their master’s book … a book that lives on through its words.”

Evita saw the color drain from Leo’s face. It was as if he had just seen a ghost. “It can’t be! It was destroyed last year!”

The cardinal’s loud words echoed off the ancient castle walls, catching everyone by surprise. The mention of some kind of book had touched a nerve in a man famous for being calm under pressure.

“What if there’s another copy, Cardinal?” John asked.

“Impossible. We all saw it go up in flames in the chapel under the Vatican. According to the code in the Bible, that was the only physical copy of the book in existence.”

A stunned silence descended on those who had been to the barren Negev Desert the year before. Tired of being left out of the loop, Dr. Mendoza finally spoke up. “Could someone please let us in on what’s going on?”

Leo reached for the nearest bottle of wine and refilled his glass. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask Martha and Fredrick to excuse us for a moment.” Leo offered no explanation as he stood and began pacing back and forth, lost in thought. Whatever he was about to say, he had just made it obvious that it was not intended for the ears of outsiders.

“We were heading off to bed anyway,” Martha said. “We’ve had kind of a busy day.”

Sarah leaned over and put her arms around the woman who had risked everything to help her. “You guys saved my life. I hate to think what those people might have done to me if you hadn’t stuck your necks out to help me.”

“That’s the problem with the world today, honey. Not enough people want to stick their necks out.” Martha winked. “Good luck to all of you in whatever it is you have to do. Let’s go, Fredrick. We need to leave these good people alone for a while.”

After they left, Lev pulled up a chair next to Mendoza and poured some wine into the scientist’s glass. “Here, Javier, you might need this before you hear what I’m about to say. A year ago, we were all on an archaeological expedition in the Negev Desert. We had been led there by information we received from the code in the Bible.”

“What?” Mendoza glanced sideways at Evita and Dr. Diaz. “We never heard anything about an archaeological expedition by you in the Negev Desert.”

As an anthropologist who coexisted within the two separate worlds of academia and intelligence, Mendoza liked to be kept informed of the progress of any archaeological expeditions taking place in and around the Mediterranean, but he had heard nothing about Lev Wasserman’s expedition the year before.

“Our expedition was never made public, Javier. Do you remember hearing about the recent discovery of oil in Israel?”

“Of course … the entire world has heard about it. That area of the Negev desert was also flooded with water at the same time. Are you saying you had something to do with that?”

“Yes. It’s a long story, but when we were using the code to look for words and phrases in the Bible, we discovered coordinates that pointed to a specific area in the Negev Desert. Naturally, we decided to mount an expedition to see what was out there, but before we left, we found something even more disturbing … an especially frightening passage encoded in the book of Genesis.”

Lev cleared his throat. “You might want to take a sip of that wine now, Javier, because that passage stated that the coordinates we discovered pinpointed an area reserved for Satan here on Earth.”

“Satan!” Mendoza’s face broke into a nervous smile as he reached for his glass. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Professor.”

“I wish I were, but it’s a fact, and we can prove it. We also found an encoded reference to a mysterious book. We had no idea what any of this meant until we arrived at the coordinates and discovered a huge underground cavern. That’s where we encountered the demonic entities.”

“What?” This was getting stranger by the minute. Mendoza swiveled around to see if anyone was laughing, but no one was. Evita and Dr. Diaz were frozen in place, staring at Lev in disbelief.

“Are you trying to tell us that all of you have seen an actual demon?” Mendoza was beginning to wonder if these people were for real. Although he had never discussed his religious beliefs with Lev and the others, he believed in God and the Devil, but all of this talk of Satan and demons was bordering on bad pulp fiction.

The original eight members of the team traded looks but remained silent as they waited patiently for the Spanish members of the team to absorb what Lev had just told them. There was more to come, and they knew it would sound even more bizarre to anyone who hadn’t witnessed it for themselves.

“We didn’t encounter just one demon, Javier … we encountered five.”

Mendoza almost dropped his glass.

“Beneath our camp, we discovered an immense underground cavern that contained a huge dome-like structure that towered at least six stories above our heads. It was actually very beautiful, with brilliant, light-emitting crystals representing the constellations embedded in the pale blue walls. However, we quickly discovered that they had been placed in a reversed pattern, as if someone was looking at the earth from the heavens far away. In the center of this enormous space was a raised area made from large blocks of angled white stone, and beneath that, was a clear black floor that extended down into the earth as far as the eye could see. We were standing over a crystal abyss. That’s where we found the book. It was red, and it appeared to be floating there right under our feet, encased in the transparent crystal floor.”

“But this is fantastic!” Javier exclaimed. “We must see this place! You must take us there! An archaeological site like that, in that area, could pre-date the pyramids. Were you able to date its construction?”

“Since the beginning of time, Javier. Since the celestial battle between heaven and hell, when Lucifer was banished from the sight of God. We had found Satan’s cathedral here on Earth, created by him for the sole purpose of having a secure location to hide a book … his book … the Devil’s Bible.”

Mendoza and Diaz sat there blinking, as one does in the first stages of disbelief, while Evita clasped her hands over her stomach and let out a quiet gasp.

“We learned the book itself was like an unholy relic. Some of our own Christian relics are able to perform miracles in God’s name. The Devil’s relic, if that’s what we can call it, had the power to cause great evil in the world. That was the most likely reason it was hidden here on earth. Apparently, Satan’s timetable and God’s timetable for the end of days don’t agree. We also learned that the Devil’s Bible had been out in the world before and was sealed back up to await the end of days. It had the power to jumpstart the reign of the Antichrist before the rapture, leaving millions of Christians here on Earth to suffer until God could gather them up. From the code, we learned that God wanted Satan’s book destroyed by a specific group of people … chosen ones.”

“Let me guess,” Mendoza said. “They were your names … all of you on the Bible Code Team.”

“To be honest we were all shocked. I mean, can you imagine how you would feel to see your own name actually spelled out in God’s book? It was like a biblical story from the Old Testament, only it was taking place now, in modern times. Another strange fact was that most of us had names that meant lion … Leo, Lev, Ariella … even John’s last name, Lowe … all lion names. We were all God’s lions, soldiers caught up in a celestial war, and I believe we’ve just been drafted once again.”

“Why didn’t God destroy the Devil’s Bible?” Diaz asked, his face a frozen mask of doubt.

Leo’s green eyes bored in on Diaz with such intensity that the man actually felt a twinge of fear.

“I like the way you always get right to the heart of things, Dr. Diaz,” Leo said. “In answer to your question, I believe God has always involved man in the war between good and evil. We must be participants in our own salvation. I believe that’s one of the reasons why He placed the code in the Bible in the first place. He knew where civilization would take us, and that one day, rather than relying on faith alone, man would begin to look for secular proof of His existence. How better to communicate with an advanced civilization hooked on computers than through a code so complex that it would take computers to unravel it. He’s given us a contemporary tool that we can use to continue our dialogue with Him.”

Evita and Leo looked at one another for a long moment. No wonder he had turned pale at the mention of a book, she thought. The entire story sounded fantastical, but she had no doubt that these people were telling the truth. “I was wondering, Leo, besides the code, was there anything else that led you all to believe you had been chosen?”

Ariella cleared her throat as she brushed a long strand of hair back from her face. “We had all been having the same dream. In the dream, we all saw a storm over the desert, and we all heard the word chosen echoing in the background. Sounds like a movie, doesn’t it?”

“Actually, my dear, what we are about to tell you sounds even more like a movie.” Mendoza glanced sideways at Evita. “Go ahead, Dr. Vargas … tell them. They need to know.”

Instantly, the members of the Bible Code Team were on high alert.

“The three of us have also been having dreams with the word chosen echoing in the background, but our dreams are quite different from the ones you describe.” Evita looked off into space before continuing. “Instead of a storm over a desert, we see bodies … thousands of bodies lying in the streets of deserted cities. It’s more like a horrible nightmare.”

Leo glanced over at Lev before leaning forward and placing his elbows on the table. “We’ve known all along there were others like us. Last year, when Sarah first told us she had been having the same dream as us … we knew. We’ve been waiting all this time to hear from other chosen ones.”

In a space that amplified sound like the walls of a cavern, silence reigned as everyone waited for the next person to speak.

“When did you say the book was destroyed?” Mendoza asked.

“Let me go back to the desert for a moment,” Leo said, closing his eyes as if he were being transported back to another time and place. “Down in that cavern, we were surrounded by demons guarding Satan’s book. Without divine intervention, none of us would have survived what we experienced down there. Something happened … something we can’t explain. We sensed a presence right before the earth began to shake and huge fissures opened up beneath us, releasing the book from where it had been encased in solid rock. The demons seemed to evaporate right before our eyes and we were able to make it back to the surface just as the cavern collapsed. Oil came bursting up to the surface, igniting a tower of flame, followed by geysers of water that flooded the desert for miles around. It was like being present at a biblical event from the Old Testament, only it was occurring in modern times.”

“Is that when the book was destroyed?”

“No. We took it with us. We knew what it was, but we had no idea of its power or what we were supposed to do with it. It wasn’t until later that we realized the book was more like a living entity. We learned that, whenever it had been taken from the cavern in the past, bad things happened … really bad things. We believe the book was a way for Satan to physically release evil out into the world without interference from God … a kind of trump card if you will, and he used unsuspecting humans to accomplish this by periodically allowing the book to be discovered. For the past year, we’ve been trying to pinpoint the number of times it has made an appearance out in the world before. Some of our information has come from passages we’ve discovered embedded within the Bible Code, and we’re still trying to verify some actual sightings throughout history that seem to come from reliable sources. To date, we’ve only been able to document five separate occasions, but the appearances we’ve documented have always coincided with some horrific events that occurred whenever the book was out of its hiding place. For instance we know that it was out briefly during WWII, at a time when millions died around the world and nuclear weapons first appeared on the scene, and that it probably made an appearance in 1918, during WWI and the great flu epidemic that took fifty million lives. We weren’t aware of any of this at the time we removed it, but after Houston…”

“Which brings up the point of why you weren’t warned by the code to leave the book in the cavern,” Evita said.

“Probably because the time had come for the book to be destroyed,” Leo said. “We’ll probably never know all there is to know about the code, but we have noticed something that appears to be a constant theme throughout. We’ve discovered that everything seems to occur according to a specific timetable, but the details of the timetable are still a mystery. It’s like God is whispering across a crowded room, and we can’t hear everything He’s trying to tell us. All we knew at the time was that God wanted the book taken to a place of His own choosing to be destroyed. After we arrived back at the villa, Daniel discovered an encoded passage in Genesis that spelled out the fact that the ancient Christian chapel under the Vatican was that place. We almost didn’t make it. As I said, it was like the book was alive, and it had a very powerful protector. We came close to being killed more than once before we made it to Rome, but we had a pretty powerful protector ourselves.”

“But the book was destroyed, right?” Mendoza asked. “I mean, you all saw it go up in flames.”

“Yes … right after we delivered it to the chapel. That’s where the most miraculous event in this whole story occurred. After making our way through the catacombs under the Vatican, we entered the chapel with the book. Morelli and I were still just priests then, and we were joined by the pope, who was a cardinal at the time. The rest of the Bible Code Team was also there. It was in the chapel where we encountered the most powerful demon of them all-Agaliarept, Satan’s grand general over hell. After battling the demon for a span of time none of us could remember afterward, we saw the chapel fill with light as seven of God’s most powerful archangels appeared. They cast out the demon and saved our lives. After the angels departed, the book erupted into flames and burned to ashes on the altar in the chapel. Up until now, we had assumed that the world was no longer in danger from its influence, but it’s beginning to appear that we missed something.”

