/ Language: English / Genre:thriller / Series: Joe Ledger

Assassin's code

Jonathan Maberry


Jonathan Maberry

Assassin's code

Part One

Acts of War

Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.

— Mohandas Gandhi

Chapter One

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:23 a.m.

She said, “Look down at your chest.”

I held the cell phone to my ear as I bent my head. Two red dots, quivering slightly, danced right over my heart.

“You are one second away from death,” said the caller.

Chapter Two

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:25 a.m.

I didn’t know the voice. She was a stranger. I didn’t know her name. Didn’t know anything except that she had my cell number. Ten seconds ago I was about to go into Starbox-yes, they really call it that in Iran-for a cup of bold and a couple of pastries. The street outside was empty.

I looked up. The shooters had to be in the building across the street, maybe the fifth floor. Didn’t really matter, the range was a hundred yards and even a sloppy marksman could punch my ticket at that distance. I doubted these guys were sloppy. And there were two of them. I was also pretty sure I knew why they were after me.

“Okay,” I said.

“I need you to confirm your name,” she said in Persian. She had a very sexy voice for a psycho killer. Low and smoky.

“Why?”

“Because I have to be certain.”

“Geez, sister,” I said, “if this is how you ID your targets then I don’t think you’re going to get that contract killer merit badge.”

The joke didn’t translate well but she made a sound. It might have been a laugh. Glad she was amused. Sweat was pouring down my spine. The two little laser sights gave me no chance at all to run.

“If this was simply a matter of killing you,” she said, “then we’d have done it and taken your wallet for identification.” She had a European accent but she was hiding it by trying to speak Persian like a native. Kind of weird. Not the weirdest thing going on at the moment.

“Um… thanks?” I said.

“Tell me your name,” she said again.

There had to be three of them. Two shooters and her. Was she the spotter? If not, there could have been one or two others, spotting for the gunmen. Or it might have been the three of them.

“Ebenezer Scrooge,” I said.

“No games,” she warned. “Your name.”

“Joe.”

“Full name.”

“Joseph.”

One of the laser sights drifted down from my chest and settled on my crotch.

“Once more?” she coaxed.

“Joseph Edwin Ledger.” No screwing around this time.

“Rank?”

“Why?”

“Rank?”

“Captain. Want my shoe size?”

There was a pause. “I was warned about you. You think you’re funny.”

“Everyone thinks I’m funny.”

“I doubt that’s true. How often do you make Mr. Church laugh out loud?”

“Never heard of him,” I lied.

Now I was confused. Up till now I thought she was part of a team looking to take me down for the little bit of nastiness I got into last night. Echo Team and I went into a high-security facility and liberated three twentysomethings who had been arrested a year ago while hiking in the mountains. The Iraqi mountains. An Iranian patrol crossed the border, nabbed the hikers, and started making noise in the media that the three hikers had illegally trespassed and therefore they were spies. They weren’t. One was a former Peace Corps team leader who was there with his animal behaviorist girlfriend who wanted to take photos of a kind of rare tiger to help her with her master’s thesis. Acinonyx jubatus venaticus. Asiatic cheetah. Also known as the Iranian cheetah. No, I’m not making this up.

The hikers had been used as pawns in Iran’s ongoing policy of stalling and disinformation regarding their nuclear program. Normally we’d let the State Department and world opinion exert pressure on the Iranian government… but the third member of the hiking party was the only son of one of America’s most important senators. The real twist is that the senator was a key player on several committees crucial to the U.S. war effort. Everyone with a spoonful of brains knew that the Iranians staged the whole thing to be able to turn dials on Senator McHale.

And it was starting to work. So the president asked Church to make the problem go away. We were Church’s response.

“So, who gets to slap the cuffs on me?” I asked.

This time she did laugh.

“No, Captain Ledger,” she said, “here’s how it’s going to work. As soon as I am done speaking you will turn off your cell phone and remove the battery and the SIM card. Put the SIM card and phone into different pockets. Walk to the curb and drop the battery into the culvert. Then I want you to go into the cafe. Order a coffee, sit in the corner. Do not reassemble your phone. Do not use the store’s phone. Write no notes to the staff or other customers. Sit and enjoy your coffee. Read the newspaper. Ahmadinejad is insisting that the dramatics at the prison last night were the result of a boiler explosion. You should find that amusing. Do not make any calls. Maybe have a second cup of coffee.”

“Do you work for Starbox? If so, I can’t say I dig your new marketing strategy.”

She ignored me. Her resistance to my wit was almost as disconcerting as the laser sights on my junk. Almost.

She said, “In a few minutes a person will enter the cafe. A man. He will recognize you and will join you. The two of you will have a conversation and then he will leave. Once he has left, you will wait another ten minutes before you reassemble your phone. You are on your own to find a new battery. You are supposed to be resourceful, so I imagine you will solve that problem without my advice.”

“Then what do I do?”

“Then,” she said, “you will do whatever you judge best.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“When do I meet you?”

“You don’t.”

“I’d like to.”

“No,” she said with another little laugh, “you would not.”

“Tell me something, miss, why go to these lengths? This could have been arranged with a lot less drama.”

“No it could not. If you are smarter than you appear, then you’ll understand why in a few minutes.”

“These laser sights going to be on me the whole time? It’s a lousy fashion statement and people will talk.”

There was a moment’s silence on the other end and then both sights vanished. I had to control myself from collapsing against the wall. I was pretty sure it would be two or three weeks before my nuts felt safe enough to climb down out of my chest cavity. My heart was beating like a jazz drum solo-loud, fast, and with no discernable rhythm.

“The clock is now ticking, Captain Ledger. Once I disconnect, please follow the instructions you have been given.”

“Wait-” I said, but the line went dead.

I held the phone in my hand and looked across the street to the office building. Even without the sights I knew they could take me anytime they wanted.

There were no real options left. Just because the laser sights weren’t on me didn’t mean that I was safe. I think they’d used them for effect. It was broad daylight; they certainly had scopes. So I did as I was told. I dismantled my phone and put the SIM card in my left coat pocket and the empty phone casing in my jeans. With great reluctance I walked to the edge of the pavement and stared for a moment down into the black hole of the culvert.

“Crap,” I said, and dropped the battery, which vanished without a trace. All I heard was a dull plop as it landed in the subterranean muck.

Before I turned to go into the store I scratched the tip of my nose with my forefinger. I was sure they’d see that, too.

Chapter Three

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:39 a.m.

I went into the Starbox and ordered my coffee.

The waitress, a slim gal with a blue headscarf, glanced at my hands, which were visibly shaking. “Decaf?” she asked.

I screwed a smile into place and tried to make a joke. It fell flat. I repeated my drink order in a low mumble, paid for it and a French edition of the Tehran Daily News, and took them with me to a table where I could watch the street. It was pretty early, so the place was empty. There were two leather chairs in a corner and I took one, aware that there was no place in the cafe where a shooter with a good scope couldn’t find me.

Last year I’d been in a coffee shop when a strike team tried to take me out. You’d think I’d have learned by now. My best friend and shrink, Dr. Rudy Sanchez, constantly tells me that I drink too much coffee. He says, “Caffeine will kill you,” all the time. He’ll be delighted to hear me admit that he was very nearly right.

I crossed my legs as if that would offer my groin any real protection from a high-velocity sniper bullet and tried to read the paper.

Apparently America is still the Great Satan. What a surprise.

The main headline was about last week’s assassination attempt on the nation’s Rahbare Mo’azzame Enghelab-the Supreme Leader. A man dressed as a Shia cleric had attended a prayer session at Mashhad, which is the second largest city in Iran and one of the holiest cities in the Shia Muslim world, over five hundred miles east of Tehran, near the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. It’s the resting place of the Imam Reza, seventh descendant of the prophet Muhammad and the eighth of the Twelve Imams. I’ve been there. It’s a gorgeous city, and home to the most extensive collection of Iranian cultural and artistic treasures. Millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mashhad every year, as do scholars and tourists like me; and that’s been going on since medieval times. The saying is “The rich go to Mecca but the poor journey to Mashhad.”

So, after a few introductory speeches, the Supreme Leader stepped up to lead the people in prayer and discuss matters of faith. Problem was, the fake cleric whipped off his coat to reveal a vest packed with Semtex. A group of young men grabbed the bomber and tried to drag him outside before the bombs went off. They only partly succeeded, and though the mosque was not destroyed, it was damaged. The Supreme Leader received minor injuries, but sixty-four people died, and the effect was like cutting a scar into the flesh of Islam.

I’m not a Muslim, and I’m not deeply religious even with my Methodist upbringing-not like my father and brother whose butts have worn grooves in the pews in our church back in Baltimore-but there is something that disgusts me on a deep level when someone makes a deliberate attack on the faith of another person, or in this case on an entire people. I don’t like it when it happens to Americans; and I certainly don’t like it when Americans do it to each other. Can’t say I’m much in favor of it anywhere in the world.

Who was to blame for this particular hate crime?

Hard to tell.

Lately there’s been a weirdly sharp rise in hate crimes throughout the Middle East. Five times as many suicide bombers, a 300 percent increase in political assassinations, plus car bombs, pipe bombs, and even a rash of people found murdered with their throats completely torn out.

At the best of times the Mideast was never known for its easygoing tolerance; lately it’s like everyone has gone just a little bit crazier. My boss, Mr. Church, has been monitoring the escalation of violence, and although he hasn’t come out and said so, I’m certain that he’s suspicious of the rising body count. My friend Bug, who runs the computer resources for the Department of Military Sciences, told me on the sly that Church wanted him to run a thorough background search on the victims, even the ones who appeared to be innocent bystanders.

“Why?” I asked.

“’Cause the boss thinks there’s a hidden agenda,” answered Bug.

“He always thinks there’s a hidden agenda,” I remarked.

“He’s usually right, though, isn’t he?”

And I had no argument for that. Like the bumper stickers say, “You’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.”

I’d been following this in the local and national news, and I scanned the paper to see if they had anything on the mosque bomber, but this rag was pretty heavily slanted toward the ultraconservative view, which pretty much concludes that if a bird shits on a statue in Iran it’s a U.S. plot. The reporter, probably quoting a government directive, claimed that this was the latest act in a series of escalating terrorist attacks by America. Completely ignoring the fact that half of the recent victims in the Middle East were Americans or allies. Go figure.

The rest of the paper was local stuff. No cartoons. No Doonesbury or Zits or Tank McNamara. No crossword puzzle.

Time crawled by. A few people came in for coffee.

I debated rolling sideways out of the chair and shimmying behind the counter, but if I did that and the snipers opened up I’d be the cause of civilian casualties.

Besides… after all this I kind of wanted to see who was going to walk in the door.

While I waited, I went over everything that had happened last night. This thing with the woman and the snipers didn’t seem to fit, but… how could it not? We did a lot of harm last night… Somebody must want some payback.

I sipped my coffee. It wasn’t Starbucks, but it was hot and black.

I could almost hear the echo of gunfire in my ears…

Chapter Four

Afa Police Station

Tehran, Iran

One Day Ago

June 14, 7:20 p.m.

The trial was set to start in two days, so to avoid the crowds near the capital building that had been a constant since the mosque bombing, the military moved the three hikers to a secure location on the outskirts of Tehran. The move was also likely done to reduce the risk of having the press ask any questions of the hikers, and there was an army of reporters from all over the world in Iran right now.

This whole thing worked for us. It gave us a window we otherwise would never have had.

The new location was a small jail near a residential district; no one would think to look there. Except we were already looking there. Our computer, MindReader, was plugged into the Iranian military police network, courtesy of Abdul Jamar, an Iranian on the CIA payroll. Abdul’s older brother had been murdered by the secret police for writing essays in protest of the nuclear program. This was his form of payback.

When Mr. Church formed the Department of Military Sciences he built it around the MindReader computer system, which was his sole property. Bug, our head of computer operations, hinted that Church may have written some of its more advanced software packages, but Church refused to confirm it. Actually, Church simply ignored the question, which was his style. MindReader has a lot of functions, but two stand out and make it the most valuable tool in the intelligence arsenal. It is designed to look for patterns, and though computers can’t generalize, MindReader comes damn close. It gathers information from other sources, including many that refuse to share their intel with the DMS. That doesn’t matter to MindReader, and that’s the other reason it’s so valuable. It is designed to intrude into virtually any other computer system without tripping alarms, and when it backs out, it rewrites the target computer’s software so that there is no record that it had ever been hacked. The system is proprietary and no one outside of a select few DMS senior staff has access to it; and no one has full access except Church.

My team and I were staying in a seedy hotel near the center of town-one that allowed dogs-and my dog was currently waiting there for us. When we got word about the transfer, we began tracking the move through a series of high-security-coded e-mails. I had half of Echo Team with me for this: my number two, First Sergeant Bradley “Top” Sims; the big California kid, Harvey “Bunny” Rabbit; the professorial Khalid Shaheed; the laconic former LAPD sniper John Smith; and the newbie, Lydia Ruiz, who was in the navy’s first covert group of women SEALs.

Khalid was, among other things, a makeup artist who could have gotten work on Broadway. When we arrived at the hotel room, among the equipment delivered for us was a professional stage makeup kit. Khalid used it to transform us all into Iranians. Luckily a lot of people in Iran look like their European forebears. Khalid had to tone down his own darker Egyptian complexion. Bunny and I both got our fair hair dyed black. Lydia was Latina but had the olive skin of her Madrid ancestors; with the right eye makeup and a modest chador with a headscarf, she would blend right in. John Smith was already dark-haired, so Khalid gave his pale face a little more color.

Top was never going to look like either an Iranian or an Arab, but that was okay. There were plenty of African Muslims in Iran, and Top could speak Somali and Persian with an African lilt. Except for Top, we all dressed in military police uniforms.

We let the transfer happen and gave it about three hours for all the hubbub to settle down. Top, dressed like a factory worker, came into the police station to report that someone had stolen the tires off of his car while he was out to dinner with his wife. Lydia was the wife. Top was not hysterical but still managed to be loud enough to draw attention, and no matter what he said, Lydia contradicted and corrected him. The officers found it all very amusing, though they dutifully took the report.

The rest of us watched all this on tiny monitors built into the faces of our wristwatches. Very Dick Tracy. One of the last toys Mr. Church got from his longtime friend Steve Jobs. Stuff was three years away from hitting the commercial market. They’ll be going out as iSee, and Apple will make another gazillion off it. Pretty handy for the military, especially when married to the high-definition digital camera built into the middle button of Top’s shirt.

We were parked in two cars, one in front, one in back. The streets were empty. It was nearing the time for Isha’a, the evening prayer, last of the five prayer times of the day.

Eight men in the police station’s front room. Top made sure to show us as he turned to appeal to one officer after another in his distress about his tires. MindReader provided us with a floor plan. One door in front, one in back. Ten cells. Thermal scans from a satellite confirmed the eight men up front and four more in the back, plus three thermal signatures in the holding area. The hikers each separated into different cells.

Twelve to five, and if we blew the snatch or let them raise the alarm, we were going to fill those empty cells. Even though none of us carried any ID, and although our fingerprints and DNA were in no databases anywhere, thanks to MindReader, it wouldn’t be a stretch for anyone to guess where we came from. We were potentially bigger political currency than the three college kids, even if one of them was a senator’s only son.

“Okay, Top,” I murmured as we got out of our cars. “Party time.”

The easiest way to do this would have been to kick the doors, toss in a couple of flash-bangs and kill everyone in a uniform. That would also be barbaric. We weren’t at war with Iran, and we certainly weren’t at war with a small regional police station. The officers in there were nowhere near the policy level. They were probably working schlubs like me and my guys; like my brother back in Baltimore PD.

So we went with Plan B.

The flash-bangs? Yeah, okay, we did that. But, hey, everyone likes party favors.

When I gave the word, Top and Lydia jammed their palms against their ears, squeezed their eyes shut and dropped to the floor. Khalid came through the station’s front door and lobbed a flash-bang in a softball underarm pitch that arced it over the intake counter and landed it right on the duty officer’s desk. I was right behind Khalid and I had a second’s glimpse of the officer staring in unbelieving horror at the grenade.

Then… BANG!

The flash-bang is designed to temporarily blind and deafen anyone in the blast radius. It feels exactly like getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer made of pure light. You don’t shrug it off. You scream, you go temporarily but intensely deaf and blind, and roll around on the floor. If you’re up close and personal it can burst your eardrums.

Everyone in the room was staggered.

I raised a Benelli M4 shotgun and opened up. I wasn’t firing buckshot-my gun was loaded with beanbag rounds. That sounds fun. It isn’t. The rounds are small fabric pillows loaded with #9 lead shot. They won’t penetrate the skin, but it feels like you’ve been punched by the Incredible Hulk. You do go down and you do it right now.

There was one officer who hadn’t gotten his eggs scrambled by the flash-bang and he had a pistol halfway out of the holster. I put a round center mass and knocked him into a row of filing cabinets. He rebounded from the cabinets and fell flat on his face making tiny croaking sounds. Khalid and Top flanked me, drawing and firing X26-A Tasers, which have a three-shot magazine with detachable battery packs. The twin sets of flechettes struck their targets and the battery packs sent fifty thousand volts into each man. The men dropped and the shooters released the battery packs to allow their guns to chamber the second rounds. The packs would continue to send maintenance charges through the flechettes until the batteries ran dry, say about twenty seconds. Four down, four to go.

Lydia pulled another shotgun from under her billowing black chador and hammered an officer into the wall with the beanbags. I pivoted and fired two shots at a screaming cop trying to crawl toward a desk with a phone on it, hitting him once and missing once because he went down that fast. Khalid and Top used the Tasers on the other two.

In the space between the flash-bang and my first shot, I heard an explosion in the cell area. Bunny blowing the back door off its hinges with a blaster-plaster. Then the sound of shotguns and Tasers.

And that fast it was over. Eight men up front, four in the back. All of them down, no fight left in anyone.

I turned. “Warbride, secure the door. Sergeant Rock, Dancing Duck-bag ’em and tag ’em.”

We were using combat call signs. Lydia was Warbride, Top was Sergeant Rock, Khalid was Dancing Duck. I was Cowboy.

Immediately Top and Khalid produced plastic flex-cuffs, which had been designed to hold pipes together but have become a staple of law enforcement worldwide.

One of the officers began to stir. Maybe the Taser flechettes hadn’t lodged deeply enough for him to take the full shock, or maybe he was one of those rare types who can bull their way through it, but he lunged at Lydia and tried to tackle her. Lydia is five eight and one forty. Solid for a woman but far smaller than the cop. However, she stepped into his rush and hit him three times-nose, solar plexus, and groin-in less than a second. The cop went down like he’d been poleaxed. Lydia spun him onto his stomach and cuffed him, then bent and whispered, “Next time, pendejo, don’t let your balls get your ass in trouble.”

Once he was down, my team cuffed the officers by the wrists and ankles and then connected those cuffs, leaving everyone hog-tied. Sponge balls with elastic cords were used to muffle voices. The cops would be able to spit them out once they got their wits about them, but I intended for Echo Team to be a memory by then. Lydia locked the door and pulled down the slatted metal security shutters. Then she started ripping out phone lines, smashing laptops, and crushing cell phones under her heel.

I ran past her, through the security office and into the holding area. Bunny was finishing the last of the hog-tying while John Smith searched the officers for keys. He found them and tossed the set to me as I ran past.

“Green Giant,” I yelled to Bunny. “Talk to me.”

“Last one.”

“Chatterbox, watch the door.”

John Smith nodded and crouched down by the shattered rear doorway. There were people on the street, poking their heads out of doors and second floor windows to see what the fuss was about.

“Drawing a crowd,” he said.

“Out front, too,” called Lydia. “ Truchas! Neighbors are coming!”

The three hikers were in the cells. They looked terrible. Haunted faces, emaciated bodies, fresh bruises, and healed-over scars. However, I noticed that the jailers had provided each of the young prisoners with a big plate of fresh food and plenty of clean water. It was a small courtesy, but it said a lot about the men we’d just roughed up. Human beings. They couldn’t do anything about what had been done to the hikers, and they had no say in what was planned for them-a bullshit trial and either execution or life in a much more terrible state prison-but here, on the street level, these were frightened, starving young people and the cops did what they could to take care of them. They’d even rigged blankets on the bars to give the girl, Rachel, a measure of privacy and dignity. Top saw me looking at that and when I noticed him looking, he flicked an eye to the front room and nodded. I nodded back. There was nothing else to say or do.

The college kids, however, were jabbering and screaming and yelling. The panic was such a huge thing for them that they’d lost all control. Bunny kept trying to calm them down, but his voice was lost beneath the barrage of theirs.

From the doorway, Top yelled, “ Shut the fuck up!” with all the volume that his leather-throated drill instructor’s voice could manage.

The hikers shut up at once and stared at him, goggle-eyed.

I said, “We are United States Special Forces. We’re here to take you home.”

They started yammering again, rushing the cell doors before we could even open them.

“Stop!” I snapped, and they did. Scared as they were, they paid attention, which I knew was going to help make this work. Hysteria would get everyone killed. I was also reassured by seeing them all on their feet. I’ve heard horror stories about prisoner rescues where the people the SpecOps forces liberated were broken and catatonic wrecks who had to be carried out.

One of them, the only woman among them, stepped forward. She wore a scowl that was half anger and half hope. “They tricked us once with something like this. How do we know-?”

“Smart question. When you were ten your mom gave you a guinea pig for your birthday. You named it Olivia.”

Her eyes stayed hard, but they grew wet as well. She nodded.

“God, thank you-” she began, but I cut her off.

“Listen to me. We will get you out of here but you need to do exactly as you’re told. No questions, no talk.”

Khalid produced a PDA and called up photographs, matching them against the faces of the prisoners. “Three for three,” he confirmed and handed the device to me.

I unlocked one cell and handed Top the keys.

“Each of you will go with one of my team. You’ll get into separate cars and you’ll be taken out of the country. You’re going home. This is for your own safety,” I said. “If any one car gets stopped, the others will get away. Now, no more talk… let’s move.”

When I said the word “separate,” they looked terrified and suspicious, but they did not panic. I found myself liking them. I’d had reservations at first-like a lot of people, I guess-because they had put themselves in harm’s way by going on a science field trip in a war zone. But now I understood. These were very tough young people. Resourceful and capable. If they had a fault, maybe it was that they had too much faith in people. I’m not about to slam anyone for thinking that other people will aspire to their higher values. It’s just too bad they got caught in a moment when the Iranian soldiers were not listening to their better angels.

Khalid stepped into the cell with the senator’s son. “Jason McHale?”

The young man saw Khalid’s Arab face and hesitated, but I stepped close.

“He’s an American soldier. Go with him or stay here. Decide fast, kid, ’cause your dad’s waiting for you in Kuwait City. He wants to see ‘Ranger.’”

That did it. “Ranger” was Jason’s nickname as a little boy. Tears welled in his eyes and he tried to hug me. I pushed him gruffly back. I felt for him, but this wasn’t the time.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No need to be sorry, brother,” I said. “When we get out of this I’ll buy the first round.”

He smiled. It was a good smile, conflicted in the moment but that was a veneer over a clear and evident openness. “The next one’s on me.” He allowed Khalid to guide him out of the cell.

Top entered Rachel’s cell and held out a hand toward her, palm up. An invitation rather than a command. “Come on, darlin’” he said in the fatherly way he has. He’s the only Echo Team member with kids. “You can tell me everything I need to know about rare tigers on the way to Kuwait.”

Rachel stared blankly at him for a moment. He had warmth, and you knew on an instinctive level that it was genuine. Then she smiled-maybe her first real and unguarded smile in months.

“Asiatic cheetah,” she corrected as she took his hand. He grinned back at her.

The kid in the last cell, Bryan, was the youngest of the three. His twentieth birthday had happened behind bars. He was also the most clearly damaged, and he stared through the open cell with sunken eyes. It was pretty obvious that the experience had fractured something inside him. Maybe-with luck and the right doctors-he’d find his way out of the dark. Top put a hand on his shoulder.

Top started to say something, but Rachel stepped past him.

“It’s okay, Bryan,” she said. “Nobody’s going to hurt you anymore. We made it. We survived. We’re free. ”

He took a small step forward but that was all. Then Jason stood next to Rachel and said, “You beat them, Bry. Remember what we said after they took us? We’re innocent and no matter what they did to us we were going to stick to the truth. You said that, and Rachel and I went along with you. Well, check it out, brah, you saved our asses with that. You held the line for all of us. Now they’re here to take us home.”

Bryan’s empty eyes gradually filled with something. Hard to put a name on it, because there was a lot of wreckage in the way. Maybe he had gone inside his head to hide from what they were doing to him, but here, in this moment, I think he looked through the shadows and saw the faint light from the door he’d left open.

“Tick-tock, Jefe,” said Lydia quietly, and I nodded.

Bryan took a ragged breath and then took a step forward, reaching through his personal darkness. Taking Rachel’s hand, taking Jason’s. Top helped guide him out of the cell, and I could see the broken boy becoming the man who had walked through hell and survived.

As he passed one of the cops who lay trussed on the floor, Bryan suddenly knelt beside him. At first I thought he was going to lash out at him, but he didn’t. Instead he rolled the man onto his side so that the restraints didn’t cut as deeply into his wrists and ankles. Either kindness to local cops who had been relatively kind to the prisoners, or a statement that compassion should be a factor whenever one person has power over another. It was a small thing, a minor kindness in the middle of a dreadful experience; but it might be the defining moment in the entire experience for the young man.

I was proud of him and I saw the looks in the eyes of Top, Khalid, and Bunny. This was why we do what we do. Not to punish the bad guys, but to make sure the good ones have a real chance.

The silence in the cells was cracked apart by the sound of sirens approaching.

The prisoners looked toward the rear door, new fear blossoming in their eyes.

“Okay, everybody out of the pool,” said Bunny, dialing up the wattage on his Southern California smile. Bunny has a great blend of impressive size, movie-star looks, and surfer-boy charm; but at the same time you know you’re safe with him. It takes a lot of guys to outnumber someone like him.

The sirens were coming fast.

“Warbride?” I called.

“We’re drawing a crowd,” she reported tersely. “We need to get into the wind most riki-tik.”

I ran to the door and peered out. People were pouring out of their houses and converging on the police station. Half of them were yelling into cell phones.

“Dark and stormy night,” I said to Smith, and he nodded. He fished out a smoke grenade and threw it. And another and another. Dense black smoke boiled up from each one. Lydia lobbed flash-bangs into the smoke. Between the thick smoke and the sudden explosions, the crowd screamed and began to scatter, running in every wrong direction, colliding, creating very useful panic.

“Go! Go! Go!” I barked.

Top, Khalid, and Bunny, each guiding a freed hostage, flipped down their infrared visors and ran like hell for the cars we had parked on different side streets.

People were still in the streets but when they saw men with automatic weapons, they stumbled backward toward their houses.

Lydia ran behind them, and immediately cut left and vanished into an alley. The plan was for her to circle the block and reenter the scene as a pedestrian. She looked like every other woman in this conservative part of town. She’d blend in with the crowd and help confuse things with a little whisper-down-the-lane distortion of the facts. Were there six men or twelve? Didn’t they drive away in a white van? The men were bearded. Was that Afrikaans they were speaking? Any good crowd of confused and angry people could be worked like a conductor with a baton.

John Smith covered everyone with his rifle and infrared scope. He was good with every kind of firearm, but as a sniper he was the hammer of God. If anyone made a move on our teams they would get the real thing, no beanbags, no Tasers. Now was not the time to play.

My earbud buzzed and I heard Top’s voice. “One away.”

“Two away,” said Khalid.

“Down the road and gone,” said Bunny.

But by then John Smith and I were already in motion. Our visors showed the heat signatures of the fleeing civilians. And it also showed the heat from the engines of at least a dozen police cars coming at us from different directions. They were closer than we anticipated, and that was not good news. Our window of escape had slammed shut. In twenty paces we were going to be out of the smoke and as visible as gnats on a bedsheet.