Diaz rubbed his eyes as he looked across the table at Lev. He had been waiting patiently, listening to the entire story. “Professor, earlier you said that Satan’s timetable and God’s timetable for the end of days don’t agree? When did you learn of this?”

“After we returned from the desert with the book.”

“Please excuse me, Professor. What I meant to ask was how you discovered the information.”

“From the Devil’s Bible. That was the very first thing we were able to decipher. We’ve been studying it for the past year, and some of the information is fascinating. We’re preparing a paper on it.”

“But the book no longer exists.”

“True … that’s why we copied it. The book was a treasure trove. Despite the fact that it was an instrument of Satan, we couldn’t let it be destroyed without first making a copy of the text. To an archaeologist, that would have been unforgiveable. The information it contained was priceless. I mean, we were dealing with ancient symbols and language the world had never seen before. Additionally, we were beginning to suspect that the Devil’s Bible also contained a code. Another reason we all agreed that the text needed to be preserved. Without it, we would never have discovered the fact that God’s timetable and Satan’s timetable for the end of days don’t agree.”

“Yes, of course. But how did you accomplish this?”

“We scanned it into our computers.”

“Uh-uh.” Diaz rubbed his hands together as he looked around at the others and waited.

Lev’s expression collapsed when the sudden realization of what Diaz was getting at struck him like a sledgehammer.

“Oh no … no!” Lev fell back in his seat as sweat began to pour down his face.

“Daddy?” Ariella rushed to his side. “What is it? Are you ok … is it your heart?”

Lev looked up to the ceiling and prayed out loud. “Oh, God, forgive us!”

“Daddy … talk to me.”

“I can’t believe we were so stupid! We destroyed the book … but not the words. The book still exists. We downloaded it into our computers!”

“That’s right,” Diaz said. “And because of the internet, anyone with a modest amount of talent will be able to hack into your system and download it. For a man like Rene Acerbi, it would have been child’s play.”

Lev continued staring over his head at the beamed ceiling in the tomb-like silence that had descended over the dining hall. Diaz had seen right through an error that they had failed to notice for over a year, and it only took him a few minutes to do it. Doubt and fear crept into Lev’s mind. What else had they missed? An error like this was bound to have consequences. Worst case scenario-Satan’s time clock for Armageddon had just been reset.

Lev felt everyone’s eyes on him as he reached for a bottle of wine and poured his glass all the way full.

“What’s done is done, Professor,” John said, grabbing his father-in-law by the shoulder. “None of us caught that one … not even Daniel. If you think back on it, we were all having a hard time concentrating whenever the book was out in the open. It definitely had some kind of power to affect our thinking at the time. We were pretty much in survival mode back then.”

Leo watched as Lev seemed to withdraw into himself, avoiding eye contact with the other members of the team. “Come on, Lev. You’re not the only one who’s responsible here. We all agreed that uploading the contents of the book was essential. Now is not the time to dwell on problems that lie in the past. This can be overcome. Right now we need to focus on Acerbi, but we need to be smart about the way we go about it. There are forces at work here we don’t yet understand. We need to gather a lot more information before we take any action that could backfire on us if we go about it the wrong way.”

Lev held his head in his hands and answered without looking up. “It’s your call, Leo.”

“Ok. Well, first, I think we should send an encrypted copy of that folder Martha found to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv, and then we need to start making preparations for getting away from here as quickly as possible. Acerbi’s tendrils run deep, and it’s only a matter of time before he links us to Sarah’s rescue. Let’s all get some sleep and meet back down here at five in the morning.”

CHAPTER 36

The first explosion came in the early pre-dawn hours, at a time when the body’s internal clock is primed to enter its deepest period of sleep. Jolted from their beds, those who had been awakened by the blast found themselves temporarily frozen in the foggy, dream-like world that exists between fantasy and reality upon awakening.

Predictably, Alon and Nava were the first to make it out of their rooms. Armed with Uzi submachine guns, they ran barefooted down the hallway wearing only their T-shirts and shorts. John and Ariella were right behind them, each carrying small.22 caliber Berettas they always kept on their bed stands. The little guns had been a gift from Moshe. It was the same type of weapon he had carried when he was a katsa in the Mossad. Dismissed by other intelligence agencies as being too small, the Israelis were the only ones who still used the tiny Beretta. For them, it was still the weapon of choice for skilled marksmen who knew their craft well but wanted to maintain a low profile. Ariella thought back to what a seasoned weapons instructor had once told her. “A bullet is a bullet … no matter what caliber it is.”

In less than a minute, the entire castle was awake as everyone gathered in the upstairs hallway. A second blast, larger than the first, rocked the grounds outside the castle.

Alon grabbed John at the front door. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Outside!”

“We don’t know who’s out there yet … the roof!” Alon’s eyes were bulging and the veins in his forehead were popping to the surface. He was like a caged animal, waiting to pounce on something … anything. The two of them took off running for the stairs and continued up the round stairwell until they reached a doorway that led out onto the castle’s ramparts. Once through the door, they spotted several members of the castle’s security force aiming their weapons down at the grounds below. Pausing to catch their breath in the cold night air, they peered through the ancient arrow slits. The entire area at the bottom of the hill was awash with pools of flame, while other areas remained cloaked in shadow where anything could be hiding.

Ephraim’s voice crackled over the radio. “Lev … Alon … come in. We’re under attack down here!”

“How many?”

“Can’t tell. We just lost power. There’s a big fire in the center of the compound by the barn. I’m with my wife and son inside our house. We’re headed down into the tunnels.” Another explosion interrupted the conversation. “I think someone’s outside our front door. I’ll call you back.”

Another pop, one much smaller than the first explosion, sent a shower of sparks into the air around the landing pad. Through the smoke, they could see the small blue helicopter engulfed in flames. The last pop they had heard was the chopper’s fuel tank exploding as the tail section separated and fell to the ground. A rain of fuel sent little rivers of fire outward toward the barn until something inside ignited and the entire structure erupted in a blaze that raged out of control.

In a matter of minutes, Alon and John were joined by the rest of the team at the top of the castle. Looking down on the compound below, they winced as one house after another erupted in flames.

Lev grabbed a radio and called the man in charge of the security force guarding the perimeter. “Do you see anything?”

“No, sir! None of the motion sensors around the property picked up anything. The dogs were quiet and the laser defenses weren’t activated … no one has seen a single attacker!”

“Anything in the air?”

“Nothing. The communications center reported that the radar is clear. The only thing our listening posts picked up all night was the sound of crickets until the first explosion almost knocked their earphones off.”

Lev squinted down into the blackness enveloping the fields around the castle. Two scenarios immediately came to mind. Either the compound below was self-destructing for some reason, or they were under attack from an invisible enemy. A third explanation entered his mind, one even more frightening. Was it possible that someone on the inside was behind this?

As quickly as the attack began, it stopped.

A string of loud expletives could be heard coming from the base of the castle wall. Peering over the edge, they could see Nava tramping down the hill. Still barefooted, she was wearing a long T-shirt that hung down to her knees and had an Uzi submachine gun slung over one shoulder.

“That’s one mad little pilot,” Alon said with a quiet sense of awe. “Someone just destroyed her helicopter. That machine was her baby.” Alon quickly disappeared down the stairwell and was soon seen running down the hill after her.

Lev stared down at the burning wreckage. “I have a feeling that we’ve just received a warning.”

“A warning?” John pointed at the flames below. “You call that a warning?”

“Whoever did this could have done much worse. Our presence here has stirred up a hornet’s nest.”

“You think Acerbi is behind this?” Leo asked.

“Probably. He and his people are on the verge of taking over the world, and after Sarah’s escape they may suspect that we’ve just learned who they are and what they’re up to.”

“Why didn’t they destroy the castle? Why just the helicopter and a few houses?”

“Good question, Cardinal.” In the darkness of the castle’s ramparts, Lev struck a match. His bearded face was bathed in an orange glow tinted by thick bluish smoke that curled up from the tip of his cigar. “Whatever just hit us seems to have stopped for now. It looks like the sun is just starting to come up. Let’s get everyone together and begin moving out. I suggest we gather up all the supplies we can carry and follow the river south to the coast where we can meet the yacht.”

“That river winds through some pretty rugged country … and then there are those gangs of armed thugs out there roaming the countryside right now.”

“I know. I had planned on scouting the area from the air this morning, but that plan just went up in flames. Damn, we really needed that helicopter.”

Lev’s radio crackled to life. “Professor, are you there?”

“Yes.”

“The sensors along our northeast border are going crazy. So are the ones on our eastern perimeter. We can see armed men just across the river, and … “

“And what?”

“And there are three large helicopters inbound from the north.”

“How long until they’re here?”

“About five minutes, sir … if we’re lucky.”

CHAPTER 37

From his chateau, Rene Acerbi was talking on the radio to the commander of a flight of three Blackhawk helicopters as they swooped in low over the river. Breaking formation, two of the Blackhawks suddenly peeled off and circled around so that they could attack the castle from the opposite direction.

On the ground, gunfire aimed at the commander’s helicopter erupted from the trees bordering the vineyards. The door gunner in the Blackhawk immediately returned fire with an M-134 mini-gun, a fearsome weapon with a cyclic rate of fire of 50 rounds per second. In a scorching hail of bullets, the guns on the ground were quickly silenced as the chopper flew by overhead.

Swinging around from the south, the other two choppers took aim at the castle and let loose with a fusillade of rockets from their side pods. In rapid succession, the rockets impacted at regular intervals along the ancient walls of the castle, and when the smoke had cleared, a medieval piece of history was nothing more than a scorched pile of unrecognizable rubble at the top of the hill.

Inside the commander’s chopper, the pilot frowned as they came to a hover above the smoking remains of the little blue chopper at the base of the hill.

“Looks like something happened down in the compound before we got here, sir.”

The commander frowned. “What did you say?”

“The compound seems to have taken a hit before we arrived.”

“A hit? Are our men encountering much resistance on the perimeter?”

“None … they’ve already made it across the river and are advancing through the vineyard.”

“What about the gunfire we received from the tree line?”

“It came from one of their radar-guided ground-to-air weapons. Apparently, it was unmanned and was set to fire automatically.”

Back at the chateau, Acerbi keyed the microphone and called the leader of his forces on the ground. “What’s the body count down there, captain?”

“There are no bodies, sir.”

Acerbi practically screamed into the microphone. “What do you mean no bodies?”

Everyone listening over the radio could hear the tremble in the man’s voice when he answered. “I mean there’s no one here, sir. The site is completely deserted!”

Everyone from the compound was running. Ahead of them, the floor of the tunnel angled down and then up again as it wound through the earth beneath the countryside. There were almost sixty people making their way through the underground labyrinth, including half a dozen children. Behind them, they could feel the ground shake from time to time with explosions, making them run even faster as they looked back over their shoulders.

“How far do we have to go, Ephraim?” Leo huffed.

“These tunnels go on for miles, Cardinal. They were dug back in the 13th century by villagers trying to escape from all the marauding armies that were sweeping across this part of France. It was the time of all the religious massacres.”

Now, as they ran, it was beginning to look like history was repeating itself. Twenty minutes earlier, when they had learned that armed men were approaching the compound from across the river to the north, Lev had given the order for everyone to flee. With three inbound helicopter gunships supporting a large, well-coordinated ground assault force, it didn’t take a military genius to figure out that the attackers would overwhelm the castle’s defenses within minutes.