“Chatterbox,” I growled, “escape three. Go!”

We had four different escape strategies. The first two were now for shit, and number four involved shooting our way out. Three was less lethal but not much more comforting. We split up, went for the first cover we could find to get off the grid as quickly as possible. It meant dumping all of our gear. Everything.

We each popped a final smoke grenade and ran into the cloud. As they burst, we hit quick release buttons on our belts and shed holsters, cross belts, bandoliers, and harnesses packed with expensive and very useful equipment. Even the iSee devices and earbuds. It all clattered to the ground. When I dropped my helmet I lost sight of John Smith. I crouched while running and tugged at the seams of my trousers. With a screech of Velcro, the pants split apart and flapped behind me. I repeated the action with the shirt. The last thing I did was to grab the medallion hanging around my neck and press the sculpted design in the center. It sent a signal to the gear-weapons, equipment, and even clothing-that released hundreds of tiny thermite micro charges. I heard the whoosh as all of it exploded into flame. Then I yanked off the medallion and tossed it away.

When I staggered backward out of the smoke, faking a cough, I was an Iranian in ordinary street clothes. I yelled in Persian and bellowed for the police, pointing toward the smoke and flames.

Just like every other ordinary citizen was doing.

Chapter Five

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:41 a.m.

That was how it ended. At least for me. Top, Bunny, and Khalid still had to get the college kids out of the country, but circumstances cut me from that team. I knew it was going to be a nail-biter for the guys, but Top was the best team leader in the business. If there was a way, he’d see it done.

I made it back to my hotel room without further incident. John Smith and Lydia weren’t there, but I hadn’t expected them. Each of us had a different bolt-hole and pickup point for a ride out of town.

I didn’t have much in the way of weapons or equipment left at the hotel. Our local contact, Abdul, whom I hadn’t yet met-had come by and cleared everything out. All that was left was my suitcase filled with locally made and purchased street clothes and my shaving kit.

Abdul wasn’t scheduled to pick me up until noon. Plenty of time, I’d thought. I’ll just go get some coffee and a roll and read the paper.

Jeez.

While I waited I thought about the conversation with the mystery lady. She was clearly working for someone-possibly the person I was now waiting for-but there was something extra hinky about the way she “confirmed” my identity. It felt more like she didn’t know who I was and was fishing for that information. And yet she’d known enough about Church to make a crack about how tough it is to make him laugh. Did that mean she knew Church? Or was that a slice of information she’d been given to use to convince me that she knew more than she does. Apparent omniscience is frightening; it intimidates people into saying things they shouldn’t. Cops use it all the time, mostly faking it, to get suspects and witnesses to open up.

So, what did she know about me? That I was a smart-ass. That’s not exactly the best-kept secret in the world. That I worked for someone named Church who didn’t always appreciate my humor? That was a single fact that suggested intimate knowledge. At the time, out there in the awkward moment of having laser sights on me, it encouraged me to perhaps read more into it than was necessary.

The fact that she knew about Church at all was spooky. I was certain that Church’s name was fake. Since I’ve known him I’ve heard people call him Colonel Eldritch, the Deacon, Dr. Bishop, Mr. Priest, and a few other names that were equally phony. I knew of only one person who definitely knew his real name; and one other-his daughter-who probably did, but even I wasn’t certain about that.

Another question was how she found me?

Either I was spotted on the street, ID’d, and followed-which I don’t think is likely, not given how elaborate this all was. Or my hotel was being watched and they’d acquired me there. Safer to brace me on a city street than in my lair. They couldn’t know that the only thing I had in my “lair” was a hungry dog, an extra pair of clean boxers, and a shaving kit. No James Bond gadgets. No lurking ninja army waiting to spring to my defense.

The real bitch was the fact that she had my phone number. That’s really hard to get. It’s not like I’m listed in the phone book under “DMS team leaders with a wacky sense of humor.”

So that was all disturbing on a lot of levels.

Minutes limped by and no visitor. People came into the Starbox for coffee, but most of them left again, joining the burgeoning flow of office drones heading to work. They shambled in like zombies, ordered tea or coffee, and shambled out again with barely a word spoken. It was the same here as it was everywhere else in the world. People are people and most of them have enough on their minds with family, jobs, bosses on their ass, bills to pay, kids to raise, and futures to get to that they don’t give much of a shit about the things that go on in my life. Back in the States we tend to think of Iran as an evil place because we don’t like the extremist ruling government. But… we don’t like most ruling governments, and even the ones running the countries that we do like don’t give much of a shit about us. The one percent at the top of the money heap care about each other, or hate each other, but they all play with each other. The rest of us go about our jobs, and raise our kids, and do our best to stay out of it all.

I watched them come and go. Just folks. I never saw one person that looked alien or evil to me. Not one.

Until he arrived.

This was the guy I was here to meet, no doubt about it.

“Uh-oh,” I murmured.

No need to worry about them reading my lips-they’d probably expect me to say exactly that.

Chapter Six

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:56 a.m.

He was late forties, average height, with dark hair and fair skin. Iranian without a doubt, and the European heritage was there in the aquiline nose, green eyes, and non-Semitic features. Iranians aren’t Arabs. Most people don’t know that, especially the mouthbreathers who lump all Middle Eastern peoples into one group so they can be more easily despised. The name “Iranian” comes from “Aryan,” but the culture draws on ethnic lines from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Lots of nice diversity in a generally good-looking people.

This guy could be a soap opera star. Women would swoon. If they didn’t know who and what he was. If they did… well, I think even the president of the antigun lobby would pop a cap in him and laugh while he did it. The stakes on this bizarre morning encounter jumped about tenfold.

I did know who he was.

He was accompanied by a second man who might as well have had “thug” tattooed on his forehead; he shooed away the only other customers, a pair of middle-aged men, and positioned himself at the door to prevent anyone else from coming in.

The man I was here to meet bought a cup of coffee, told the girl behind the counter to go into the back room and stay there, and then he walked over and stood in front of me. He wore a blue sport coat over a white dress shirt with only the top button undone, khakis, and a pair of hand-sewn Italian shoes. He looked down at me and I sat there; I smiled affably, holding my coffee between my palms, resisting the urge to kick his kneecaps off and stomp him to death.

“Captain Ledger,” he said. Not a question.

When I didn’t reply, he nodded toward the other chair.

“May I?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s a free country.”

His mouth twitched a little at that. He sat, perching on the edge of the chair like a nervous Chihuahua ready to bolt. He looked around and then stared out through the window for a moment, then nodded. Not sure if it was to the mysterious woman or the shooters or to himself. This was his home turf, so I was curious why he should be skittish.

He looked at me looking at him. “You know who I am?”

“Yes.”

“If we were in your country I imagine you would like to arrest me.”

“‘Arrest’?” I said, tasting the word. “No… not really.”

“Then-”

“‘Kill’? Sure, that would work.”

He had eyes like a hunting hawk. Piercing, fierce, and almost unblinking. “Why do you believe that it is up to you to judge whether I live or die? I have never killed anyone. I have not spilled a single drop of human blood. Not ever.”

I crossed my legs and leaned back in my chair. “Jalil Rasouli,” I said. “I always thought that was kind of funny. Same name as the artist. I like the artist. He brings something to the world. He uplifts.”

“As do-”

“If you say that what you do also uplifts I will rip your throat out,” I said in a conversational tone, my smile unwavering. Rasouli shut up. I let a couple of seconds pass. I said, “If you know who I am then you should be able to guess that I’ve read your file. Not the public profile, but the real stuff. You say that you don’t have any blood on your hands?”

He said nothing.

“Vezarat-e Ettela’at Jomhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran,” I said quietly. His eyes bored into mine. I translated it just to put it out there. “The Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran. MISIRI. Pretty unfortunate acronym.”

Nothing.

“You were the deputy operations chief during the 1999 chain of murders. CIA, Interpol, even some spies in your own government name you as the man behind the whole shebang. No blood on your hands? But how many murders did you green-light? Car accidents, stabbings, shootings in staged robberies. Oh, and all those faked heart attacks-what was it you used for those? Potassium injections? And who were the targets? Soldiers, enemy combatants? No. You went after writers, translators, poets, political activists, ordinary citizens. Iranian citizens. The intellectual class, the ones capable of phrasing a compelling argument against the extremist government. You get that idea from reading Stalin’s biography?”

Jalil Rasouli brushed some lint from his jacket sleeve. “Your Persian is very good; you speak it like an Iranian. Excellent.”

“You should hear my pig Latin.”

He didn’t seem to know what that was and shrugged it off. On a different and mildly perverse level, I was pleased by the compliment. I have a talent for languages and Persian was one of the first I learned. Before I joined the DMS I sat on wiretaps as part of Baltimore PD’s role in Homeland. Listening to endless hours of people talking about ordinary things helps a linguist smooth out the edges of their own command of the language. On the other hand, I’d rather have my fingernails yanked out with pliers before I let Rasouli know that I appreciated his approval.

“Most of the world press thinks you’re going to make a bid for the presidency,” I said. “Oddsmakers say you even have a shot. Not sure it would be an improvement over the current psycho in office.”

He yawned. “You want to provoke me? What do you think I would do? Attack you?” He jerked his head toward the thug. “Or order Feyd to do it?”

“Don’t count too much on that moron.”

“He is very good.”

“His coat is buttoned and he’s leaning against the wall on his gun-arm side. He tries anything, you’ll be dead before he can draw his gun, and then I’ll feed it to him.”

Rasouli considered his bodyguard and gave a noncommittal shrug. “If I am the man you believe me to be, then I could have sent a squad of soldiers here.”

“Maybe you should have.”

He smiled. Son of a bitch had a great dentist. I wanted to knock his caps down his throat. I had to covertly take a calming breath. This guy was not bringing out my best qualities.

Rasouli cleared his throat. For a moment he looked almost embarrassed by his own threat, which I found confusing. With a clear change in his tone of voice he leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. “I am risking much in meeting you here.”

I resisted the urge to prove him right. Instead I gave an encouraging nod.

“I could not go through the regular diplomatic channels,” he continued in a quiet and confidential tone, “for reasons that should be apparent to you.”

“Because your regular diplomatic channels are staffed by vultures, thieves, cutthroats, and scumbags,” I said. “And your own people would sell you out for the price of a bowl of lentil soup.”

“No,” he said, “my own people would sell me out, that is not a question, but it would be for very much money.”

“Ah. So you know that your ambassadors and diplomats are as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks.”

He smiled. “There is a saying: ‘Trust a thief before a diplomat.’”

“That says it.”

“There is a matter of great importance and equally great complexity that needs to be dealt with, but it is so…” Rasouli waved his hand as he searched for the word.

“Fragile?” I suggested. “Volatile?”

“Either will do. Both, I suppose.”

“And you thought it would be easier to discuss it by ambushing me with snipers?”

“Would you have agreed to this meeting without them?”

“Probably not.”

“Of course not,” he said. “Besides… the snipers were already here, preparing for another task. I… borrowed them.” He paused, then added, “That other task is now canceled and will likely be abandoned.”

“What was the other job?”

Rasouli considered, then shook his head. “No, it would confuse things to discuss that. What we are here to discuss is much more important.”

“Before we get to that-why me?”

He spread his hands. “You came highly recommended.”

“By whom?”

“A mutual friend.”

“Give me a name.”

A strange, fierce light flared in his eyes and he studied every inch of my face before he answered. “Hugo Vox.”

Rasouli couldn’t have hit me harder if he’d swung a baseball bat at my face.

“You’re shitting me.”

“Not at all.”

I swallowed a lump the size of a football. Hugo Vox. Now if there was ever an “enemy of god,” then Vox had my vote. Pretty much my vote for “actual supervillain” too. Vox used to be one of the most trusted men in the United States anti- and counterterrorism community, trusted by the kind of people who don’t trust anyone. Vox was a screener for above-top-secret personnel and the director of Terror Town, the most effective counterterrorism training facility in the world. To be “vetted by Vox” was the highest honor and a seal of absolute trust. Unfortunately he turned out to be a murdering psychopath and a founding member of the Seven Kings, a secret society that we believed to be behind everything from 9/11 to the London hospital bombing. A very conservative estimate of the deaths that could directly or indirectly be laid at his door was somewhere north of twelve thousand. I wanted his head on a pole, as did most of the law enforcement agencies in the world. My boss, Mr. Church, most of all.

“How do I know that you really spoke to Vox?” I said in a quiet growl.

Rasouli offered a thin smile. “He said that you might ask that, so he gave me something to say. I suppose it is a code phrase that will mean something to you. It means nothing to me.”

“What is it?”

“Vox told me to say, ‘I vetted Grace and she was clean. She wasn’t one of mine.’”

I had to work really hard to keep what I was feeling off my face. It cost a lot.

Grace.

Damn.

When I’d first joined the DMS a year ago, Church’s senior field officer and my direct superior was Major Grace Courtland. She was as beautiful as she was smart and tough. She had been the first woman to enter Britain’s elite SAS team as a field operative, and she helped build Barrier-Britain’s elite and highly secret counterterrorism rapid response force-and was later seconded to Church when Congress gave him approval to build the DMS. Grace and I went into combat together, we worked together, and we fell in love together. We never should have done that, it was against common sense and every rule in the book. Then, last summer, a professional killer’s bullet took Grace away from me. She died saving the world. The whole damn world. I still hear her voice; still catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye. Still feel the absolute yawning, cavernous absence of her in my heart.

She had also been vetted by Vox before coming to work for Church. Some people on both sides of the pond tried to use that to smear Grace’s good name. Church had words with a few of them. I had words with a few others. Word got around and people shut the hell up.

Hearing her name on the lips of this monster filled me with a rage so intense that black poppies seemed to bloom before my eyes. Rasouli watched my face and I could see the delight he took in what he saw. He was like a vampire, feeding off of my pain.

The voices in my head all screamed at me to drag Rasouli to the floor and…

… I closed my eyes for a moment.

Grace.

Thinking of her tricked me into a memory of her speaking my name.

Joe.