When Lev had originally purchased the property, Ephraim had showed him the medieval tunnel system. Right away, they both saw that the tunnels would provide a perfect escape route if the compound was ever attacked. The Israelis always had a backup plan.

In keeping with their pre-planned exit strategy, everyone, including those stationed around the perimeter, had escaped down into the tunnel system before making their way to a rendezvous point under the castle. Once they had all gathered together, Moshe performed a quick head-count as Ephraim began leading the entire assemblage into the depths of the labyrinth. After walking for forty-five minutes, they entered a large, cavern-like space that contained a shallow pool of clear, aquamarine water.

“We need to stop for a minute,” Ariella said. “The children need to rest.”

Lev clinched an unlit cigar in his teeth and surveyed the space. “Ok, but only for a couple of minutes. If the same men who just attacked the castle have discovered the tunnels, they could already be down here searching for us.”

“It won’t be easy for them,” Ephraim said. “The tunnels under the castle fan out in all directions. They’ll have to know which way we went if they want to come after us.”

“What about the Carmela?” Leo asked.

“I radioed Alex about our situation before we left the castle. He agrees that we should follow the Aude River to the coast. They’ll be waiting for us offshore in the speedboats.”

“How are we going to travel down the river with all of these people, especially the children?”

“There’s a river barge tied up downriver that belongs to a friend of ours,” Ephraim said. “We just have to make it to that barge and get everyone onboard without being seen. From there, we should be able to make it all the way to the Mediterranean.”

Carrying a heavy duffle bag full of weapons, John walked over and dropped the bag on the ground next to Leo. Breathing in the musty smell of the tunnels, he looked over his head at the roof of the cavern. “Have you two noticed that, whenever we’re all together, we end up underground somewhere?”

They both stared back at him for a second before the two of them burst out laughing.

Leo slapped him on the back. “I don’t know how you do it, John. You always make me laugh at the most inappropriate times.”

Chuckling to himself, Lev reached to light his cigar before he caught himself. The smell of cigar smoke would be a dead giveaway. No sense in giving their pursuers a cigar-scented trail to follow. “Let’s keep moving. There’s a side tunnel up ahead that exits under the ruins of an old abandoned castle.”

Moving on through the twisting tunnels, they reached a steep stairway carved into soft white stone. Looking up, they saw a faint light and began to climb until they reached several massive stone blocks that had tumbled down into the tunnel, leaving only a tiny crawl space between them and the daylight beyond. One by one, they all squeezed through, ending up outside among the crumbling ruins of a long-forgotten castle.

A sudden gust temporarily blinded Leo, and as he turned to shield his eyes, he spotted Lev standing behind a large block of stone, trying to light his cigar.

“Where are we?” Leo shouted against the wind.

“You’re standing in the ruins of a 12th century Cathar fortification.” Lev pointed across the valley to a column of smoke rising into the sky. “That’s what’s left of our castle.”

Against a clear blue sky, Leo could see the dense black smoke rising from a hilltop in the distance. Instinctively, he scanned the vicinity for helicopters and listened for the distinctive staccato-like chop of whirling rotor blades. It looked like the choppers were gone … at least for now.

Walking to the edge of a cliff, Leo could see that the weathered ruin of this medieval castle lay next to a sheer rock wall overlooking the river. It was obvious that its builders had taken advantage of its natural defensive position, for it would have been suicide to mount an assault up a sheer cliff, even though, unbeknownst to Leo, the details of history had spared this particular castle from ever being attacked.

Seven hundred years ago, the castle’s residents had abandoned it in place and fled for their lives in advance of a marauding army that had swept across the land putting everyone to the sword, even women and children. Rather than war, it had been stone masons who had reduced the castle to rubble when they had quarried its stone over the years for the construction of houses in a nearby village.

Leo felt a chill run down his spine when he surveyed the large cracked stone and looked out over the golden fields below. Ever since he had first arrived in this area of France, a vague feeling of uneasiness had been tugging at him. There was something about this place that had troubled him, something that he had been unable to put his finger on … until now.

It was at that moment, on a cliff with the wind in his face, that Leo was suddenly struck with the realization of where he was standing. It was here, in this exact part of France, that the Catholic Church had begun its depraved descent into one of the darkest chapters in its long history, for this had once been the land of the Cathars.

Leo had found their story fascinating. He had actually offered a semester-long course on the Cathar religion to some of his graduate students when he was teaching at Boston College, but hardly anyone signed up, so the course was dropped.

The Cathars of the Languedoc, as they were called, were a religious group that suddenly appeared in the Languedoc region of southern France in the 11th century. Their origin remains something of a mystery. It was as if they had blown in on the wind, much like the wind that now whipped over the men, women, and children who were huddled together behind Leo. Seven hundred years ago, Cathar families had also huddled together on this very hilltop, preparing to flee from a murderous army bent on their destruction.

Long before the days of the Protestant Reformation that eventually changed the face of religion in the Christian world forever, the Cathars had been a separate religion from Catholicism. The word Cathar came from the Greek Katharoi, meaning “pure ones”. Unlike other medieval movements, they had formed their own system of religious beliefs centered on kindness to others, the rejection of material wealth, and the promise of universal redemption inspired by Christ and his disciples.

They regarded men and women as equals, and they opposed all forms of killing, both human and animal. Because of this, they refused to eat meat or any other animal products, including eggs. Many of their ideas would seem startling and rather new-age, even to modern man, but their Christ-like theology of forgiving those who persecuted them was even more astonishing in the 11th century, a cruel period of history when man still believed the sun revolved around the earth.

Theirs was a dualist theology, for the Cathars preached that there was a complete incompatibility between love and power. Another radical departure from traditional Christianity was their rejection of the established belief in a one all-encompassing god. Instead, they believed in two equal gods of comparable power and status-one benevolent and one evil. In other words, they believed in a good god and a bad god. Basically, it was a different way of looking at the two separate entities of God and Satan, although some would argue that point.

They alleged that the physical world was evil and created by the Satan-like god they called Rex Mundi. He was known as “the king of the world” who ruled over all that was physical, chaotic, and powerful. The other god, the one whom the Cathars worshipped, was said to be a spirit of light that was completely untainted by all things physical. He was the god of love and peace. If modern hippies would have chosen a religion, it would have been the religion of the Cathars.

The Cathars believed that mankind was infused with a spark of divine light. This light, or spirit, had become captive in the physical body in a world ruled by Satan, thus the spirit of humanity was trapped in a sinful world created by an evil god and ruled by his corrupt minions.

At its doctrinal core, their beliefs centered on the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John. Because they embraced the New Testament as their most sacred text, they rejected the traditional view of the Old Testament, proclaiming that the God of the Old Testament was really the devil. Those who followed this line of thinking believed Satan had created the world as a sort of prison for mankind, and that he used the Old Testament to demand fearful obedience from his children. To the Cathars, this made perfect sense. It explained the human condition of suffering and misery brought on by violence, disease, hunger and poverty-all the things that had plagued humanity since the beginning of time, and Satan was behind it all in the form of an evil god that ruled over the earth and all things material.

The true god of the Cathars was a higher god-a god of love-a pure spirit that embraced his human followers. They believed that Jesus Christ was his messenger and referred to themselves as Christians, but the Catholic Church called them something else. To the medieval Catholic Church, the Cathars were heretics.

At the time, the region of southern France known as the Languedoc was not really considered a part of France. The culture of the area was still rooted in the feudal system, but the enlightened Cathars refused to swear an oath to any feudal lord. By the early 13th century, the tolerant and liberal beliefs of the Cathars had become the dominate religion in the area, much to the annoyance of the Catholic Church, who was being held up to public ridicule when their bejeweled abbots and priests, dressed in their best finery, preached poverty and demanded tithes to be paid to them in the name of the Church. The Cathars referred to the Catholic Church as the Church of the Wolves, while the Catholics countered with accusations that the Cathars belonged to the Synagogue of Satan.

And so it went, back and forth, until finally, the Church had had enough. After the French King, Phillip Augustus, refused to intervene, Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc and formed a Holy Army. The first military leader of this army was a Cistercian abbot by the name of Arnaud Amaury, a churchman with a sadistic penchant for terror and killing. He is best remembered for a command he shouted to his troops before they entered the town of Beziers in 1209. When asked by his soldiers how they could differentiate between the Catholics and Cathars, he said “Kill them all … God will know his own!”

Coincidentally, this famous quote was lost to history until it was resurrected by modern mercenaries. Their motto, “Kill them all, let God sort them out” can be found today emblazoned across the fronts of T-shirts worn by wannabe soldiers of fortune who sadly picture themselves as elite warrior-philosophers, even though they have no idea that the origin of their motto can be traced back to a man who prided himself in the killing of innocent women and children.

During this period of history, a war of terror was waged against the indigenous population of the Languedoc by the Church. An estimated 500,000 Languedoc men, women, and children were massacred-Catholics as well as Cathars. During the attack on Beziers, the doors to the church of St. Mary Magdalene were broken down and over 7000 men, women, and children, were reportedly dragged out and slaughtered.

Thousands of others in the same town were blinded, mutilated, dragged behind horses, burned at the stake, and used for target practice before the holy crusader army burned the city to the ground.

After the siege, Arnaud proudly wrote to Pope Innocent III, “Today Your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.”

Later, after the massacre at Beziers, Simon de Monfort, an especially dangerous and cruel baron who had successfully laid siege to the walled city of Carcassonne, was designated as the new leader of the Crusader army. The war against the Cathars continued on and off through the 14th century, setting the precedent for the various church-sponsored inquisitions that were to follow.

The lands of the educated and tolerant Cathars were eventually annexed by France and given to a group of nobles from the north, for in truth, it was a quest for land and Cathar riches that had been the driving force behind the crusade in the first place. In the end, an entire culture had been exterminated in what can only be described as church sanctioned genocide. The crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc has been described by historians as one of the greatest human disasters in history on par with that of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II.

Leo closed his eyes against the relentless wind as he thought of the senseless slaughter that had occurred in the cities and villages and fields all around him. The crusades of the Languedoc are a black mark against the Church that continues to this day, and for good reason, for the world can never forget what a few cruel men can do to a relatively harmless group of people in the name of religion-any religion.

A shout from below broke Leo’s reverie.

“Come on, Cardinal. We’re moving out.”

It was Alon, walking back up the hill with John from a scouting mission of the path along the riverbank to the south.

Leo deferred to Lev. “What do you think? Is it safe for us to leave this position now?”

“It’s probably vital. These are the kinds of places they will begin searching first. They’re bound to know that we’ll be seeking places of refuge that have the best chance of defense.”

“Ok then. Let’s get going.”

Leo joined the others and soon the entire group of men, women, and children were making their way down a winding path along the side of a steep cliff. Once down by the river, they continued walking south along a concealed dirt path that ran parallel to the riverbank. Alon and John took up a position a hundred yards ahead of the main group, weapons at the ready, while Moshe and some of the other men from the compound followed behind and covered the group’s retreat from the rear.

The men who had attacked the castle were not the only ones they were concerned with. The countryside had become a dangerous place since the plague had stopped the flow of food and other supplies from reaching nearby cities, forcing people from urban centers out into the surrounding countryside where they could forage for food in the fields. The French police and army were spread thin, and out here in the country, the situation had degraded into an every-man-for-himself mentality. After stockpiling the food they had grown themselves, the local farmers had barricaded their villages against the city dwellers. A new day had dawned around the world, and only the strongest and most prepared would survive.