The black flowers of hate withered and blew away, leaving a strange, cold control. I smiled at Rasouli and after a moment his smile faded.

“Vox,” I said quietly.

“He spoke quite highly of you. I think he likes you… and he certainly admires you. He called you ‘tenacious.’”

I leaned toward him. “Hear me on this. If you are working with Vox to bring any harm to the United States or its people, I will make it my life’s work to tear your world apart. I’m not talking about government sanctions, and I’m not even talking about a black ops hit. You’ll go to sleep one night and when you wake up it’ll be you and me someplace where you can scream all you want, because believe me you will want to scream.” He started to smile at the brash phrasing, but I leaned an inch closer. “If you’re here then you know who I am, and what I’ve done. You know that most of the wiring inside my head is already fucked. It wouldn’t take much to push me all the way over the line. Look at me. Look into my eyes, tell me if I’m lying.”

His mouth tightened into a hard line as he cut a glance at his bodyguard, who was cleaning his fingernails with a toothpick, and back to me.

He said, “You are correct, Captain Ledger. I do know who-and what — you are. And it is for that reason that I risked so much to meet you.”

“And Vox?”

Rasouli’s lip curled as if he suddenly smelled dog shit on his shoe. “He is an insect to be stepped on. If you are asking if he and I are conspiring together, then no. I would sooner let a desert camel have its way with me.”

“And yet you can call him up for favors any time you want?”

He thought about that, shrugged, took a pen and notebook from his pocket, wrote a string of numbers, tore off the page, and handed it to me. “All I have ever had for him is a phone number. It’s a cell number that we have never been able to trace.”

I looked at the number. “What are the chances that Vox will answer this call?”

“I do not know and do not care,” he said. “Vox is your concern. If you can use that number to find him, then do so with my blessings.”

“Is this the party line?”

Rasouli shook his head. “No. Vox has friends among the ayatollahs, but you probably know that.”

“Is he in Iran?”

“I have no idea.”

We sat for a moment with that floating in the air between us. Then I slipped the page into my shirt pocket. “God help you if you’re lying to me.”

Rasouli frowned, but it wasn’t a fear reaction. It looked as if he was considering another aspect of what I’d said. Perhaps it was the reference to “God.” Whatever it was, he nodded.

“There are times, Captain, that people who share as many ideological and political differences as do we can share a compatible view of something else. In prisons, for example, even the most hardened murderers cannot abide a molester of children.”

I said nothing.

“Before we continue, Captain Ledger, let’s be clear on something,” he said. “I know that it was you who freed the spies last night.”

“Don’t even try,” I warned. “Those three kids were hikers. They’re as close to being spies as I am to being a prima ballerina, and believe me I don’t look good in a tutu.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Are you really so naive that you believe their cover story? I would think someone of your caliber would be in the loop.”

“I am. They’re not spies.”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered this kind of thing,” he said. “You always send ‘kids’ to spy on us. You think the veneer of innocence is more convincing than it is. The Peace Corps was created with CIA money. Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organization… they’re all fronts and everyone knows it. It’s not even an ‘open secret’ anymore.”

“Horseshit.” I said it loud enough to finally provoke the doofus bodyguard, Feyd, to take notice. I wanted to see how he reacted. He straightened and looked around like an old dog that had just woken from a deep sleep. Rasouli watched me watching and waved Feyd back with an irritable flick of his hand.

“Of course, you would deny it,” Rasouli snapped. “You deny it because you think I’m wearing a wire?”

“I don’t care if you brought a film crew.” I took a sip and set aside my cup. “What’s the play here? Did you really set this whole thing up, the snipers and all, just so you could debate politics with a tourist?”

“Ah,” he snorted with a sour smile. “‘Tourist.’”

“Ah,” I said with a nod in his direction. “‘Human being.’”

“The spies-”

“Hikers.”

“‘Hikers,’ whatever, are not the issue, Captain. We will get them back.”

“Not a chance.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. If I had to guess, I’d bet you a shiny ten-rial piece that they’re eating lunch at the U.S. embassy someplace safe. Kuwait, maybe.”

“Then why are you still here?”

“I’m doing touristy things. I even went to a few museums. Want to see my ticket stubs? Right now, I’m doing nothing more sinister than having a cup of coffee and reading the paper.”

“While waiting for a pickup car, perhaps?” His smile faded. “Captain, let’s not-what’s the American expression? ‘Jerk each other off’?”

I grinned.

“Frankly I don’t much care about the hikers, even though I know you were involved.”

“Yeah? How about the mosque bombing? You don’t want to try and hang that on me, just for shits and giggles.”

“I have no interest in arresting you for anything.”

“Better for everyone,” I said. “You wouldn’t survive the attempt.”

“You are very sure of yourself,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I am. I’m not saying that your guys couldn’t take me-we’re in your country, not mine-but not with you still sucking air. Might even be worth it, though.”

If Rasouli was frightened by my threat he managed not to show it. “We are wasting time neither of us has.”

“Okay. So why are we here? What do you want to talk about?”

His eyes glittered like cold green glass. “Let us talk about saving the world.”

Chapter Seven

The Agriculture Building, 7th floor

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 7:59 a.m.

“We have to go,” said the tallest of the four women. She was a blocky Serbian with a knife scar across her mouth.

“You go,” said the Italian woman by the window. Although she was younger by twelve years than the Serbian and had less field time than either of the other two-a Castilian brunette and a French blonde-the Italian was the team leader. “I want to watch this.”

The others nodded and began packing their gear-disassembling their sniper rifles and scopes-but the Serbian lingered. It was her laser sight that had danced over the heart of the American agent; it was hers that had wandered down to burn with ugly promise over his crotch. She would have taken that shot, too. Without hesitation or remorse. Now her black eyes bored into the younger woman’s.

“Another team is already on Rasouli,” said the Serbian. “They’ll pick him up when he leaves the cafe. Why are we wasting time?”

The Italian woman turned slowly away from the window and fixed her gaze on the tall Serbian. She held that stare for five full seconds, not blinking, not allowing a trace of emotion to change her expression. It was an old trick, one of Lilith’s-something her mother had used on her countless times-and it worked now, too. The Serbian’s eyes held for four seconds and then slid away.

“I want to watch the American,” said the Italian, letting her gaze linger a moment longer before she turned without hurry back to the window. She made sure not to turn or acknowledge as the three other women finished packing.

After the other two filed out, the Serbian lingered in the doorway. “The American isn’t our-”

“I’ll decide who is and isn’t our concern,” snapped the Italian. When she was angry her tone was identical to her mother’s, and it shut the Serbian up as surely as a slap across the face. It did that with everyone. The Italian gave it a few seconds to set the mood, then she said, “Set up a surveillance post. Two cars. If Ledger leaves the cafe I want to know where he goes and where he’s staying. Upload surveillance photos and data to my personal file on Oracle.”

The Serbian nodded so curtly that it looked painful. “And then?”

“And then go back to the staging area until I call you.” The Italian made sure that her voice carried every bit of Lilith’s icy command. It was an illusion, borrowed power, but it was a useful skill that she’d begun cultivating before she was ten years old.

The other women mumbled something and went out.

When she could no longer hear their footsteps on the stairs she waited another thirty seconds, and then sighed, her shoulders slumping.

Was it ever like this for Lilith? Probably, she thought, and wondered how long her mother had to fake being tough before she actually became the stone-faced, stone-hearted monster she was now.

Knowing her mother as she did, that transformation had probably happened at a much younger age, maybe before she had been abducted by the Upierczi. If it hadn’t been there already, Lilith would never have escaped the pits, never have escaped the breeding pens.

For her own part, the Italian woman did not yet feel that hardness developing within her own soul. Perhaps it all came down to how many people she had to kill, perhaps there was a line that, once crossed, burned away all softness. At twenty-five, the Italian woman could still count the numbers. Every head shot, every cut throat, every garroting and poisoning. Lilith? If even half of the stories were true, then her kills could fill a medium-sized office building. Or an entire graveyard.

The woman believed that all of the stories told about her mother were true.

Every last one.

And everyone in the sisterhood expected her to be her mother’s daughter in every sense.

She murmured a brief prayer in Latin as she bent to peer through the sniper scope at the two figures seated in the coffee shop.

Joe Ledger and Jalil Rasouli.

Why had she lingered to watch?

The question flitted around in her head, fluttering like a bat after moths.

Why?

The obvious reason was to maintain surveillance on Rasouli, who-she hoped-did not know that the team he had hired had been actively surveilling him for three months. The Italian woman’s team was one of several who kept tabs on Rasouli and other key players in the Muslim world. Just as other teams kept a close watch on significant persons in the Christian world. Adding to the general store of information about Rasouli’s whereabouts was the obvious answer to the question.

Obvious, but a lie.

The truth was something that she could never put into a field report. She would not know how to phrase it anyway. A gut instinct. A feeling. In her personal lexicon she called it a “flash.”

They did not happen often and sometimes she never understood what they meant. However, there were too many times in her life when a flash-a moment in which her entire mind and heart were locked onto a single person-proved to be a turning point. Sometimes those flashes saved her life.

Sometimes they forged an instant and inexplicable connection between her and the person who she was destined to kill.

She stayed there, seated on a folding chair, her sniper rifle resting on a bipod which in turn rested on a stack of small, sturdy crates. Not watching Rasouli.

She watched the American. The man who had identified himself as Captain Joseph Edwin Ledger.

She liked the name.

And she liked the man, which surprised her.

Not for the obvious reasons, and even she was aware of that much. To be sure, Ledger was tall and fit, handsome in the rugged way athletes often are. Some rough edges, a few visible scars, a lean waist, and muscular shoulders. That wasn’t it, though.

It was his eyes.

Her sniper scope was of the finest quality. Very precise and powerful. Through it she had looked into the man’s eyes while he joked with her on the phone. She knew that he’d been afraid. Who wouldn’t be with laser sights on him? But he wasn’t afraid in the right way. His was a practical fear, of the kind that only warriors have.

Warrior. She tasted the word. It was grandiose and yet it seemed to fit him quite well. More than that, though, was the hurt she saw in his eyes. Not hurt from anything related to this incident. Deeper hurt, older. That was something this woman understood more intimately than anything else. Her world was built on pillars of pain and suffering.

Was it possible that this man’s soul dwelt in a similar tower? Was that why she felt the flash at the moment when she and her team had first trained their laser sights on him?

If so, then it would genuinely hurt her to have to kill him.

Chapter Eight

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 8:03 a.m.

I stared at Rasouli. “Saving the world from-what?”

He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Consider this. If scientists discovered than an asteroid was hurtling toward the earth and was likely to strike in one year, would it not be possible that the best and the brightest from all countries would drop their hostilities and work together to prevent a shared disaster?”

The comment was so weird that it jerked my head into an entirely different place. At the same time my heart started doing another jazz riff. “Christ! Is that what this is about?”

“What? Oh, no… no,” he said, looking genuinely surprised. “I speak hypothetically about the nature of our response to a shared threat too large for any one country to handle alone.”

“Next time say so. You almost gave me a frigging heart attack.”

He smiled at that. Jackass.

“Okay,” I said, “Given the right kind of potential catastrophe, then that kind of cooperation is possible. Even so, red tape would be a bitch.”

“And yet the red tape could be cut if the threat was more imminent, yes? Say that this hypothetical asteroid was due to strike in a month? The need for immediate and uninhibited action would necessitate a quicker exchange of information so that the situation could be handled. After all, global extermination trumps individual ideologies.”

“In a rational world, yes,” I agreed. “Where are you going with this?”

“There is a matter that will require very great and very careful cooperation.”

He removed a cell phone from his jacket pocket and played with the touch screen to bring up a photo, then handed the phone to me. “Do you know what that is?”

I stared at the picture and my mouth went as dry as dust.

“ Good God…”

“Indeed,” agreed Rasouli.

I knew all about them, of course. I had to. I knew the history, studied them for my job, read the field reports. I had seen them in museums and textbooks and on the Discovery Channel. Knowledge may be power but at that moment I felt as weak as a child. Even as a picture on a phone-small and frozen in a snapshot moment of time-it was terrifying to behold.

A nuclear bomb.

“It is a Teller-Ulam design hydrogen bomb,” said Rasouli quietly. “It has a yield of fifty megatons, which is equivalent to fourteen hundred times the combined power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or, if you look at it another way, it has ten times the combined power of all the explosives used in WWII.”

“Where is it?” I snarled, causing Rasouli to recoil from me.

“Please,” he said soothingly, “this device is not on U.S. soil.”

“Then why the hell are you showing me this?”

“Because I need you to know that this is something larger than the political struggles between our countries.”

“Your country has been trying to build this for years, asshole-” I began, but he cut me off, and again had to wave back his guard.

“You don’t understand,” said Rasouli in an urgent whisper, “this is not ours.”

I stared at him. “Then whose is it?”

“I… do not know,” he said. “That is one of the reasons I wanted your help. It’s likely the device is one of many that have gone ‘missing’ since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Russian economy.”

“Just so we’re clear,” I said, “you-Iran-you’re afraid of terrorists with a bomb?”

“Yes.” His mouth was a tight line, “and I’ll thank you not to smirk. This is a very real threat that could cause untold damage.”

“You have any suspects?”

Rasouli shrugged. “We are not a popular country, Captain Ledger. It is the price of being powerful, as you Americans well know,”

“Yeah. Seems like every five minutes there’s a fundamentalist nut job coming at us with a vest of C-4 and the name of God on his lips. Ain’t that a bitch?”

All that earned me was a contemptuous sneer. “This is hardly on the level of car bombings, Captain. Whoever is behind this is organized, extraordinarily well-financed, and subtle. I have reliable sources within Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Taliban and I am convinced they are not involved.”

“They aren’t the only players.”

“No, but they are the ones most likely to consider such a radical plan; and the smaller cells and splinter groups could never make one of these.”

“They could buy one,” I said.

“Of course, but it would be very expensive. Prohibitively so. Most organizations do not have that much money.”

“Hugo Vox could buy one of those with his beer money.”

“Why would he? His day is over.”

“Why? Because the Seven Kings are off the board?”

“No,” said Rasouli. “My sources tell me that Vox is ill.”