Insects buzzed the fleeing families as they continued their slow trek beneath a canopy of overhanging trees. The water along this section of the riverbank looked deceptively still, its current running just below the surface. It was a striking metaphor for their situation; the woods around them looked calm and peaceful, yet there was an undercurrent of danger out there among the trees and fields, where men with guns hunted for anything that could keep them alive for just a few days longer.

Up ahead, Leo saw John running back in their direction, pointing down the river.

“There’s a big black river barge just up ahead.”

“Does it look old?” Lev asked.

“Very.”

“That will be the one we’re looking for. Let’s go.”

The group followed John around a bend until they came to a long barge tied to pilings that had been driven into the mud next to a wooden landing that was covered in leaves. Leo stood back and studied the aging vessel.

The barge reeked of oldness. The black paint on its thick planks was peeling off, and the cracked, dry wood of the railings was warped with age. Without waiting, Lev hurried up a squeaky plank to the deck.

Leo followed behind, while John and Alon began supervising the process of loading people and equipment onboard. Looking around at the flat deck, Leo was beginning to have his doubts. The boat had an odor about it that reminded him of the inside of a museum. It was as though the musty smell of river mud had permeated the wooden planks of the hull, daring it to float.

Rising only three feet above the weathered deck, a long structure with narrow windows ran down the center of the barge. Built low to allow the barge to pass beneath the many ancient bridges in this part of France, it also provided the added benefit of allowing light and air into the lower sections of the barge.

At the back of the barge was a small pilothouse that jutted only a few feet higher than the raised structure, making it obvious that steering the barge was accomplished from the stern section of the boat. Leo had just entered the pilothouse and was staring through the dusty windows when Lev walked up and joined him.

“Are you sure this is your friend’s barge?” Leo asked, peering through dusty windows that looked like they hadn’t been washed in years.

“Yes … positive.”

“I always thought barges were pushed by tugboats.”

“Most are, but the canal barges in Europe are self-propelled. The engine room for this one is right beneath your feet. Care to look around inside?”

“I don’t suppose it could be any worse off than the rest of the boat. I just hope this thing will make it all the way to the sea.”

Lev smiled. “Rest assured, my friend … it will. Barges like this have been plying the rivers and canals of France for hundreds of years.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Leo said, looking at the rusty gauges next to the steering wheel. “Do you think it’s wise to risk the children on something as old as this?”

“Their risk comes from something much greater if we don’t get going, Leo. Come on, I want to show you something.”

Opening a door that led below, Lev disappeared down some stairs. Ducking his head, Leo followed behind through the short opening into the darkness. He heard Lev fumbling around for a switch until, finally, the lights came on. Leo was shocked. The modern interior took him completely by surprise. A short hallway lined with artwork opened out into an immense space lined with dark cherry-wood paneling. Individual seating areas populated with tasteful leather and fabric furniture sat on Persian carpets that lay spread out on polished, hard wood floors, while recessed canned lighting highlighted brown granite counter tops in a large state-of-the-art kitchen that flowed into an entertainment area that included pool tables and wide screen TV’s. In short, the interior looked like a layout in Architectural Digest magazine, and it was huge. There was enough space for over a hundred people.

“What in the world is this, Lev?”

“It’s my friend’s vacation home. He also uses it for corporate retreats. He’s hosted more than a few lavish parties onboard this boat. The barge is really only a couple of years old, but he wanted it to look old and beat up on the outside to discourage anyone from breaking into it when he wasn’t around, plus some other reasons we’ll go into later. Of course, he has a state-of-the-art security system, but so far this low tech tactic has proven to be his best defense. No one has ever bothered trying to burglarize this boat, and I’m counting on its unassuming appearance to work to our advantage as we make our way down to the sea.”

“It sure fooled me,” Leo said, watching Lev grin as he lit one of his ever-present cigars. “And you enjoyed every minute, watching me squirm, didn’t you?”

“I have to admit, Leo, it was fun. Come on, let’s get everyone down below before anyone spots them and starts asking questions.”

It took only a few minutes to get everyone below decks while Moshe fired up the diesel engines and ran a check of all the systems. Up on deck, several of the men pulled in the lines securing the boat to the shore, and soon the beat-up looking barge was motoring smoothly down the river.

CHAPTER 38

As the sun dipped in the west, the barge was half-way to the coast when one of the lookouts on the bow spotted a group of tough-looking men standing on a bridge-a bridge the barge would soon be passing under.

Armed to the teeth with various types of weaponry, Alon and John were crouched down in the pilothouse deciding on a plan of action if they proved to be hostile. For now, the situation called only for close observation; they would have to watch and wait.

Posing as bored deckhands, the Israelis kept their weapons hidden from sight under tarps as they sat on deck and made a show of playing cards and drinking wine. As the bow of the barge passed beneath the bridge, their muscles tensed when they noticed that the men above were watching their progress with more than casual interest, and at least one of them was holding a rifle that looked like an AK-47.

Feigning disinterest, Alon waved overhead. The man waved back before lighting a cigarette. Always a good sign, Alon thought. A man preparing to shoot at you usually didn’t stop to light a cigarette.

Below decks, people held their breath as the barge passed under the carved gargoyle-like figures that lined the sides of the low bridge. Maybe the men on the bridge were just local villagers guarding their town from thugs who had fled the cities and were now ravaging the countryside, or maybe they were the thugs doing the ravaging-who knew? Whoever they were, they didn’t appear the least interested in the barge as it continued down the river.

Soon, the sun began to dip and twilight enveloped the boat as it flowed with the current on its way to the sea. Down below, Leo circulated among families who seemed to be taking everything in stride. These are strong people, Leo thought, stopping to chat with a young man with hands stained red from working in the vineyard and his wife, who was holding an infant.

Nearby, he saw John and Ariella, propped up next to each other on one of the sofas, sleeping. Across from them, sitting on tall, chair-backed stools that lined the front of the granite counter, Mendoza and Evita were focused on their laptops. Both had become fascinated with the code in the Bible and were busy searching for hidden phrases that might help them in the days ahead.

Javier had just taken a sip of coffee when he almost choked. Holding his hand over his mouth, he fought back the urge to spew coffee all over his computer screen.

“You ok, Javier?” Evita asked without looking up.

“Uh … not really. Take a look at this.”

Evita leaned over and peered at his screen.

Those who serve Him will become the hunted.

Evita tensed as she turned around and scanned the room full of people behind her. In a corner, she spotted Lev playing pool with a group of men. Sliding off the tall stool, she made her way through the crowded space and sidled up next to him.

“We need to talk.”

“What’s up?”

Evita led him to the counter and pointed to the screen on Javier’s laptop. “Take a look at this.”

Lev’s expression remained neutral. “This could mean a lot of things.”

“Don’t you see it as a warning?”

“Not necessarily, but it could be.”

“Shouldn’t we at least take some extra precautions?”

“Against what?” Lev’s expression turned sympathetic. “We’re all in the same boat …excuse the pun, but there’s absolutely no collaborating event or timetable to use as a gauge against this phrase. It’s pretty vague.”

Evita leaned back and ran her hands through her shiny black hair. “Should we tell Leo?”

“I think he needs a break from all the intrigue. This would only give him one more thing to worry about.”

Evita took a deep breath and closed her laptop. “You’re the boss, Professor.”

Lev was just beginning to say something else when the vibration of a low-flying helicopter rattled the glass as it flew directly overhead, its loud turbines drowning out all conversation.

Everyone froze as Leo and Lev pushed their way past groups of people and climbed up into the darkened pilothouse.

Moshe, along with Alon and Nava, were already scanning the starlit sky with night vision goggles. Apparently, the helicopter had disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared.

“How much farther to the coast?” Lev asked.

“About five miles,” Moshe replied. “I just got off the horn with Alex. He’ll have the speedboats waiting for us when we arrive on the beach.”

Lev made some quick mental calculations. “Even though it’s pushing things a little, each speedboat can hold up to eighteen people. With two boats, we can transfer everyone out to the yacht in two trips. Have Alex bring her in as close to shore as he can.”

“He said they made a trial run earlier to get their timing down. He’s keeping the yacht out in deep water until we get there, then he’ll make a run toward the beach and anchor a couple of hundred yards offshore before he launches the boats. Any closer and they’ll be scraping bottom.”

“Sounds good. What about lookouts?”

“Alex left a crewmember in the dunes with a radio.”

“Good man. Did anyone get a look at that helicopter that just flew overhead?”

“It was past us before we even had a chance to look up. No running lights … just a black hole in the sky.”

“Ok. Keep your eyes peeled.”

Leo opened the pilothouse door.

“Where do you think you’re going, Cardinal?”

“I need some fresh air. I thought I’d go out on deck.”

“I’d rather you didn’t. I’d like to keep the decks as free of people as possible right now.”

“Whatever you say. I guess I’ll go back downstairs and check on the families again.” Leo brushed past Lev and made his way below.

“You’re keeping the cardinal on a pretty tight leash,” Moshe said.

“I know. I’m starting to see snipers behind every bush, but that man’s important. I have a feeling that he’s going to be even more important someday … and not just to us.”

The radio in the pilot house suddenly came alive. “Alon … Moshe … come in. This is the Carmela.”

Moshe reached out and grabbed the handset. “Go ahead, Alex.”

“Did something just fly over you guys a little while ago?”

The men in the pilot house exchanged glances. “Yes … a chopper.”

“Our radar just picked it up. It’s circling around … it’s headed back toward you.”

CHAPTER 39

Alon grabbed the throttles and shoved them all the way forward. “Any sign of the chopper?”

“We’ll probably hear it first,” Moshe said. “If it’s flying at tree-top level, we won’t be able to see it until it’s right on top of us. Tell Alex to stay on the radio and keep giving us position reports.” Moshe pounded his fist on the console. “Damn! I wish we had a stronger radar unit on this boat!”

“What’s going on?”

The men in the darkened pilot house looked down to see Leo staring up at them from the lighted stairwell below.

“The chopper that just passed overhead is headed back this way.”

“Hostile?”

“No way to tell. If it’s one of the same helicopters that attacked the castle, then we have to take it out before it fires on us. A single hit from one of their rockets would kill everyone below.”

The scenario had a Cold War ring to it. Paranoia could cause one side to feel justified in launching a pre-emptive strike against the other.

“What if it’s not hostile?”

“We’ll just have to see how it behaves. If it looks like it’s positioning to fire on us, we’ll have to blow it out of the sky. We can’t afford to let them fire first.”

Moshe grabbed the radio headset and called the Carmela. “Alex … where is that chopper now?”

A brief pause.

“He’s hovering right behind you!”

“Grab the Stinger!” Lev shouted.

Alon pulled back an oily canvas tarp to reveal a three-foot-long, olive-colored tube with a gun-like trigger and optical sight attached. Known to soldiers as an FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missile, the portable air defense system used infrared technology to home in on its target.

Racing up on the back deck, he held the weapon to his shoulder and placed the looming shape of the helicopter in the crosshairs as he waited for the tone that signaled the weapon’s infrared sighting mechanism had locked in on the target. Within seconds, he had tone and was squeezing down on the trigger. A split second later he released his grip and stood back.

“What are you doing?” Lev shouted.

“Look.”

Above and behind them, the chopper had drifted sideways in an attempt to match the slow speed of the barge, giving Alon a clear view of the lighted French tri-color painted on the chopper’s dark blue tail. It was a French police helicopter.