“What do you mean?”

Rasouli’s green eyes glittered. “He has cancer, didn’t you know?”

“Shit.”

It was good and bad news at the same time. Good news because it was nice to think about Vox rotting away. Bad because that was a much easier exit strategy than he deserved.

“Could be his last blast,” I said, meaning it the way it sounded.

I thought about what I said but then dismissed it. Vox is many things, but he has never struck me as vindictive. Murderous, to be sure, and merciless, but not petty. To detonate a bomb in frustration for dying of cancer…? No, that would be cheap, no matter what the death toll.

I tried to build a case for it in my mind, but gave it up. It didn’t fit Vox’s pattern at all. For him, killing was only ever a pathway to profit. Even so, I’d want to run this past Mr. Church, Rudy Sanchez, and Circe O’Tree. They built the profile on him that was being used by every law enforcement agency in the world.

“If it’s not Vox,” I said, “then we’re looking at someone who has as big a bank account.”

“Would you like me to recite a list of nations who would love to see Iran reduced to scorched earth?”

“Not really, because you’d start your list with the U.S., Israel, and Great Britain, and they don’t need to buy black-market bombs.”

He shrugged. “That is not entirely true. A case can be made for why such countries would want to have bombs that could in no way be traced back to them. Bombs from former Soviet countries, perhaps.”

“Fair enough. But is that your pitch? Are you saying that it’s America or one of its allies?”

“No,” he said tiredly. “If I thought that, then this discussion would be held in the world press, backed by all of the considerable outrage which it is possible for our propaganda department to muster. The Ayatollahs would probably enjoy that.”

“Bottom line,” I said, “can you tell me where this thing can be found?”

“Much worse,” he said. “I know where four of these things can be found.”

The whole world froze around me.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Worse still,” Rasouli said in a voice that sucked the last shreds of peace from the morning, “there are at least three more that we have not been able to locate. And one of the others might even be on U.S. soil.”

Chapter Nine

The Kingdom of Shadows

One Year Ago

He was the King of Thorns.

The King of Blood and Shadows.

He lived in a world of darkness, and that darkness was so beautiful. So subtle. It hid so many things from those who lacked the power to see. It was his mother, his ally, his weapon. It was the ocean in which he swam, the sky through which he flew, the dream in which he walked.

Darkness did not blind him. Even down here in the endless shadows. Buried beneath a billion tons of rock and sand.

Darkness held no surprises for him; he knew its secrets. They had been handed down to him, generation upon generation, and he had shared those secrets with the other pale bodies that moved and writhed and burrowed beneath the earth.

A single candle burned, its flame hidden behind a pillar of rock so that only the faintest of yellow light painted the edges of walls and glimmered on the golden thread of ancient tapestries. A single candle was all the light he needed. More than he needed.

He rose from a bed of fur and silk and broken bones. Ribs cracked beneath his feet. Cobwebs licked at his face as he moved from chamber to chamber. Water dripped in the distance, and the sound of wretched weeping echoed to him from down one of the many corridors his people had carved from the living rock. He paused to listen to the sobs. A female voice, of course. A babble of nonsense words and bits of prayers which combined to make sense only to the mad. There was so much pain there, so much hurt and loss.

It made him smile. It made his loins throb with a deep and ancient ache.

He closed his eyes and leaned against the closest wall. The limestone was cool and damp as he pressed his cheek against it, savoring the rough texture. A tongue tip the color of a worm wriggled out from between his teeth and curled along the thin contours of his lips.

It was as if he could taste the pain, and he craved it, wanting more of it, wanting the freshest and choicest bits.

He was there for a long time, lost in memory and expectation.

“Grigor,” murmured a voice, and with regret he opened his eyes and pushed himself away from the wall. He turned to see Thaddeus, his eighth son, standing a few yards away. The boy had made no sound at all. Excellent. He was learning, he would be ready soon.

“What is it?” asked Grigor.

“ He is here.”

Grigor smiled again. “Good.”

And it was good. In the distance the weeping continued unabated, and that was good too. Soon, Grigor knew, there would be more weeping. So much more.

How delicious that would be.

And how soon.

It was almost time to make the whole world scream.

Chapter Ten

Starbox Coffee

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 8:05 a.m.

I almost came out of my chair and went for Rasouli.

“Where?” I snarled. Feyd was halfway across the room before Rasouli held up his hand to freeze the moment.

“I don’t know,” he fired back, cold and hard. “Listen to me, Captain, I am here as a friend-”

“Bullshit.”

“As an ally then. In this matter, we are both in danger. Now please, listen for a moment.”

I stayed in my chair. Feyd gave me a hard look and slouched back to his post. Rasouli let out a weary breath.

“You said that there was a device in the States,” I said very quietly. “ Where? ”

“I don’t know where. I’m not even positive there is one in America. Please, let me tell you what I do know.” He gestured to the phone that I still held. “We believe that this device is somewhere inside the Aghajari oil refinery.”

“That’s yours,” I said. “That’s in Iran.”

He nodded. “We don’t know exactly where they’ve placed it. However, I have managed to get some degree of verification through an operative with a radiation detector. I have not risked a full-blown investigation yet for fear that if we started looking it would alert whoever planted the devices that we know about them. That might be a fatal misstep.”

“You think there’s a mole inside your government?”

“There are many moles inside my government, and not all of them are yours, Captain. It is in the nature of what we do that there are spies, and I have very good reason to believe that some of those spies work for whoever has these bombs.” Before I could interrupt him he held up a finger. “What little information I have came to me in a way that has effectively shut the door to investigation. My agent was found dead, the victim of a savage beating. Many of his bones were broken and his internal organs ruptured. My pathologist says that the injuries were apparently delivered with hands and feet. Whoever did it made it last and that suggests either someone with a taste for it or someone who wanted information that my agent was unwilling or unable to provide. However, during the autopsy the surgeon found this.” Rasouli reached into his pocket and produced a flash drive. “He had apparently swallowed it.”

“And didn’t give it up during the beating?” I remarked. “Tough man.”

“Very. One of my best agents. You… would have admired him, I’m sure, but disliked him.” He paused. “The beating is not what killed him, however.”

“What did? A bullet in the back of the head?”

“His throat was torn out,” Rasouli said.

I paused. “When you say ‘torn out’-”

“My people did a thorough post mortem, including all of the appropriate tests for trace particles. Blades leave microscopic metallic residue, and even with plastic knives there are signature markings. There was nothing like that. The pathologist did a reconstruction of the man’s throat and determined that the flesh was torn out by teeth.”

“What kind? Dog?”

Rasouli studied me for a moment. “I don’t know. There were traces of saliva in the wounds that my physician could not immediately identify. I would like to have had DNA testing done on it, but that would raise too many flags.” He fished in his pocket and produced a small metal container the size of a Zippo lighter. “This contains a skin sample packed in CO 2. Your employer has access to more sophisticated equipment than I do. The body has since been cremated, so that is the only remaining sample. I’m trusting you, Captain, and I ask only that you share your findings with me.”

“How?”

He produced his notebook again and wrote a second number; however, he did not give me that sheet of paper. Instead he held it up for me to look at. “That is my private cell. Memorize the number. If you have to call, let it ring once and then hang up. I’ll return your call when I can do so safely.”

I nodded and he produced a pack of matches and burned the page in an ashtray. I glanced at Feyd, but either he didn’t notice or didn’t care.

I pocketed the metal sample case.

“When my agent’s body was found, the police investigators concluded that he had been murdered elsewhere and then dumped where the remains could be found. They reached that conclusion because there was very little blood found at the scene, and such a terrible wound would have bled profusely.”

“So?”

“I believe the police drew the wrong conclusion. I believe that he was killed where he was found.”

“And the blood?”

“This is not the first time there has been a murder of this kind, Captain Ledger. There have been others. Many others, if the reports I collected are correct. Here in Iran, and elsewhere. Syria and Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. I had to dig deeply and quietly to learn that much, but my sources are reliable. In each case the throat was mutilated and the bodies exsanguinated by unknown means. All of the deaths have some political or religious connection, even if tangentially so.” He gave me a strange look. “What do you think of that?”

I sipped my coffee, which was getting cold. “If it’s not a serial killer, then you have a freak. A contract hitter or rogue special operator who has a screw loose. Someone who has created a very specific style for his kills.”

“Why would someone do that?” he asked. “What would be the gain from so grotesque a form of execution? There is no political or religious significance to it, and therefore no message which can be conveyed to an opposition party through it. Do you understand what I mean?”

“All too well.”

We sat there, a pair of gunslingers, fully aware of the graveyards of enemies we’d each buried. Like me, he knew all sorts of killers, from those who pulled the trigger for God and country to those who killed for the sheer joy of it. More than a few of those were drawn to military service or covert wetworks because of the opportunities provided to kill while being afforded the umbrella of official sanction. Not most, of course, but enough so that military psychs and screeners were always on the prowl for them. Either to weed them out or to recruit them. I’d like to say that “we don’t do that sort of thing,” but that would be a lie.

I had my own inner demon who liked to roll around in the enemy’s blood. Mine was on a leash most of the time, but once in a while he got out. If the public at large ever saw that side of me, I’d be labeled a monster and locked up. Looking into Rasouli’s eyes, it was clear that he was thinking the same things about himself.

We were sitting there, a couple of monsters contemplating something worse than either of us.

I cleared my throat. “Bombs,” I said.

He set the flash drive on the table between us. “Because the man swallowed the drive, there has been some moisture damage. I was able to salvage about ten percent of the information. Enough to scare me to death. Enough to make me want to risk this encounter we are having.”

“You said there were seven of them? One in America?”

“I believe there is one in America. One of the documents on the drive gave a list of potential targets in your country. The file was corrupted and there is nothing to indicate that a bomb has definitely reached your shores. That is, as you well know, a difficult thing to accomplish.”

“Don’t look so sad about it.”

He sighed again. “Captain, we may be on different sides of many issues, not the least of which is nuclear power and arms, but I doubt either of us is a fool or an absolute bloody-minded madman. We are entering into a new Cold War, a new arms race, but just as neither America nor Russia launched bombs at each other, no matter how badly they wanted to or how many they had to spare, neither do we. What we want is to be safe, and if having weapons of mass destruction insures that we will never be invaded by a conquering army, then that is only fair. And… more to the point, there is nothing to be gained by mutual extermination. Nothing. Even the most extreme ayatollahs know that, no matter what comprises their public rhetoric. Besides… surely you, a soldier of some reputation, understand the difference between being only able to shout loud and shake a fist and to speak quietly and shake a spear.”

“Walk softly and carry a big stick,” I said.

“Yes. Theodore Roosevelt. The smarter of your two Roosevelts. He understood that one must have power before one can effectively enter into war or peace.”

I studied the picture. The picture showed a bomb the size of a central air conditioning unit for a medium-sized suburban house. The walls around it looked like bare rock; the floor was poured concrete. There were no other details visible. Not on a phone image a couple of inches square. “This is a big unit. It’s not built into a warhead, or at least this one’s not. How are they planning on transporting these devices?”

“I doubt they are,” said Rasouli. “The fragments of information on the drive suggest that as many as four devices are already in place. The ones here in the Middle East. The last time I spoke to my agent, shortly before he was killed, he said that he did not think that any bombs were currently inside the borders of the United States. That was, alas, all that he said on that topic. I ordered him to bring me all of his findings, but he was apparently abducted on the way to my home. Another fragment of a file obliquely mentions America, but there are no other details. Merely the hint that America may be a target.”

“Where are the others?”

“I don’t know. Possibly in Iraq, or India. It’s conjecture though, based solely on similarly cryptic references. One message fragment makes reference to ‘the seven devices.’ That’s all we could recover.”

“Shit,” I said, and if I wasn’t scared enough before I was really starting to sweat now. Given a choice of knowing for sure that there was a bomb in the U.S. and not knowing, I’d prefer certain knowledge. At least then we could start some kind of proper search. “What’s the endgame for all this?” I asked. “What does this accomplish?”

“I don’t know. From a practical stance, I believe they are planning to destroy a significant amount of the oil reserves in the Middle East. Not just what is in the refineries, but in the actual oil fields. Underground devices could ignite much of it-wherever there is sufficient venting for oxygen, and what isn’t burned would be contaminated. Not to mention the destruction of everything that lives and moves on the sands above.”

I shook my head. “Four nukes couldn’t do that. Not sure if seven of them could.”

“Four would be sufficient to disrupt the majority of production. All other refineries would be shut down or scaled down as safety measures. It might takes months or years before each facility could be properly and thoroughly checked, and longer to build newer security systems that would guarantee the safety of the remaining fields and refineries. Think about the impact on the global market. The cost per barrel from noncontaminated fields would be astronomical. The blow would be as much financial as material.”

“You know,” I said, forcing a smile, “that’s just the kind of thing your pal Hugo Vox would cook up. Financial gain was the reason the Seven Kings arranged to have Bin Laden and the Saudis fly planes into the towers, and it’s why they blew up the London Hospital. Have you asked him about this?”

“In a roundabout way, yes. He appeared to know nothing.”

“He’s good at that, the lying sack of shit.”

Rasouli spread his hands. “Now you are where I am, armed with dangerous knowledge and no clear set of answers. In the wake of Vox’s betrayal, I doubt you will be able to completely trust everyone in your government. But you have Mr. Church and the considerable resources at his disposal.”

I grunted. “What made you call Vox in the first place? To arrange this meet, I mean.”

Rasouli showed me his expensive white teeth. “I had been troubling over how to proceed with this matter when the reports came in about the ‘hikers’ being liberated. There are several countries that have teams capable of such an action, but most of them would not risk it, even for as staunch an ally as the United States, therefore it must be an American black operation. Who knows more about that sort of thing than Hugo Vox? I knew that he would know who was responsible and I made a call. He already knew about the action. He did not tell me how, though we are both adult enough to accept that he must still have operatives active in the United States covert community. He gave me you, and now we are here.”

“What would you have done with the flash drive if there had been no drama last night?”

“Have it sent by private courier to your embassy, I suppose. Addressed to Mr. Church.”