The chopper suddenly backed away before making a violent turn over the trees along the bank.

“I believe they just caught a glimpse of the Stinger,” Lev said.

“They’re probably on the radio with the military as we speak, which means that anyone monitoring their communications will also hear about a well-armed barge headed down the river toward the coast. It won’t take Acerbi’s people long to figure out we’re on this boat.”

“Run her up on the bank.”

“What?”

Lev pointed to a slight bend in the river ahead. “Run the bow up on the bank. We’re only a few miles from the coast now. We should be able to make it overland to the beach from there. Aim for that spot under those trees leaning out over the water. That should give us some cover.”

“I’ll let the families know we’re going ashore,” Leo shouted from the stairwell.

“Start getting them all up on deck!” Lev shouted. “I don’t want anyone below the waterline if we punch a hole in the hull when we hit.”

Within minutes of the command to run the barge aground, everyone below had been herded up on deck. They were all bracing for a collision when the huge barge slid gently up against the bank and came to an anticlimactic stop in the soft mud.

Alon leapt down into the shallow water at the stern of the barge and waded ashore. With Stinger in hand, he settled in under a clump of trees and began to scan the skies for any new threats. Moving quickly, the men on deck began helping people off the bow onto the bank, and as soon as the last person was safely on shore, the entire group took off through the countryside. Moving almost at a run, they were trying to put as much distance between themselves and the barge as possible, for everyone knew that it was now a target.

With Alon covering their retreat from the river, John and Ariella followed along behind the main group with Dr. Diaz. A lifelong battle with asthma was forcing the overweight scientist to stop along the way to catch his breath as his body was wracked with fits of wheezing.

“Are you ok to go on, Dr. Diaz?” Ariella asked. “Do you have some medicine or something with you?”

“Yes … in my bag.” He dropped to one knee while Ariella dug through his bag and found a red plastic inhaler. Reaching out, Diaz grabbed it and shoved it in his mouth. In quick succession, he inhaled two metered puffs, and within seconds, his wheezing seemed to lessen as the color returned to his face.

“I’ll be alright now. Thank you, but we need to get going. The people chasing us will stop at nothing until we are all dead.”

John and Ariella exchanged glances.

“You know who they are?” John asked.

“I’m certain they are Acerbi’s people.”

“You know him?”

“Let’s just say we’ve crossed paths in the past. Come on you two, let’s go.”

Diaz rose to his feet and stumbled forward as a puzzled John and Ariella followed behind. They had all assumed that Acerbi was somehow behind the attack on the castle, but Diaz seemed sure of it.

Leo and Lev needed to know about this as soon as possible … especially if Diaz had been withholding information he should have shared with them sooner.

Unlike the hilly terrain that surrounded the castle, the land they were now passing through was flat. In the bright moonlight, their silhouettes where highlighted as they moved silently through musty-scented olive groves on their way to the coast. By now, they could smell the sea, and the humidity of the offshore breeze bathed them in its welcoming embrace as they crept past darkened gated villas. The very act of walking, of being in motion on foot, seemed to re-energize the group in their struggle against an unknown enemy that seemed intent on their destruction for some reason.

Passing thorough one of the ever-present vineyards, their moving figures blended in among the twisted and gnarled grapevines, until finally, Moshe pointed out the rising shapes of sand dunes glowing under the moonlight in the distance. The group continued along a trail that led between two tall dunes, finally emerging onto a wide sandy beach that bordered the area where the Aude River emptied into the Mediterranean Sea. There, to their relief, they spotted two of the Carmela’s speedboats bobbing in the luminescent surf surrounded by crewmembers dressed in black.

A figure in the dunes stood up and called out to the group. “Is that you, Professor?”

“Yes,” Lev shouted back.

The figure slid down the side of the dune and jogged up to Lev. It was the crew member Alex had posted in the dunes as a lookout.

“Where’s the Carmela?”

“She’s blacked out, sir. We anchored her just beyond the third sand bar. The captain had us make a few practice runs in the boats. Our transit time from the beach to the yacht is down to five minutes, and that includes pushing the boats off the beach.”

“Good. We need to start loading right away. We think the people who attacked the castle know we’re out here somewhere … and they have helicopters.”

The crewman flashed his light three times, and soon a human chain stretched from the boats to the water’s edge. In all, a total of over thirty men, women, and children began wading through the waist-high surf to the waiting boats for the first run out to the yacht. When the two boats were full, the drivers shoved the throttles all the way forward, and soon, the roar from their engines faded, replaced instead with the rhythmic sound of the rolling surf.

The families with children had been the first to depart for the yacht, leaving all the members of the Bible Code Team, along with several men and women from the compound, temporarily stranded on the beach. Grouped together, they huddled between the dunes to prevent their outlines from casting moving shadows against the stark white sand in the bright moonlight.

In the hyper-alert state of waiting, each new sound made them jump. Was that the thump-thump of a helicopter in the distance? Was that the sound of an animal stepping on a twig, or was it the click of a round being chambered in a weapon pointed directly at them from behind the next sand dune?

The questions pummeled their thoughts, like the obsessive-compulsive checklists of the mind that torture those who fear they’ve forgotten something after they’ve left home. Did I close the garage door? Did I turn off the oven? The list of potential threats was endless.

Suddenly, like ghosts in the night, the Carmela’s white speedboats reappeared over the crests of the waves and inched their way toward the misty shore. Looking back over their shoulders, the group in the dunes bolted for the water. Without waiting for the boats to slide up onto the sand, the evacuees thrust themselves into the surf and pushed the slim speedboats around before climbing onboard. Within seconds, they were charging back out to sea, leaving resident sea birds and crabs in their wake, the sole inhabitants of a beach that appeared deserted.

It was good to be home, for that was what the Carmela had become to the Bible Code Team-a place of refuge away from a world seemingly gone mad. Hadar immediately set to work in the yacht’s galley preparing food for everyone, while Ariella and Nava began organizing the crew to assist the families in finding places where they could sleep. Every inch of the yacht’s interior space had been given over to sleeping bags and makeshift beds, and soon they were all settling down with bowls of quickly prepared seafood stew as the Carmela disappeared into a thick fog that had suddenly settled over the Mediterranean along the French coast.

Up in the yacht’s communications center, Lev was talking to some of the crewmembers manning their stations. They were all marveling at the sudden appearance of the fog-a fog that had not been in the forecast. It was as if God had finally embraced them in his arms, protecting them from the airborne assault they had all feared was eminent.

Seated at one of the communications consoles, Lev had changed into his traditional khaki shorts and white shirt that he wore open at the top, revealing a tanned chest full of curled white hair. Leaning back in his chair, he let his feet slip in and out of his flip-flops as he scanned the various lighted screens around the room. Satisfied that there were no other boats in the vicinity, he turned to the yacht’s first mate. “What’s our fuel situation?”

“Alex had us make a few runs to shore in the speedboats so we could fill up some empty fuel drums with diesel fuel. It took us awhile because we had to go to several different marinas in the middle of the night, but we finally topped off our tanks early yesterday morning.”

“I love that Greek. He’s one of the most resourceful men I’ve ever known. He’s just made it possible for us to go home.”

Lev picked up a phone and punched in a number. A few buzzes later he had Daniel on the line.

“Professor … I can’t tell you how relieved I am to hear from you. We’ve been sick with worry here at the villa.”

“We’re all fine. What have you been able to learn about this man Acerbi and his organization?”

“You better hang on to your hat, Professor. I’ve got a lot to tell you.”

CHAPTER 40

Ensconced in their self-contained world at sea, the land based dangers they had all been facing for the past twenty-four hours seemed far away to Leo as he sat drinking coffee on the bridge. Looking through the expansive windows, he was watching the sun come up over an empty ocean. He loved it out here. The sea was solitude, which he cherished, but there was also the exhilaration of movement across a medium that allowed anyone with a seaworthy vessel to go anywhere in the world. It was a hard thing to explain to those who had never ventured away from the land.

Over the past year, he had been able to take quick little breaks from his duties at the Vatican to spend some time ocean fishing with friends. He loved looking down into the clear blue water, where he could see the darting white flash of a fish at the end of a taut line, its unique movement telling him what kind of fish it was.

While some would flee in a panicky zigzag battle just beneath the surface, others, particularly large game fish, would run for the bottom until the line played out, forcing them to turn. The curling slackness in the thin plastic line was a sure signal that the fish was now charging back toward the surface. An experienced fisherman would start reeling in as fast as he could, for he knew that if he allowed the line to remain slack, it would snap when the fish suddenly crossed under the boat or dived once again toward the bottom.

Leo thought the battle for survival at the end of a fishing line was a great metaphor for the way everyone onboard was feeling right now. For the past few days, they had all felt the panic of being caught at the end of a taut line while they moved in a zigzag pattern just out of sight of those who sought to reel them in.

Lev Wasserman entered the bridge, bringing Leo’s thoughts of a solitary life at sea to an abrupt end. Lev’s usual tendency toward casual banter was absent as he stared through the thick windows at a vacant ocean without speaking. It was obvious to Leo that Lev was trying to come to grips with something.

“I can’t seem to shake the image of that chopper burning on the ground back at the compound,” Lev finally said. “I’ve been running it over and over again in my mind. Do you remember when I told you I was planning on taking an early morning flight around the castle to check out the surrounding area?”

Leo nodded his head.

“If the chopper hadn’t been destroyed, Nava and I would have been in the air over the castle when those helicopters attacked.”

Leo nodded again.

“We would have been shot right out of the sky. Someone was watching over us.”

“It certainly wouldn’t be your first encounter with angelic intervention, Professor.”

Both men looked at one another in silence, because in truth, neither of them understood the strange series of explosions that preceded the main assault back at the castle.

“Back to Israel?”

“Yes. The world’s a very chaotic place right now, Cardinal. At least the odds will be more in our favor once we’re back on home turf.”

“I was thinking of asking you to drop me off somewhere near Rome, but I see no point in going there right now.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that, Leo, because we can’t go anywhere near the Italian coast right now.”

Lev’s tone of voice had changed. He had found something out. “It appears that Acerbi was behind the attack at the castle, and his people are actively looking for this boat as we speak.”

“So, it’s been confirmed?” Leo asked. “Acerbi was the one who attacked us?”

“I’m just now getting the details from Alex, but evidently the Carmela’s communication officer picked up some of the radio chatter between the helicopters and their base during the attack on the castle. She was smart enough to do a voice analysis on the person giving the orders. Turns out the voice print they recorded matched the one they had on file from one of Acerbi’s speeches. It was him … no doubt about it. Also, when we called the boat to let them know we were under attack, they immediately linked up to an Israeli intelligence satellite in geosynchronous orbit over Europe. They watched in real time as the choppers that attacked the castle returned to an airfield next to Acerbi’s chateau.”

“At least now we know for sure who’s trying to kill us, along with millions of other people in the world. We’ve got to do something about this guy, and the sooner the better.”

“We’ve been working on that since we came onboard, Leo … but there’s a problem.”

“What kind of problem?” Leo put his coffee down and let his green eyes zero in on Lev.

“Our intelligence people in Israel don’t want to tip their hand right now. They’re keeping the document we recovered a secret. The only thing that’s being reported to the authorities is the fact that Sarah was at his chateau. The French police did a cursory search of his property and came up with nothing to incriminate him.”

“Where is he?”

“Supposedly, he’s on one of his many business trips out of the country.”