I took the drive and closed my fist around it, but I nodded toward his phone. “The photo you showed me? If your agents haven’t put eyes on this thing, then where’d that come from?”

“It was on the drive, too, but I never got the chance to ask how my agent obtained it. There are several badly damaged image files. This is the cleanest one.”

We sat for a moment, looking at each other while so many unsaid things swirled around us. I mean, think about it. Here was a guy I would have gladly killed ten minutes ago. Without hesitation or remorse. I could have cut his throat and then gone to work with a light heart.

And now?

I opened my hand and studied the flash drive. An ordinary device, probably bought at whatever passes for Staples in this part of the world. Now it’s little memory chip was filled with horrors beyond imagining.

Nukes. Under the Middle East oil fields.

“So that’s it?” I asked. “You-pardon the expression-drop this bomb on me and walk off?”

“That is a disingenuous remark, Captain. I risked much coming here. My president and the Rahbare Mo’azzame Enghelab do not know that I am here.”

“And you don’t entirely trust Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader? Wouldn’t they have the same fears as you? I doubt they want to reach paradise atop a mushroom cloud.”

Actually, I deliberately mispronounced his name as Armanihandjob, but Rasouli did not so much as crack a smile.

“I am not in their inner circle,” he said with a philosophic shrug. “They know I have ambitions and the president in particular would not cry if I was found dead with my throat torn out. Besides, in government nothing is as hard to protect as a state secret. They have people that they trust, but I do not know if I can trust the same people.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “but you have to admit that it’s pretty weird that you’re bringing this to us.”

He cocked his head at me. “You may neither believe nor care, but I respect Mr. Church. And you, if what I’ve heard about you is true.”

I said nothing.

Rasouli smiled. “I am not fishing for a reciprocal compliment.”

“Good thing. Fishing hole’s pretty dry.”

He shrugged, then asked, “Tell me, do you know the name Salah-ed-Din Ayyubi?”

“Sure. Saladin. General during the Crusades.”

“He was a sultan,” corrected Rasouli. “A great man, a hero of Islam.”

“Wasn’t he a Sunni born in Iraq?” I asked with a smile.

Rasouli shrugged. Iran was no friend of Iraq and 95 percent of Iranians belong to the Shia branch of Islam.

“My point is,” he persisted, “Saladin viewed the world from an eagle’s perspective. What you would call a ‘big picture’ view. It was never his desire to exterminate his enemies, only to defeat them and drive them from the Holy Land.”

“Ah. So, we’re supposed to shake hands like two worldly wise warriors, setting political differences aside for the betterment of mankind. Is that about it?”

“Something like that,” he said without a trace of embarrassment.

I nodded and shoved the flash drive into my shirt pocket.

Rasouli looked down at his shoes for a moment, breathing audibly through his nostrils. Without looking at me he said, “There is one last thing. It’s also on the drive.”

“More bombs?”

He shook his head. “I am not entirely sure that it is related to this matter, but then again I’m not entirely sure it isn’t.” He tilted his head and cut an upward look at me. “What do you know of the Book of Shadows?”

“Isn’t that a CD by Enya?”

His mouth twitched. “What about the Saladin Codex?”

“Nope. What are they?”

He turned toward me now and his eyes looked different. Older. Sadder. “They are two sides of the same very old coin.”

“Meaning?”

“As you do not know what they are, then it is all I’m prepared to say at this point. Mr. Church will see the references on the drive. Perhaps he will know if they are pertinent.”

Rasouli stood up and offered me his hand. I stood and looked from it to him.

“I know you despise me, Captain Ledger, and I do not care much for you. For now, however, we must rise above our individual beliefs and politics and do what we can for the common good.”

“You’re not Saladin,” I said. “And I’m sure as hell not Richard the Lionhearted.”

The hand did not move.

So, I shook it. Fuck it. It didn’t cost anything except a little pride and disgust, and I had a bottle of Purell in my pocket.

“Remember,” he said, “that you have been instructed to wait for ten minutes after my departure before leaving this coffee shop.”

With that he turned and left. Feyd opened the door for him and gave me a single withering stare, which I managed to endure without dying of fright. I stood by the glass and watched them walk around the corner of the building out of sight, presumably to a waiting car.

The next ten minutes took about ten thousand years.

Chapter Eleven

Driving in the City

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 8:17 a.m.

The passenger in the limousine rolled up his window as the tall American agent stepped out of the Starbox. The limousine idled one hundred feet down the side street, mostly hidden by a sidewalk stand selling dried lentils and wheat flour. The American agent looked up and down the street and then turned away and headed in the direction of the hotel district.

The passenger slid open the glass door between the front and rear seats. “Sefu, follow him. We need the name of his hotel but for God’s sake don’t let him see us.”

“Sir,” grunted the driver. Sefu was an Egyptian Christian who had worked for many years in this man’s service. He was not in the habit of letting anyone spot him when he tailed them, though he was circumspect enough not to say so. He put the car in drive and eased into traffic three cars back from the one closest to the American.

In the rear seat, Charles LaRoque, a French businessman and one of the world’s leading brokers of fine Persian rugs, pushed the button to close the soundproof glass partition. He cut a look at the rearview mirror to assure himself that the driver was not watching him, then he fished a small compact mirror out of his pocket. He opened it to reveal that both top and bottom held small mirrors. LaRoque studied his face in one mirror and then the other, back and forth for several moments, tilting the compact and changing his expression over and over again. A strange little laugh burbled from his chest.

“Delicious, delicious, delicious,” he said to the alternating images. There was so much to see there, so many faces. His father and his grandfather. The trickster and the priest. The Red Knights with their red mouths. The King of Thorns. It was all so very delicious.

“Oh yes it is,” LaRoque said, and laughed again.

A soft musical tone filled the car. Not the ringtone of his regular cell but the much more elaborate encrypted device given to him by a friend of his father’s.

“I’ll talk to you later,” LaRoque said to his mirror and shoved it back into his pocket, then closed his eyes and composed himself before he reached for the cell phone. When he opened his eyes he felt composed and ready to play his role.

“Yes?” he said into the phone, his tone serious and sober. Even so, LaRoque almost giggled and caught himself. He took a breath and forced himself to live his role. On this call, and in this matter, he was no longer Charles LaRoque. He was the Scriptor of the Ordo Ruber, the Sacred Red Order. The Scriptor did not giggle. The Scriptor was stern, decisive. That was how the old priest wanted him to play it.

“Was it Ledger?” asked Hugo Vox. “Was he there?”

“Yes,” confirmed LaRoque. “Just as you said.”

Vox laughed. He had a bass voice and a rumbling grizzly laugh. “What happened? What’d they talk about?”

“How would I know?” said LaRoque in a waspish voice. “I was outside in the bloody car, wasn’t I?”

“Charlie,” replied Vox with false patience, “don’t fuck with me. You heard every goddamn thing they said and we both know it.”

LaRoque cut a guilty look at the headphones lying next to him on the car seat. He debated lying to Vox. There was no strategic benefit to it, but lying was fun. But, he sighed instead and grunted. “I listened.”

“And?”

“It wasn’t what we thought,” said LaRoque. “It had nothing to do with the Red Order or the Holy Agreement. Well, at least not much. Rasouli mentioned the Book and the Codex at the end, but he didn’t tell Ledger what they were.”

“Hunh. That’s interesting as shit,” said Vox sourly. “What did they talk about?”

“Some nonsense about bombs.”

“What kind of bombs?”

“Nuclear bombs.”

There was a heavy silence at the other end of the line. “Really.” Vox said it more like a statement than a question. “Tell me exactly what they said.”

As well as he could, LaRoque repeated the conversation between Jalil Rasouli and Captain Joe Ledger. Vox did not interrupt, and when LaRoque was done there was another ponderous silence.

“It’s not our concern,” LaRoque said into the silence.

“Yeah,” said Vox, “I think it fucking well is.”

“I don’t care about that sort of thing. All I care about is whether Rasouli signs the Holy Agreement so we can get back to business.”

“Seriously?” asked Vox. “I mean, holy shit, Charlie, I knew that you were no rocket scientist, kid, but I didn’t think you were actually challenged. Rasouli is bending you over a barrel and dropping his shorts.”

“Nonsense.”

“You said that he gave a flash drive to Ledger. How do you know that it doesn’t have the whole damn story of the Agreement on it? It could have the name of every Scriptor and Murshid, every action taken by the Red Order and the Tariqa for the last eight hundred years. You gave Rasouli that information.”

“Not all of it,” LaRoque said defensively, and despite what he’d said to Vox he was beginning to think the uncouth American traitor might be correct.

“Enough of it, damn it. Enough to have you stood against a wall and shot. Christ, Charlie, if this gets out old ladies and nuns will want to cut your balls off, let alone the Americans and NATO. You should never have-”

“Stop lecturing me, Hugo. I don’t appreciate it and-”

“What would you prefer I do? Leave you to the wolves? Your father and grandfather were friends of mine. I made promises to them that I’d always be there for you, no matter what.”

“You mean, ‘no matter what silly insane Charles did’?”

“If the shoe fits, kid.”

LaRoque looked out the window, trying to catch his reflection in the smoked glass. He needed to see one of his other faces. One of the stronger ones. Or, maybe the face of the old priest. As the car rounded a corner to follow Ledger, LaRoque thought he caught a glimpse of the wizened features of the priest. Just a flash and then it was gone.

It was enough, though. It steadied him.

He drew a breath and let it out audibly. “Very well, Hugo. What do you advise?”

“Good,” Vox said, and LaRoque wondered if the American had also seen the priest. Could Vox do that, he wondered. Did the priest appear to everyone? Or to a chosen few? Or just to him?

“Let’s go on the assumption that Rasouli gave Ledger information that could hurt the Order,” said Vox. “Start there ’cause that gives us a game plan for safety.”

“What plan is that?”

“A very simple one because we need to do two things and they can both be done at the same time,” said Vox. “We have to get the flash drive back and we have to kill Joe Ledger.”

“Only that?”

Vox paused. “To start, yeah. Then we have to decide what to do about-”

Suddenly Vox’s words disintegrated into a terrible fit of wet coughs. Vicious coughs that broke from deep in his chest. The coughing fit lasted nearly a full minute before winding down to gasps. When he could finally speak, Vox cursed.

“Good lord, Hugo, are you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, shit,” Vox wheezed. “These chemo treatments are kicking my ass.”

The Scriptor took a moment to make sure that his voice was filled with concern, even if his mouth was trembling with a smile. “Are you in much pain?”

“A bit.”

“I’m sorry.” He almost said, “Oh, goody.”

“Yeah, well. Life’s a bitch and then you’re dead for a long time.” Vox cleared his throat. “Look, the bottom line is that you have to get that flash drive back and you have to do it right fucking now.”

“Why the hurry? I looked him up in our database and he appears to have been competent, yes, but not-”

“Don’t be an idiot. You only have his army and police records. I’ll send you his DMS file. It makes interesting reading.”

“You’re saying he’s a threat?”

“I’m saying that he’s Mr. Church’s pet psychopath. Don’t underestimate him. Ledger’s a weird cat, but he’s sharp and he is fucking relentless. He’s also got some freaky mojo.”

“‘Mojo’?”

“Luck. Son of a bitch is either lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it, but he always seems to be in the thick of things. Should have been dead a dozen times, but even though bodies stack up around him the cocksucker keeps finding a way through to the other side.”

“An angel in his pocket?” mused LaRoque. He looked down in surprise to find that his hand held the little compact mirror even though he had no memory of removing it from his pocket. He watched as his manicured thumbnail popped it open.

“You need to send a knight after him,” said Vox, and LaRoque almost dropped the compact.

“What? No. You have whole teams of Sabbatarians in Tehran-”

“Forget those fruitcakes. Ledger would have them for lunch.”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“I’m not. Ledger and his team dismantled my Kingsmen last year, and no one’s ever done that before. And I have it on good authority that Ledger beat Rafael Santoro one-on-one.”

That made the Scriptor pause. Santoro was the chief assassin of the Seven Kings, a man whose utter ruthlessness was only equaled by his nearly matchless skills as a combatant. Santoro was one of the very few ordinary men who might stand a chance against a knight. Not a full-blooded knight, of course, but one of the trainees.

“Ledger killed Santoro?”

“I… don’t know,” admitted Vox. “All I know is that they fought and then Santoro was gone, off the radar. And it’s not the first time Ledger’s beaten the odds. Don’t risk a Sabbatarian team. You have the Red Knights. Use one of them.”

The Scriptor looked at the two aspects of his face in the mirror, angling the compact one way and then the other, back and forth as the silence grew. The bottom mirror showed his own weak mouth, the top showed his indecisive eyes.

“Charlie-?” prompted Vox.

LaRoque flipped the mirrors forward and back, over and over again until the top image changed. From one heartbeat to the next the image changed from his own reflection to the face of the priest. Wrinkled skin, a slash of a cruel mouth, and eyes that were a strange swirl of colors-leprous brown and ophidian green.

Do it, whispered the voice in his mind. The voice of the priest.

LaRoque took a steadying breath. “Very well, Hugo, I’ll do it. I hope you appreciate the great faith I’m showing by trusting you.”

A snort of laughter came down the line. “You’re showing great intelligence by trusting me.”

“Others might disagree, considering what happened to your organization.”

“Nothing happened that I didn’t want to happen,” Vox said with a little edge to his voice. “I used Ledger and Church to turn a losing situation into a winning one.”

“Winning?”

“Am I in jail? Am I dead? Fuck no. Did I stroll away with a hundred billion dollars in numbered accounts? You bet your left nut I did. Am I still raking in about a couple of mil a week from that shit? You can bet your right nut on that one. So, yeah, I put the DMS to work for me and they don’t even know it.”

“Not even Church?”

“Maybe Church,” Vox conceded after some thought, “but he can’t do jack shit about it. He can’t want to kill me more than he already does. So, call me when Ledger’s dead.”

Vox disconnected.

For several moments LaRoque held the phone to his ear with his right hand and stared at the face of the priest in the compact mirror he held in his left.

Then it was gone. LaRoque blinked. The mirror now held only his own reflection.

“You made the right choice,” said the priest.

The Scriptor slowly raised his eyes and stared at the wizened figure who now sat across from him in the back of the limousine. The priest had eyes the color of toad flesh, and his skin was as sallow and thin as old parchment. When he smiled, his teeth were white and wet.

Charles LaRoque smiled back.

“Thank you, Father Nicodemus,” he said.

Chapter Twelve

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 8:28 a.m.

I walked back to the hotel, and with each step I tried not to scream. I wanted to run back, but I didn’t dare draw attention to myself. It was bad enough I was sweating and probably looked nervous and guilty. There were so many ways this could play out, most of them bad, and I didn’t know how we were going to play it.

Inside my head the word “nuke” kept echoing.

About every third car on the street was either a police sedan or a military jeep. Even though the rescue of the hikers wasn’t in the morning papers, it was clear from the activity on the street that the government was mobilized. Although the hikers had been illegally arrested and unfairly held, Iran had never budged from its stance that the kids were spies and that they’d crossed the border. At the time Echo Team went wheels-up to come here, the State Department had not yet decided how to announce the event. A lot of it, I knew, depended on whether we were successful, on the physical and mental condition of the rescued hikers, on the degree of resistance during the raid, and whether we got caught. The mission had gone by the numbers except for the end; and though I had no doubt Top had managed to get the kids out of the country, at least one American still had boots on the ground here.

If John Smith or Lydia had missed their rides, then the math got more complicated. The local government needed only one of us to create a media shit storm. The fact that there wasn’t yet that storm suggested that none of my people were in the bag. I did not want to be the one to let the team down; and I had no illusions about Church dispatching a team to haul my ass out of jail. There was no political profit in that. He’d disown me and wipe my records.

That’s exactly as comforting as it sounds.

I knew that Church was advising the president and the secretary of state about how to spin this thing. Spin control for global disasters was one of his most endearing talents.

And, of course, there was the whole nuke thing. Talk about skewing the math. Rasouli oversaw much of the nation’s misinformation and propaganda and he was the one who wanted me to find the nukes. Did that mean he was influencing the manhunt process? No one had a physical description of me, at least no one attached to the rescue; but Rasouli and his sniper psycho babe were able to spot me and put a laser sight on me at a coffee shop. How’d that happen? Even with Hugo Vox advising them, how’d they know where to acquire me?

“Joe,” a voice said.

I spun around, sure that someone stood right behind me, whispering in my ear. But I was alone on the street. The voice… I knew that voice.

Her voice.

“Grace?”

My heart was pounding and the ground under me felt like it was tilting. But there was no one close enough to have spoken my name.

Chances are that no voice spoke and that I was crazy as a loon. Chances, not guarantees.

Grace.

I searched for the echo of her voice, of that one word, inside the fractured darkness of my mind, but it, like she, was gone. Tears wanted to burn their way out of my eyes. I wanted so badly to find a place of shadows, a doorway or the back of an abandoned car, somewhere I could hide. Ever since Rasouli dropped the first two bombs on me-Hugo Vox and Grace Courtland-I felt like things were starting to unravel inside my head. It made me feel as if everyone was looking at me, as if everyone knew who and what I was.

I used every ounce of strength and will I possessed to compose my face and show absolutely nothing. It cost me, though.

The Israelis operated a news and cigarette shop a block from my hotel and I stopped by there and browsed the papers until the shop was empty. Then I drifted over to the counter. The man who ran the place looked and sounded Iranian but I knew for a fact that he was Mossad.

“Carton of cigarettes,” I said. “Do you still carry Bistoon?”

He smiled. “We get no call for it, I’m sorry.”

It was the proper call sign and response that identified me as an American agent. We both glanced around the shop to verify that we were alone.

“What do you need?”

“Cell phone battery.” I showed the phone I had, which was a DMS design built on a local model. Even though my unit had some extra goodies built in, it was designed to work on a standard cell battery that could be found anywhere in Iran.

“I can have it for you in half an hour. Will you wait or do you want it delivered?”

“Delivered.” I told him my hotel and room.

He studied my face and frowned. “I will not ask what is troubling you, my friend, but it appears that you are having a bad day.”

“You have no idea.”

Before I left I bought a pack of goat jerky. I had a hungry dog waiting for me in my hotel and if I didn’t come back with food he’d sulk all day.

I paid for the goat.

“May your day improve,” said the shopkeeper.

“Yeah,” I said from the doorway. “Here’s hoping.”

As cops and soldiers cruised by and peered at every civilian with suspicious eyes, I forced myself to walk normally. I willed myself not to be noticeable. I needed to punch and pound the fear and grief and paranoia down into its little box. Walking a few blocks seemed to take absolutely forever. By the time I reached my hotel my hands were shaking so badly I had to jam them into my pockets.

I climbed three flights of stairs, dropped my keys twice, and finally opened the lock. As soon as I was inside I closed and relocked the door and fell back against it with an exhale that came all the way up from my shoes.

My dog, Ghost, was waiting for me, wagging his tail and looking at my hands to see if I’d brought him anything. He’s a big white shepherd, 105 pounds of muscle and appetite. Ghost was cross-trained in a variety of useful skills from combat to rescue; and though he was useful in ordinary bomb detection, he couldn’t disarm a nuke.

I knelt down and hugged him. I kissed his furry head.

“This one’s going to be a bitch, fuzzball,” I told him.

He looked at me with those liquid dog eyes that always seem deep and wise. He whined a little, catching my mood or perhaps smelling my fear. Then his whole body went rigid as he stared past me. Not to the closed door, but to an empty space on the wall. I followed the line of his gaze, willing myself to see what he saw, but a dog is a dog and they see things we can’t. No matter how much we want to.

I listened to the silence, wondering if I’d just heard a soft voice whisper my name again.

But, no… there was nothing.

When I looked at Ghost, he was no longer staring at the wall.

“What is it, boy?”

Ghost, being a dog, just looked at me.

I mean, really… what had I expected him to say? My palms were sweaty and I wiped them on my thighs. Then I fished some dried goat strips out of my jacket pocket and dropped them on the floor. Ghost is peculiar in that he eats his food delicately, one piece at a time, making it last.

Minutes crawled by as I waited for the Mossad shopkeeper to send over the battery. The thought of those moments being chipped off the block of time remaining until those nukes went active was making my heart hurt. I was sweating and it wasn’t the heat in that stuffy little room.

I fished for more goat and my fingers scrabbled over the flash drive. That drove everything else out of my head.

Rasouli said that there were four nukes scattered throughout the Mideast oil fields, and three more unknowns. Maybe one in the States.

“Holy God…” I breathed. Ghost cut a sharp look at me and gave a soft woof.

Chapter Thirteen

Southwestern Iran

Twenty Kilometers from the Kuwait Border

Ten Hours Before…

First Sergeant Bradley Sims saw the army truck stop at a crossroads at the far end of the valley. Roadside lights cast the area in a golden glow. He turned off his headlights, slowed his car, and pulled behind an abandoned grain warehouse where he could observe the street through a chain-link fence. The soldiers began off-loading sawhorse barricades.

“No! Oh, god, no!” cried the young woman beside him. Rachel had a cinnamon colored shawl wrapped around her head and face, but the eyes that peered out from under the shawl were bright with new tears. “God, please don’t let them take us back.”

Top pasted on a smile that was filled with far more confidence than he felt. “Not a chance, darlin’.”

He removed a small pair of high-powered night-vision binoculars and steadied his forearms on the wheel as he peered at the men: checking their uniforms, their weapons, their body language, and apparent combat readiness. You can tell a lot about soldiers by how well they go about ordinary tasks. Mediocre ones slouch through it, as if laziness were the best part of down time. The best ones did everything with a degree of polish and professionalism so that even something as simple as erecting a roadblock was done right and done right the first time.

The men at the crossroads did not appear to be a gang of slackers.

Not good.

He tapped his earbud. “Sergeant Rock to Road Trip. On me. No lights. Stop and listen.” Behind him, scattered hundreds of yards apart, the other two cars crept slowly through the shadows, running without headlights.

“Okay, ladies and gents,” Top said into his mike, “this is about to get fun. Here’s what I need and I need it now. First, I need a volunteer-snake oil salesman, feel me?”

“I’m in,” said Khalid.

“Roger that, Dancing Duck. Green Giant, that means you’re Jack-in-the-box.”

“Rock ’n’ roll,” agreed Bunny, and he sounded happy about it.

“Converge on me. I’m Santa Claus.”

He tapped out of the channel.

Rachel grabbed his sleeve. “What was all that? What’s happening?”

Top held up a finger. “My orders are to get you three over the border and into Kuwait. To do that I have to get past that roadblock. I’d go a different way but every other route keeps us in country for at least an hour, and we don’t have that hour. I’ll be straight with you. Best guess is that Iranian military helicopters will be here in fifteen, twenty minutes-we need ten to make it to our LZ and that’s going all out, balls-to-the-walls crazy.”

“‘LZ’?”

“Landing zone. We got our own helo coming, but it can’t come this close to a town or we’d start a war that nobody wants. That means that we have to get through that security checkpoint down there.”

“They’ll know who I am!” she yelped. “They’ll just take me back to that awful place. You don’t know the sort of things they did to us in there.”

“I pretty much think I do, darlin’. That’s why we’re not going to let you get taken. I need you to do what I say, and help me help your friends. Can you do that?”

Her eyes were huge and filled with fear, but the young woman was tough and she took a breath that steadied her trembling hands. She nodded. “Okay.”

“Good. Here’s the plan.” He told her what he had planned, and her eyes went wide with fear and doubt.

The other cars pulled in behind Top’s. Doors opened and immediately Khalid and Bunny quick-walked the two young men toward the lead vehicle.

“Everyone in the back,” said Top. “Stay together and stay down. Things might get loud but you will be safe. No questions now. Let’s go.”

Before he closed the door he made brief eye contact with Rachel, and she nodded and even managed a brave smile. She guided the two young men through the shadows into the back and then squeezed in. There was just enough downspill from the warehouse’s pale security lights to see as she made sure everyone was buckled in tightly. Rachel kept talking to the others, soothing them, calming them. Top reached out and gave her shoulder a single squeeze, then closed the door. He stepped a few yards away and consulted briefly with Khalid and Bunny, and then climbed back behind the wheel of his car.

“What’s happening?” asked Senator McHale’s son.

“Rachel will tell you,” said Top. “Then I need you all to be real quiet. Don’t ask questions and absolutely do not talk to me or interfere with me until I say it’s all clear.”

“Okay,” assured Rachel, and the two young men nodded.

Top turned away as Khalid switched on his headlights and pulled his car onto the road.

“Where’s the other man?” asked the girl. “The surfer guy?”

Top chuckled at that. “Oh, you never can tell where Farmboy’s going to pop up.”

He gave Khalid’s car a long lead, then switched on his lights and followed.

The sergeant at the crossroads held up his hand and then patted the air, indicating that Khalid should slow down and stop. Two soldiers converged on the front of the car from either side, using the flashlights clipped to their rifles to sweep the vehicle. The other three soldiers walked around back, their lights and barrels pointed at the trunk.

Top’s jaw was tight with tension. Timing was going to be critical. If Khalid made an error, he’d be dead in the next few seconds, and then everything would go to shit. He cut a look into the rearview mirror, at the faces of the three freed hostages. They had been held for a year. A whole year carved out of their lives because Ahmadinejad liked using kids as chess pieces in his political games.

Top knew that firing live rounds would likely result in a major political incident, possibly even a renewed threat of war. But there was no way on earth he was going to let Iran take these college students back.

He gripped the steering wheel hard enough to make it creak.

“Papers,” ordered the sergeant, shining a small flashlight directly into Khalid’s face. “Name and destination.”

Khalid squinted into the light as he handed over his papers, which were in a cheap vinyl folder of the kind most people in Tehran carried. His car was a late-model sedan, suggesting that he was at very least someone of note. Moneyed, or perhaps attached to the massive political machine that squatted over the whole country.

One of the guards looked in through the passenger window, peering into the footwell and the backseat, but there was nothing to see. Khalid gave them the false name that matched the ID, and spun a quick story about going to have an early breakfast with a business associate in a small border town. If the soldiers had a computer uplink and ran a check, everything would be there to verify the story.

“Open the trunk,” the sergeant said as he handed back the papers.

“Certainly,” said Khalid and he reached down to pop the latch. Instead he pulled the pin on a flash-bang and simply dropped it out the window at the sergeant’s feet. The sergeant stared down it, totally shocked despite his training. He started to yell a warning, but instantly the flash-bang burst with tremendous force, battering the sergeant away from the car.

As soon as Khalid dropped the device he threw himself sideways and pressed his hands against his ears. The flash filled the night with a brilliant white light. The accompanying bang caught one of the soldiers in its blast radius, and the man screamed and spun away in an awkward pirouette. The other three soldiers whipped around toward the blast and never saw the trunk flip open and two more flash-bangs whip up into the air. The grenades burst five feet above the car hood, catching all three soldiers with its terrible burst of blinding light and crushing noise.

Then Khalid kicked open the door and Bunny rolled out of the trunk. The soldiers were on their knees or leaning against the car, holding their heads. One of them tried to fight through the pain and bring his rifle up, but Bunny drove an uppercut into the man’s stomach that lifted him ten inches off the ground. Bunny pivoted and grabbed the other two closest guards, knotting his huge fists around the backstraps of their Kevlar vests. He pulled them off the ground, swung them apart, and then slammed them together with a huge bellow of effort. The helmets collided with a sound like a church gong and the men instantly went slack.

On the far side of the car, Khalid kicked the dazed sergeant in the groin and then hammered the top of his helmet with the bottom of a hard fist. The sergeant dropped on his face and Khalid stepped on his back as he dove at the remaining soldier, who was staggering backward, shaking his head, and trying to pull his shoulder microphone. Khalid slapped the mike out of his hand, grabbed his helmet, and yanked the man’s head down onto a rising knee.

And then it was over. Five men down, and down hard. Alive, but they wouldn’t feel lucky about it when they woke up.