“How convenient, but that won’t stop the investigation. It shouldn’t take long for the authorities to track him down and find out what he’s really up to.”

“That’s the problem, Leo. As soon as it was revealed that Sarah was at his chateau, several world leaders suddenly came forward to say he was the victim of a smear campaign … that she was never there.”

“Unbelievable. What about his chateau? Didn’t they find anything?”

“Squeaky clean. No sign of anything that resembled an operating room in the basement.”

“Did they check the third floor … the one Fredrick and Martha said was off limits to the staff?”

“Empty. The staff said it was being prepared for renovation.”

“They must have cleared the place out after Sarah escaped. What about the attack on the castle? How are they explaining that?”

“A sanctioned NATO raid on a heavily armed survivalist compound. The commander of the mission claims they were fired on first. If you remember, we activated our radar-guided ground-to-air weapons before we evacuated the castle. They were supposed to take out the inbound choppers. They fired as planned, but the choppers took evasive action and knocked them out. Apparently, their choppers were equipped with new, state-of-the-art systems that can defeat laser-guided weapons. NATO is also claiming that they were taking fire from large weapons from the castle itself, so they had to destroy it. Acerbi has managed to turn us into the bad guys and the French Navy is looking for us. Supposedly, we’re a rogue bunch of religious fanatics that were building a survivalist compound on French soil.”

“That’s crazy!”

“Crazy yes, but try to prove otherwise. According to international law, we had no business having the kinds of weapons we possessed on foreign soil. I’ll be the first to admit that we were allowing the Mossad to use the castle as a secret communications facility, but it was cleared through some of our friends in the French intelligence community. Suddenly, they’re not talking.”

“Damn! This Acerbi guy seems to have all his bases covered. It’s starting to look like he’s connected with some very powerful people.”

“Tell me about it. We walked right into a very tidy little trap.”

“So basically, you’re saying that we’re all now international fugitives.”

“Exactly. Acerbi played us perfectly. Rescuing Sarah led him right to us. He probably guessed that we had something on him and moved to eliminate us. We’re dealing with a totally ruthless individual who apparently has no conscience.”

“Any news on the spread of the pathogen?” Leo asked.

“It seems to have stopped spreading for now. There’s still no sign of it yet in Israel.”

Leo leaned back in his seat and stared out at the water. “Finally, some good news.”

“There’s more,” Lev said. “Dr. Diaz wants to obtain a sample of the virus.”

“What on earth for?”

“I have no idea, but I don’t want it anywhere near us. Even though Diaz has the expertise to study a lethal virus, we don’t have the facilities. We’d need a level 4 biohazard lab for something like that.”

“Diaz is a strange man, but he’s also a brilliant molecular biologist. I wonder what’s on his mind.”

“I’m sure we’ll hear from him again after we dock.” Lev lit a cigar and glanced over at the Carmela’s captain.

“Keep the boat at full speed, Alex. Make sure we stay in international waters until we’re directly off the coast of Israel … then make a run straight for the harbor.”

In the muted lighting of the conference room, Acerbi’s dark eyes glowered at the men who had failed him. “What the hell was the Bible Code Team doing here in France? And how could they have escaped completely undetected?”

“Apparently, there was an extensive tunnel system beneath the castle, sir. I’m afraid they’re long gone by now.”

“I know they’re long gone, you idiot!”

Looking down the long executive table, Acerbi saw that no one dared to make eye contact with him. They all seemed to be staring off into space at some invisible object hovering just beyond their field of vision. The room practically vibrated with fear.

“I want to know what that Catholic Cardinal and his Jew friends are up to.” Acerbi emphasized the word Catholic, as though the mere pronunciation of the word filled his mouth with an evil taste.

“They’re not Jews … they’re Christians, sir.”

“Whatever! I thought we had seen the last of these people last year. If it wasn’t for them we would still have the book and the power it possessed … it’s nothing but ashes now.”

Acerbi paused. He held his hands together as though he were praying before he leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. “At least we still have its words.”

Suddenly he leaned forward. His eyes blazed and he slammed his closed fists down on the table. “Until we can discredit or eliminate this Catholic and his friends, I want them moved to the top of the threat list. We have no idea what they know about us, but their presence here in France was no coincidence. I find that coincidences are usually linked to a larger truth with an invisible thread.”

Acerbi looked around the room. “What do we know about the two employees who helped the girl escape?”

A tall security man in a gray suit cleared his throat. “They were just common help, sir … hired to maintain the chateau. He was a gardener and she worked in the laundry. They’ve been employed by us for almost two years. We did a complete background check on both of them, and I went back over the tapes of their interviews. They didn’t appear to be that bright.”

“Spies never appear bright, which makes me wonder about some of the people sitting at this table. Bright people attract attention, especially the needy ones. I want your men to find out as much as they can about these two domestic servants. I think you’ll find that their true identities are much more impressive. Let’s start by putting a price on their heads … say, a million Euros apiece. Also, have our people in Europol put out warrants for their arrest. Even if we can’t find them, we might be able to learn who they’re really working for.”

“On what charges?” the man asked.

“What?”

“You said to have warrants issued for their arrest. What crime do we charge them with?”

Acerbi’s voice became progressively lower, a sure indication to those who knew him well that his patience was wearing thin. “Who cares? That’s your problem. Be creative.”

“What about the pathogen?”

“What about it?”

“Should we continue to disseminate it, sir?”

“The next man who asks me a question like that will live to regret it.”

A scholarly-looking man at the end of the table started to speak but changed his mind when he saw the darkening red color in Acerbi’s face.

Acerbi ran his hand around the inside of his collar and wiped away the beads of sweat that had formed on his upper lip. He blinked at the faces staring back at him. They were out of focus. He blinked again, but the faces looked even more distorted as he shook his head with the realization that his vision was becoming blurred, a psychologically induced physical manifestation resulting from an overload of built-up anger. It was a problem Rene Acerbi had experienced since childhood. His ears were ringing and he was beginning to sweat even more. He paused to take some deep, cleansing breaths, as he had been taught to do by his nanny, until finally he could see the faces around the table return to focus.

Acerbi took in another deep breath. He felt the strength returning to his body. “Has anyone here taken the time to read The Art of War? If not, I suggest you find a copy and read it cover to cover before our next meeting. There is a time to be aggressive and a time to be cautious. This is a time for caution. Allowing the girl to escape has caused an especially bright and inquisitive light to shine down upon us. As we sit here, some very powerful people are now watching … people we have no influence over. There will be no further dissemination of the virus until I give the order to continue.”

Acerbi glanced at the security man in the gray suit. The man seemed to be pushing himself back into the padding of his chair in a futile effort to make himself invisible.

“Are you positive Dr. Diaz is with them?”

“As far as we know … yes, Mr. Acerbi.”

Acerbi’s vision blurred once again. “I can’t believe it. The one man who can unravel our secret, and he’s with that Catholic Cardinal. He and all his Jew friends should be dead by now. We’ve missed two opportunities to take them out. We won’t miss a third.”

CHAPTER 41

It was just after midnight when the Carmela turned into the channel leading to the ancient port of Caesarea. Above and behind them, a dark gray UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter emerged from the darkness and flew directly overhead, rattling the windows on the bridge.

Alex handed Lev a cordless microphone. “The chopper is calling for you by name on the radio.”

“This is Lev Wasserman, go ahead.”

“Hello, Professor … welcome home.” The female voice sounded vaguely familiar.

“It’s good to be home. Who am I talking to?”

“This is Gabriella, sir.”

Lev grinned. Gabriella had once been Nava’s co-pilot in the Israeli Air Force, but had chosen to stay in the military after Nava finished her tour of duty and went to work fulltime for Lev.

“Gabriella! My beautiful little dove. What are you doing flying around out here in the middle of the night?”

“I was told there were some international fugitives in the area. Do you see any around?”

Lev winked at Leo. “No … no international fugitives here.”

“Good, just checking. Some of your friends from Tel Aviv are at the dock. We’ve cordoned off the area around the harbor to keep prying eyes away.”

“Sounds like you’ve got things covered.”

“I’m your eyes in the sky tonight, Professor. Tell Nava I’m sorry to hear she lost her little bird. I’m sure you’ll get her another one.”

“Daniel’s already put in the order.”

“I’ll be landing at the end of the dock to fly you to the villa. See you soon.”

An unsmiling Leo leaned back in his chair and ran his hands over the stubble on his face. “Should I ask who the friends from Tel Aviv are?”

“Mossad. We’re fully under the umbrella of their protection now. We’ve had a fighter escort circling above us for the last ten hours. My friends know what Acerbi is and what he’s capable of. We’re safe here.”

“And just who is Acerbi, Lev? The intrigue surrounding this man is beginning to grow tiresome.”

“Well, you better prepare yourself, Cardinal, because we’ve just arrived back in the Holy Land … a land filled with intrigue. I’ve been advised that there’s a briefing planned for us once we get back to the villa.”

Leo still wasn’t smiling. “Good. Maybe we’ll finally have some answers.”

“I think you can count on it.”

Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force lined the dock as Alex eased the Carmela into her berth. As soon as the Israeli commander was satisfied that the area was secure, he signaled the captain that it was safe for everyone to come ashore.

First off were the families with children, who were escorted to a waiting bus, followed by a sleepy-looking Sarah. As soon as she saw Daniel waiting on the dock below, she ran down the gangplank and threw herself into his arms. The two embraced, oblivious to the smiling soldiers all around them as the other members of the Bible Code Team walked off the boat behind her and headed for the idling helicopter that had just landed at the end of the dock.

After hearing that her best friend was piloting the chopper, Nava ran ahead of the group and squeezed into the co-pilot’s seat. In the red light of the cockpit, she grinned as she pushed a helmet down over her head and began to strap in.

Gabriella crossed her arms and adopted a mock frown. “Well, just make yourself at home … civilian.”

“Don’t mind if I do, former co-pilot of mine. Do you mind if I fly?”

“Think you remember how?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t we see?”

Gabriella moved her hands away from the stick. “She’s all yours, but you might want to wait until all the passengers are onboard.”

“Good idea.” Nava winked. She looked out the window at the team members walking toward the chopper, then turned back to face her friend as her usual grin faded into a look of exhaustion. “The last few days have been really weird, Gabbie.”

“We’ve heard, but you’re home now. No one’s getting through the defensive wall we’ve put up around this entire area. The villa looks like a military command center. Soldiers and police are everywhere. They’ve even moved in some heavy armor and shut down the highway. No one is getting anywhere close to you guys.”

“You don’t know these people, Gabriella. They’re spooky, and they have people everywhere.”

“Who the hell are they?”

“We’re not sure. Right now we’re on our way to an intelligence briefing at the villa, so I’m hoping some of Lev’s Mossad buddies will be able to fill us in on what they’ve learned over the past few hours.”

“I know about the briefing. I received orders to get you guys there as soon as you stepped off the boat.”

The rear door to the chopper slid open and all of the members of the Bible Code Team piled onboard. They were still strapping themselves in when Nava brought the engines up to speed and jumped the fully loaded chopper into the air.

“Doesn’t look like you’ve forgotten how to fly this bird,” Gabriella shouted into her mouthpiece.

“Seems like yesterday. Flying that little chopper off the yacht has kept me in practice, but I miss the power of the big Blackhawks.”

The halogen lights around the harbor faded below as they rose into the night sky and tilted in the direction of the villa. Flying low over the beach, they could see the moonlight reflecting off the white sand and the crests of the breaking waves along the shoreline, while out in the dark void that was the Mediterranean Sea, bobbing pinpoints of light offered proof that there were people out there, going about the business of life on the ocean.

Ten minutes after taking off, they were circling at a steep 45 degree bank over the villa as Nava glanced down over her left shoulder and picked their landing spot. Leveling out, she floated the big Blackhawk down on the lawn between the highway and the villa.

Against the sound of the turbines winding down, the rumble of heavy armor could be heard in the darkness as the team made their way into the villa through the main entrance. From there, they passed down a long hallway until they came to a set of stairs that led down to the command center below.

Leo had been here the year before, and memories of the first time he and John had seen this place flooded his mind as he reached the bottom of the stairs and walked through a pair of double steel blast doors into a room that resembled a NASA command bunker. Highlighted by spotlights embedded in a black-painted ceiling, rows of computer stations sat atop thick glass tables, while huge flat screens lined gray walls in the front of the room and white erasable boards lined another. At the back of the room, a wall of glass separated a high-tech communications section from the main information gathering area. This was the living, breathing heart of the Bible Code Team.

Usually, only team members were allowed down in this inner sanctum, but on this night there was a growing crowd of new faces. Besides the new Spanish team members, men in military uniforms milled about with another group dressed in plain clothes. Leo watched as Lev and Moshe greeted a stout, grandfatherly-looking man with thinning gray hair, a large stomach, and oversized brown eyes that missed nothing.

Alon sidled up next to Leo and nudged him in the side. “Do you know who that man is?”

“I was just wondering that.”

“That’s one of the men who captured Adolf Eichmann after he fled to South America after the war. He personally grabbed him right off the street next to his house in Argentina and shoved him in the backseat of a car. They drugged him and flew him back to Israel to stand trial before they hanged him. That’s one Nazi that didn’t get away.”

Standing behind the stout man were two tall IDF officers flanked by several civilian-looking types dressed in baggy gray slacks and white dress shirts.

“Mossad?” Leo asked.

“You’re getting good at this, Cardinal. Those men represent the top echelon of the Mossad. The man on the left is the current head of the service.”

Leo watched as a dark-haired man that looked like he had been chiseled from stone strode confidently to the front of the room and cleared his throat. It was obvious that this was someone who commanded a great deal of respect among the Israelis, because all talk stopped instantly.

“If I may have everyone’s attention, it’s late and we need to get started. To those of you who do not know me, my name is Danny Zamir. Currently, I am the director of the National Intelligence Agency of the State of Israel … better known as the Mossad. However, my employment status could change over the course of the next few days if the politicians in charge of our government find out what we’re about to do.”

A hushed murmur circled the room, accompanied by a few nervous laughs.

“After the biological attack on New York, we worked 24/7 to develop a short list of prime suspects, but in the past twenty-four hours that list has dwindled to just one name … the billionaire Rene Acerbi. Up until now, it was assumed by most people that Acerbi was just what he appeared to be-the head of a very large multi-national conglomerate. However lately, we’ve begun to hear rumors. It appears that our Mr. Acerbi has had his hands in a lot of pies, including blackmail, murder, gun running, and terrorism … just to name a few. To put it bluntly, Acerbi is a mentally unbalanced criminal who wants to rule the world, and there may be a religious component to his megalomania, a very dangerous combination, as we have all seen in the past.”

Zamir waited for his words to sink in as he watched the members of the Bible Code Team exchange covert glances with one another.

“We have learned that, to accomplish his goal, Acerbi wants to kill off at least half the world’s population. At first we were mystified as to why he wanted to do this, but it all leads down to simple math. In order to rule the world, he must control at least two things. First and foremost, he needs the ability to dominate the masses through sheer military strength. With the world’s current population topping out at seven billion people, no military force in the world would be able to oversee that many people, so he needs to cull the flock, so to speak. Secondly, in order to exert total control over those who remain, he and his group plan on becoming the world’s sole provider of the necessities of life … things like food, medicine, and energy top the list, but at the world’s current growth rate, that would also be an impossible task unless he decreased the number of souls inhabiting the planet. Less population equals greater control.”

“That’s horrific!” Sarah gasped.

“I see our survivor is among us,” Zamir said. “Welcome, Ms. Adams.”

Zamir looked back at a map of the world displayed on a lighted screen behind him.

“As to the religious component attached to his plan, we’re not entirely up to speed on what Acerbi’s religious beliefs are at this point. One of our sources has told us it’s a twisted aberration of a once noble faith that vanished from the face of the earth seven hundred years ago.”

“What religion is that?” John asked.

“He calls himself a Cathar.”

Instantly, most of the people in the room began talking among themselves or just stared straight ahead with perplexed looks on their faces.

“A what?” John asked.

“A Cathar. However, Acerbi is not the kind of Cather one reads about in history books. He and his followers are an aberration. They are members of a group that broke away from the main body of the Cathar faith that existed when the Catholic Church took up a crusade against them during the Middle Ages. The Cathars themselves were a peace loving people, but seven hundred years ago something happened to split the Acerbi family away from the teachings of the true faith. They’ve evolved into something quite different. At this point, we can no longer call them Cathars, for they have become everything the Cathars stood against.”

Leo fixed Zamir with questioning green eyes. “You’ve been watching Acerbi for quite some time now, haven’t you, Mr. Zamir?”

“You’re quite astute, Cardinal. That’s probably why you’re standing here tonight, but there’s something else you need to be aware of. Aside from taking over the world, another of Acerbi’s goals is the destruction of the Catholic Church … a church he holds responsible for the destruction of his faith over seven hundred years ago.”

“And rightly so,” Leo said.

The other members of the team glanced over at Leo with astonished looks.

“So you understand,” Zamir said.

“Of course. The Church has been responsible for some horrific acts in the past … a past we endeavor to put behind us every day. I would also say that as Jews, you would find some common ground with the original Cathars who were persecuted to the point of extinction.”

“You’re even more astute than I originally gave you credit for, Cardinal, which brings us to your original question.”

“That you’ve been watching Acerbi for some time now?”

“Yes, but we were invited.”

“Invited? Invited by whom?”

“Cathars, Cardinal … Cathars.”

CHAPTER 42

Leo’s mind seemed to go blank for a second … Cathars?

“I’m not sure we’re following you, Mr. Zamir.”

“I had a feeling my last statement would need some further explanation, Cardinal. Most people don’t even know what a Cathar is, much less the fact that they are still with us today. They continue to live among us in peace, but because members of their faith were once hunted to the point of extinction, they prefer to keep their beliefs private. In a world filled with religious turmoil, they’re probably the smartest of the lot. While the rest of us go about pounding on our chests and chanting the convictions of our chosen faiths as if they were ancient blood oaths, they go about their daily lives with quiet introspection, respecting the beliefs of others. When’s the last time you ever heard of a Cathar trying to convert you to their way of thinking?”

“To be honest, I’m one of those who didn’t even know they were still around.”

“Then look around you, Cardinal, because you’re standing next to some right now.”

A thin, feminine hand reached out and touched Leo’s hand. Leo felt the room sway when he saw Evita’s smiling face looking up at him. “You?”

“All the Spanish members of your team, Cardinal,” Zamir continued. “They’re all Cathars.”

A collective gasp reverberated among the original members of the Bible Code Team.

“Wow!” John said.

“I’ll second that observation,” Lev added. “How long have you known about this, Danny?”

“We first learned of their existence a few years ago when Spain’s National Center for Intelligence approached us with news that Acerbi and his group were up to something. If you remember, we were all a little busy after 9/11, and there was no concrete threat at the time, so we put the information on the back burner for a while. To be honest, we just didn’t see the need to become involved in something that wasn’t a threat to Israel. We were mistaken.”

“So, what happened to change your mind?”

“Let me fill you in on a little more background first.” Zamir looked around the room at all the somber faces staring back at him and smiled. “This is a tough crowd.”

A few pockets of nervous laughter erupted around the room. The head of the Mossad was an expert at putting people at ease, a talent he had acquired as a young man when he played the part of the good guy during interrogations of suspected terrorists.

“Basically, the true Cathars have known about this breakaway group for hundreds of years. On the surface, it appeared that they were evolving into more of a secular, profit-driven organization. They seemed more interested in acquiring material wealth … a goal no true Cathar would ever consider pursuing. Then, a few years ago, a leading member of Acerbi’s group broke ranks and fled to the Cathar ancestral grounds located in the Catalan region of southern France. It was well-known within the ranks of the true Cathars that anyone who broke with the Acerbi clan faced some pretty heavy retaliation if they were caught. We’ve heard rumors that the penalty for deserting the clan is death. To make a long story short, the defector found sympathetic ears among the modern day Cathars who still live in the area. After checking out his story, they gave him a house in a small village, where he has lived under an assumed name ever since.”

“So what do Cathars have to do with Acerbi’s plan?” Leo asked, glancing over at Javier.

“Like I said, modern Cathars live all around us. They’re teachers, scientists, doctors … they’re even employed as intelligence officers in several countries around the world. Believe it or not, you have a couple working at the Vatican, Cardinal.”

Leo was too enthralled with Zamir’s story to respond.

“The man who fled from Acerbi’s group agreed to share his knowledge of the clan’s activities with a fellow Cathar who also happened to be a Spanish intelligence officer. The Spanish were shocked to hear that Acerbi’s group was involved in things like blackmail of government officials, gun running, drugs … even assassinations, but when the Spanish authorities heard that he was funneling money to terrorist groups they gave us a heads up.”

“Why didn’t they just report Acerbi to the French police or Europol?” Leo asked. “I mean, they were just dealing with a criminal at that point. Why didn’t they take his organization out when they still had the chance?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Cardinal. The Acerbi clan has a multi-layered hierarchy, with secret groups within secret groups. He’s evidently received some advice from some of the best intelligence minds in the world. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. From an intelligence standpoint, it’s brilliant, but to anyone trying to break through into the inner circle to see just what’s really going on, it’s a nightmare. For over two hundred years, the Acerbi clan has been stacking the deck in their favor. All across the world, their people are embedded within the top echelons of the police, the military, big industry … they even have people at the executive level in a number of governments, including two sitting presidents. They control people in top positions in almost every government on earth.”

“So basically, we don’t know who to trust.”

“Exactly. That’s why we’ve chosen to work only with people we know well.”

“So our meeting with Javier and his group was no accident.”

“Not by a long shot. The crash of Orsini’s jet was a perfect opportunity to get your two teams together.”

“So the crash was just what it appeared to be,” Leo said. “An accident?”

“Some would call it providence, Cardinal. But whatever you want to call it, the accident was a lucky break for your pope. It appears that Orsini was working for Acerbi. He was on his way back to the Vatican with some special communion hosts made from Acerbi’s genetically modified wheat.”

“The ones found at the crash site?”

“Yes. We had the contents analyzed for a genetic signature after we received a copy of Acerbi’s memo. They were made from Acerbi’s genetically altered wheat. It looks like they were planning on replacing the hosts in the pope’s private chapel with the genetically altered ones, thus making the pope susceptible to the virus after he ate one. We believe it was their intention for Orsini to become pope and lay the blame for the viral outbreak right at the doorstep of the Church, thus honoring Acerbi’s ancestral pledge to destroy the Catholic Church from within.”

Leo stared back at Zamir and sat down next to Evita. “This is unbelievable.”

“The papacy has been laced with intrigue for the past two thousand years, Cardinal. This latest attempt to assassinate a sitting pope should come as no surprise to a church historian with your credentials.”

“So it was Pope Michael’s idea to send us to Spain?”

“Yes … after Morelli suggested it. The pope needed his best soldiers involved in the coming battle. Regardless, your two teams are now one, and Acerbi’s plan has finally been revealed to us.”

“Martha and Fredrick?”

“Katsas … Mossad field agents. I find it amusing that no one noticed they never made it onboard the Carmela in France.”

“What!” Alon shouted. “I’m sure I saw them on the beach … we did a head count.”

“There was an Israeli sub lying off the French coast. Some of our Special Forces snipers came ashore and positioned themselves in the dunes before your group arrived on the beach. Martha and Fredrick slipped off in the darkness to join them when you were all struggling with the Carmela’s boats in the surf.”

“I knew all along there were people watching us from those dunes,” John said.

Zamir smiled as Ariella rolled her eyes.

“The barge?” Leo asked Zamir.

“Ours.”

“Go figure.”

“So basically, we were bait,” Lev said, finally breaking his silence. “I’m not sure I appreciate you putting us in harm’s way like that without telling us, Danny.”

“You were once one of us, Lev. You know how we operate. We couldn’t show our hand until after we were sure no one at the compound or in your group was connected to Acerbi. His tendrils are wrapped around everything. If it’s any consolation, we’ve always had your back. Who do you think destroyed your helicopter and set off those charges around the compound before the attack?”

“Martha and Fredrick?”

“Ephraim. He was instrumental in making sure you were out of the castle when Acerbi’s choppers arrived.”

“Why didn’t you just take out the choppers before they got to us? You evidently had assets in the area.”

“For the same reasons I mentioned earlier … secrecy. Our plan will fail if Acerbi catches even a hint that we are aware of his involvement. Suffice it to say that our power lies in his ignorance. For now, he’s still trying to cover up the kidnapping of Sarah and figure out what you were doing in France. Once we found out that he was behind the disappearance of the only person in the world who had survived the virus, we knew we had our man … Acerbi was behind the biological attacks. Luckily for us, Martha and Fredrick were already in place. They risked their lives searching the chateau for documents to back up our suspicions.” Zamir laughed. “You didn’t really believe that stuff about the laundry chute, did you, Cardinal?”

“Sounded plausible to me, but what about Sarah? You were still risking the life of a civilian who had no idea what she was getting herself into.”

“There are no civilians when it comes to killing off half the planet,” Zamir said, his eyes scanning every face in the room. “Besides, Sarah was under our protection the entire time she was at the chateau. Despite their appearance, Martha and Fredrick are two very experienced operatives. They’ve been caretakers for some of the most evil men in the world … who by the way are no longer with us. They were prepared to give their lives for Sarah if Acerbi had decided to harm her. For now, it appears he is busy putting his power base to work in an effort to discredit the entire Bible Code Team and prove to the world that you brought Sarah to France-that you were a bunch of radical survivalists creating your own paramilitary base on French soil for your own nefarious reasons. He’s throwing up smoke clouds everywhere to keep the attention away from him. This buys us time on two fronts. He doesn’t dare release anymore virus until things calm down, and we now have more time to find the source of the pathogen before we take him out.”

“Wow,” John said. “This guy’s like the Antichrist.”

Zamir nodded his head. “That’s a good analogy my young friend, because we’re looking at a viral Armageddon if we don’t stop him.”

“So what do we do now?” Leo asked.

“Sleep, Cardinal … just sleep. Tomorrow we’ll go over our plan.”

With that, Danny Zamir walked from the room, followed by an entourage of some very serious-looking men.

CHAPTER 43

An unseasonable Mediterranean storm had kissed the coast during the night, leaving a treasure trove of debris up and down the beach for early morning beachcombers. Now that the storm had passed, the rolling dark clouds had been replaced by bright sunlight, and behind the villa, the sun’s rays were bouncing off the pool, reflecting against the white stucco walls of the grand house. If it weren’t for the heavy military presence, the entire scene would have been the perfect setting for a picture in a travel brochure.

Opening his eyes, Leo looked around the white-shuttered guest room and pulled the quilted comforter up next to his chin. During the storm, he had tossed and turned for over an hour before sleep finally came. Now, instead of jumping out of bed as was his habit, all he wanted to do was roll back over and close his eyes again. His dreams hadn’t been all that pleasant, but he feared the real nightmare still lay ahead. He needed a shower and some strong Italian roast coffee.

When it was finally evident that he was not going back to sleep, he made his way into the bathroom and stepped through the green-tinted glass doors of the shower. Feeling the cool tiles against his bare feet, he adjusted the water temperature to just below scalding. Rivulets of soap circled down into the drain as he lathered up and let the hot water massage his stiff muscles. Age was beginning to creep up on him, and although the typical youthful angst involved in searching out the meaning of life was something he was glad to leave behind, it would be nice to just hop out of bed in the morning without groaning.

When he was finished, he turned off the water but remained standing on the wet tiles, holding on to the handle and staring straight ahead. It wasn’t just the aching muscles he was feeling-it was fear. He had never felt fear like this before. It grabbed at his stomach and made the hairs on his arms reach out, as if they were testing the air for an invisible threat blowing on the wind.

Shaking the water from his hair, he stepped out and dried off before dressing in a pair of white shorts and a black polo shirt that he found hanging in the closet, a remnant of his last visit. Winding his way down the grand stairway to the first floor of the villa, he followed the sound of voices until he found himself standing outside next to the poolside bar, where everyone had gathered for breakfast. Lev had just finished swimming laps and was sitting on a bar stool, dripping wet in a pair of bright orange swimming trunks with a towel draped over his tanned shoulders.

“Good morning, Cardinal. That was quite some storm we had last night.”

“I had a hard time getting to sleep, but it wasn’t the storm that kept me awake.”

“I believe we all had a problem sleeping last night, Leo.”

“Where’s Zamir? I thought we had a meeting with him this morning.”

“He’s on his way. He had some last minute business to finish back on King Saul Boulevard.”

“King Saul Boulevard?”

“That’s the street in Tel Aviv where Mossad headquarters is located. I guess I never showed you the place.”

“Probably a hassle getting through all the security anyway,” Leo said.

“Actually, anyone can just walk right in … at least on the first floor. The entrance to one of the world’s premier intelligence gathering organizations is located in a shabby-looking bank lobby behind a plain door next to a potted plant by the elevators.” Lev smiled. “What are you having for breakfast?”

“Just some toast and eggs … and a strong cup of coffee. You wouldn’t happen to have any Italian roast, would you?”

Lev glanced over at the cook behind the counter. The man looked up and winked, indicating that he had heard Leo’s request.

Leo pulled up a bar stool and looked out over the dunes at the sea beyond.

“No laps today, Cardinal?”

“Not today. I’m just not up to it.”

“A quick swim might do you some good.” Lev had gotten used to seeing Leo swim laps every morning if there was a pool available. After suffering two concussions on his high school boxing team, Leo had switched to swimming in college. The discovery of a new sport at Georgetown University had also coincided with the discovery of another new passion-a love for the academic life, especially history.

“Maybe later. Right now I just want to relax and have a hot cup of coffee.”

“Suit yourself, Cardinal.”

Leo was in the process of taking his first sip when a large hand slapped him on the back. “Good morning, Cardinal.” It was Alon. “No swimming today?”

“Maybe after breakfast.” Leo forced a tight smiled as he looked back over his shoulder at the big man standing behind him.

“That’s not good for you, Leo. You need to swim first.”

“I’m beginning to feel like I’m surrounded by a bunch of Jewish mothers.”

“You forget, we’re Christians, but our Jewish heritage compels us to tell you what’s good for you and what’s not good for you. You need to swim.”

For the first time in days, Leo laughed out loud. He loved the fact that his friends knew how to talk to him. When they saw he was feeling down, they goaded him into action, a tactic they had used ever since they noticed his tendency to moodiness after he had become a cardinal.

The muffled throb of an approaching chopper prompted the group to look up. A strange looking dark gray helicopter was hovering just above the villa.

“That thing sure is quiet,” Leo said. “I thought it was much further away.”

“Top secret,” Lev said. “It’s one of our new stealth helicopters. Gabriella told me she just got checked out in it last week, so she’s showing off for Nava and her new boss.”

“Who’s her new boss?”

“Danny Zamir. That’s his new ride.”

Leo yawned. “And I was having so much fun just sitting here with nothing to do.”

As the chopper continued its quiet descent, Leo turned to see John and Ariella walking from the beach across a rickety boardwalk that crossed the dunes. They were accompanied by a small brown dog who began to whine and ran straight to Leo as soon as he saw him.

“Camp!”

The little dog leapt into Leo’s arms and began licking his face, reviving memories of the year before, when they had rescued the half-starved animal at a roadside park next to the Dead Sea. They had named him Camp after their camp in the Negev Desert. Leo felt the dog’s fat little belly as he held him in his arms. “If I didn’t know better, I would say that someone’s eating more than his fair share of food around here.”

“He makes the rounds to all the houses on the compound when we’re gone,” Ariella said. She took Camp’s furry face in her hands and kissed him on the nose. “Who can resist those big brown eyes?”

Just then, they heard men’s voices as Danny Zamir walked around the side of the villa followed by the ever present entourage of casually dressed intelligence types and a few men in military uniforms.

“Good morning, everyone. I trust you are all rested.”

“Good morning, Danny,” Lev said, scowling. “Let’s skip the formalities. Want some breakfast?”

Zamir smiled at Lev as he retrieved a cup of coffee from the bar. “I’m glad to see you’re in such a good mood this morning, Professor.”

“Sorry. I couldn’t sleep last night … the storm.”

“Well, I’m afraid there’s a bigger storm coming, my friends.” Zamir looked for a response but received only blank stares in return. “I hate to break it to you like this, but I’m sending all of you straight back into the teeth of the tiger.”

“We’re going back to France?” Alon asked.

“Yes … tonight.”

Lev’s scowl grew deeper. “I was under the impression that we were all international fugitives.”

“We’re working on that. For obvious reasons, you won’t be returning on the Carmela. We’re flying you in on a military jet … a Boeing C-17 Globemaster.”

“That means we’re either landing at a good-sized airport or a military base,” Alon said.

“Neither. You’ll be landing on a private strip at the base of the Pyrenees near the city of Toulouse. From there you’ll be taken to a safe house on the outskirts of the ancient town of Foix.”

Lev ran his towel through his hair and laid it on the bar. “Foix? What’s in Foix?”

“It’s an ancient Cathar stronghold. That’s where you’ll be meeting with our contact, the man who fled from the Acerbi family years ago … the man who, hopefully, still has some connections inside the family and will be able answer some of our questions.”

“He doesn’t have all the answers,” a voice said.

Looking back over his shoulder, Zamir saw Dr. Diaz standing behind him.

“Good morning, Dr. Diaz.”

“Good morning. I’m afraid the professor was right when he said we didn’t have time for formalities. I need to look at that virus … and I need to do it soon.”

CHAPTER 44

Zamir and the others stared back at Diaz. For a moment, no one responded. His sudden demand to study the pathogen had caught them all off guard.

“Won’t you join us, Dr. Diaz,” Lev said, pushing an empty stool out from the bar with his foot.

“Yes, thank you, Professor.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t get back to you sooner concerning your request to examine the virus, but I’m afraid it’s out of the question. The authorities won’t let a specimen of it anywhere near Israel.”