Top watched all this with narrowed eyes and no trace of compassion. Like the rest of Echo Team, he’d had some compassion for the cops in the police station. For the soldiers? None at all. The military had been in charge of the hikers for a year and had abused and starved them. If Mr. Church hadn’t given a no-live-fire order, Top knew that his guys would be cutting throats.

Now was the not the time to play “what if,” though. He gunned the engine and rocketed toward the crossroads, reaching it only seconds after Bunny kicked the barrier out of the way. There was a roar behind them and Top saw Khalid’s headlights flick on.

The two cars raced through the night; the third vehicle abandoned back at the warehouse. As they drove, Khalid pulled ahead and took point. The closer they got to the rendezvous point, the better the chance that they might meet the kind of resistance that wouldn’t be stopped by a couple of flash-bangs and some fisticuffs.

“Are we safe?” whispered the young woman in the back seat. “God… are we safe?”

Top said nothing. There were miles to go before he would know the answer to that question.

Chapter Fourteen

Homa Hotel

51 Khodami Street, Vanak Square

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 8:29 a.m.

The last thing the businessman in the bad suit did that day was open the door to his hotel room. He was undressing to take a shower when he heard the soft knock and padded barefoot to the door, a frown creasing his jowly face. He was neither expecting nor wanting a visitor of any kind. His frown deepened when he saw that it was a woman who stood outside, her face hidden by a modest chador but burdened with a heavy black canvas equipment bag whose strap was slung across her torso.

“Who-?” began the businessman, and the woman shot him in the chest with a pistol that had been hidden beneath her flowing sleeve.

The businessman gave a single croaking bleat, and then his eyes rolled up and he fell backward onto the floor. The woman kicked his legs out of the way, checked that the hall was still empty, stepped inside, and closed the door.

The Italian woman knelt and pressed her fingers against the businessman’s throat. The pulse was there, steady and rapid, though she knew it would slow down within seconds. The gun she used was a Snellig gas-dart pistol, its tiny glass projectiles were loaded with horse tranquilizer.

She unslung the heavy bag, laid it on the bed, unzipped one of its many compartments, and removed a scope. Then she crossed to the window and put the scope to her eye. The Serbian subcommander of her team had followed Ledger after the meeting with Rasouli had ended, tailing him to a store and then to the Golden Oasis Hotel. After determining the floor and room number, the Serbian gruffly asked for further orders.

“Go back to the staging area,” answered the Italian. “File your report and wait for me.”

She hung up before the Serbian could ask another question.

It was an easy matter to decide on a vantage point from one of the surrounding hotels. She used her Oracle computer to hack the booking records for each hotel until she found a perfect spot. Now she controlled a safe vantage point and peered through the scope to count floors and windows until she found the right one.

At first all she saw was a balcony, sliding glass doors, thin sheer curtains beyond which a bleak room was occupied only by Joe Ledger and a large dog. Ledger sat on the floor, petting the dog. She adjusted the scope to study the animal. It was a beautiful white shepherd, and that made the Italian frown. Was the dog’s color a coincidence or was there another element to this man? Was he tied to the Sabbatarians? Was that a fetch dog?

That question would need to be answered, because it might mean that Ledger would have to die right now.

Still frowning, she removed her sniper rifle from the canvas bag. The rifle was not in parts. She had spent too much time carefully sighting it in to have it all spoiled by disassembling the weapon. Only the stock was detached and she clicked it into place and then mounted the weapon on a tripod. Like most professionals in her craft she preferred shooting from a prone position, or kneeling with a bipod, but she had no idea how long she would have to wait here in this hotel room, so a tripod was more practical. It reduced the risk of muscle fatigue.

She mounted the scope onto an American McMillan Tac-50 bolt-action sniper rifle and loaded it with. 50 caliber Browning machine gun rimless cartridges, lean and long and completely lethal, even if she was forced to take a body shot instead of the preferred head shot. Not that she would have. The Italian sniper had not missed a kill shot in many years. She had learned the craft from the greatest shooter who ever lived, Simo Hayha, the legendary Finnish shooter known in international sniper circles as the White Death, and rightly so. During the Winter War between Finland and Russia in 1939 and ’40, Hayha had racked up 705 confirmed kills. Five hundred and five with an iron-sighted bolt action rifle, the rest with a submachine gun. Hayha endured murderous subzero temperatures as low as minus forty Celsius and in less than one hundred days had been an angel of slaughter to the Russians, sometimes stuffing his mouth with snow so his breath did not condense and reveal his position. Even after taking a bullet to the face he survived and escaped capture.

Hayha had been one of many tutors Lilith had hired to prepare her for the life she led. And though he was ancient and near death, his mind was sharp and his lessons profound. Hayha had been a master killer, and yet his eyes were always calm, always peaceful. The Italian never understood that. When she looked in the mirror she saw the eyes of some vile thing. Something tainted and impure. Something evil.

She sat in a folding chair in the shadows of the hijacked hotel room. No lights except the indirect light from the open window. Above her, a rickety ceiling fan turned continuously and there was a breeze from outside, but the curtains did not move. They were weighted down with rocks she had brought upstairs with her for that purpose. Blowing curtains could spoil a shot and they draw the eye. She did not want to attract any attention.

Ledger still sat on the floor.

The sniper leaned back from the rifle and removed a small leather case from her bag, unzipped it, and propped it on the night table. The device was the size of an e-book reader but it was a very powerful portable computer with a satellite uplink. The sniper booted the device, entered her password, and activated the voice interface.

“Authorize Arklight field protocol five.”

The monitor flashed several times and then settled on a screen saver with the smiling face of the Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa spoke.

“Oracle welcomes you.”

The Oracle computer had been designed by a man named St. Germaine but re-programmed by her mother; the voice was hers as well, though with a slight alien quality when composing unique phrasing. The sniper had added the animation of the Mona Lisa to give it a less threatening feeling. She loved her mother but, like everyone else who ever met her, was deeply intimidated by her. Even the other two Mothers of the Fallen deferred to her.

“Access all data for mission coded Arklight eight-one-one-seven.”

“Accessing. Do you want to update your field report?”

“Yes.” She gave the computer a detailed report beginning with the phone call from Rasouli that morning and the resulting change in the mission for which her Arklight team had been contracted. At the conclusion of the report she said, “Collate data. I will want a set of probabilities.”

“Collating,” said Oracle. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes. I want everything you can find on Joseph Edwin Ledger. White male, early thirties, American.”

“There are ninety-seven unique instances of living people named Joseph Edwin Ledger; one-hundred and sixteen for deceased-”

“Stop. Subject is likely military or ex-military. Possibly law enforcement.”

“There is one instance of a Joseph Edwin Ledger with the Baltimore Police Department in the state of Maryland. There is also one instance of a Joseph Edwin Ledger with the United States Army Rangers. Personal identification numbers and Social Security numbers match.”

“Open a file on him. I want everything. Ledger’s background. Service record, awards, citations, reprimands, psych profiles, his politics. Anything you have.”

“There is already an active Arklight file on this subject.”

“When was the file opened and who opened it?”

The computer gave an open date from July of the previous year. “The file has an L1 code.”

L1. Lilith.

“My mother opened that file?”

“Yes.”

“Summarize the content of that file.”

Oracle began reading out information regarding several matters of grave international importance. The Seif al Din plague, which coincided with the opening of Ledger’s file. There were others, all high profile. The shutdown of the ultrasecret vault in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania; the famous Jakoby-Mengele file; and others, leading up to the Seven Kings event last December. The records were spotty and included more speculation and unofficial information than hard evidence. As the Italian woman well knew it was virtually impossible to prove anything about the DMS. Very often files of this kind suddenly vanished from even encrypted hard drives. There were rumors of a DMS supercomputer called MindReader that had an aggressive search and destroy subroutine for ferreting out this kind of information.

“Oracle,” she said, “have you been attacked in any way since this file was opened?”

“No.”

“Isn’t that unusual?”

“There is a note in the file stating that any questions of this kind be directed to Lilith herself. Your mother does not permit additional speculative notes to be added to the file. Would you like me to pass along a request to your mother?”

“God no,” said the sniper before she could stop herself. “No,” she corrected.

“Shall I continue reading the subject’s service record?”

“Yes.”

Ledger reached out and pulled his dog toward him, wrapping his arms around the animal and laying his head on the dog’s shoulder. What an odd thing for a man like him to do, she thought. A strangely human act, totally at odds with the things Oracle was saying: that he was emotionally fractured, that he was utterly ruthless in a fight, that he had killed people with guns, knives, explosives, his hands. However, the way he held his dog and stroked the animal’s fur and spoke to it-even though she could not hear his words-made her smile.

“Oracle, stop report,” she said. “How did my mother obtain the information for her file on Ledger?”

“That information is in a subfolder marked eyes-only. Would you like to request temporary clearance to read that report?”

The sniper took a breath, then let it out slowly. “Yes.”

“That request has been forwarded to the Mothers.”

“Continue report.”

Oracle moved from the bland details of an unremarkable military record, through a moderately interesting though short police career. The sniper found nothing of real note there, however, except that Ledger had been scheduled for enrollment in the FBI academy. There were no records of his having actually entered the academy. What really caught her interest, however, were Ledger’s psychotherapy reports and transcripts of sessions with Dr. Rudolfo Ernesto Sanchez y Martinez. Ledger was a deeply damaged individual who had a minimum of three and possibly as many as nine separate personality subtypes living in his head. Dr. Sanchez’s records indicated that Ledger had found a way to balance these personalities and even put them to work, like a committee, within his fractured mind. It was not a unique occurrence, but it was very rare; and rarer still for such a man to be accepted into the police department and, apparently, the Department of Military Sciences.

“Stop. Who recruited Ledger into the DMS?”

“Unknown, though there is a high probability that he was recruited directly by St. Germaine.”

The sniper’s pulse quickened as it did every time she heard that name.

St. Germaine.

That was one of the many names for a man currently using the name Church. St. Germaine was the name her mother used for the man. The sniper had never met him, but other Arklight agents told wild stories. She doubted most of them were true, but all of them were fascinating.

“Oracle,” she said, “why might St. Germaine risk using a field operative with Ledger’s psychological profile?”

“Unknown.”

“Speculate. Access all known data on St. Germaine and cross-reference.”

“There are one hundred and three separate field reports that include the man code-named St. Germaine under twenty-eight aliases. Twenty-six of those reports indicate a tendency to use agents with unpredictable or unstable personality types. Four of the six analysis reports uploaded by senior Arklight operators postulate that Mr. Church uses said unpredictable personalities to introduce random elements to missions.”

“An X factor?”

“That is the theory most commonly postulated.”

“What is the probability that Mr. Church sent Ledger to Iran knowing that he would become involved in my current mission?”

“There is insufficient data to calculate a complete probability model.”

“Fuck.”

“I am unable to perform that function, as you well know,” said Oracle in her mother’s dry voice. It was one of the messages Mama had added to the database. An attempt at humor.

“What is the likelihood that Rasouli knew my team was associated with Arklight?”

“Unknown, however the mission for which your team was originally contracted has multiple connection points to the Mothers of the Fallen and-”

“What is Rasouli’s connection with Joseph Ledger?”

“Unknown.”

She processed that as she made some minor adjustments to her rifle.

Why had Rasouli wanted to meet this man? Was he an intermediary? Or, more likely, was Rasouli trying to recruit him as a double agent? Despite the poverty most of the people in this country endured, the government was very rich, with pockets deep enough to tempt saints and angels. The sniper had seen that firsthand in the absurd amount of money Rasouli had paid to have her team provide security for half an hour in a coffee shop.

“Oracle, give me a probability estimate on Ledger’s loyalty.”

“That question lacks specificity.”

“Based on Joseph Ledger’s psych profiles, can he be bought? Could Rasouli buy him away from the DMS?

“Unknown.”

“But we can’t discount it?”

“That would be unwise.”

She peered through the scope. Ledger was still sitting on the floor with his dog. Was he crying? The blowing curtains on Ledger’s window made it impossible to tell, but the American looked like he had something on his cheeks. Tears or dog slobber?

“How dangerous is this man?”

“To others or to himself?”

The question did not surprise the sniper. She was more than half-convinced the marks on Ledger’s cheeks were not there because of his dog.

“As a fighter and field agent,” she said.

“According to psych profiles and all other available data, Captain Joseph Edwin Ledger should be considered a Class-A threat.”

The sniper found that very interesting.

There was movement. Ledger abruptly straightened and looked at the closed door against which he sat. Then he and the dog climbed quickly to their feet. Ledger reached inside his jacket but after a moment brought his hand away without a gun. It was clear that someone had just knocked on the door, and it seemed apparent from Ledger’s body language that the visitor was expected.

But who was it?

Rasouli?

Another of St. Germaine’s agents? The Sabbatarians?

Or one of those unholy bastards in the Red Order?

“Oracle. Stand by.”

“Standing by.”

As Ledger reached for the door handle, the sniper leaned her shoulder against the stock of the rifle. Her slender finger stroked the cold metal rim of the trigger guard.

Chapter Fifteen

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 8:47 a.m.

When the delivery man knocked on the door I nearly jumped out of my skin. I leapt to my feet and spun toward the door. Ghost gave a low growl and took up a defensive stance next to me. He was too tactful to mention that I spent five seconds scrabbling inside my jacket for a pistol I wasn’t carrying.

I peered through the peephole and saw a teenage boy in a kufi.

Before he could knock again, I opened the door and he handed me a package, accepted a tip, and departed without saying a word. He threw some cautious looks at Ghost, though, as if aware that this was a ferocious mankiller for whom a packet of goat strips would not assuage a savage hunger. Ghost apparently had the same thought and glared at his retreating back until I closed the door and told him to knock it off.

Inside the package was a carton of Bistoon cigarettes, which I threw out. The other items in the paper sack were the battery and a cell-phone charger wrapped together with a blue rubber band.

I sat down on the edge of the bed and slid the battery into the phone and was delighted to see that it was already charged. I should have given the kid a bigger tip.

Our DMS phones have a USB port, and I fished out the flash drive and plugged it in. It did not look particularly damaged from the outside, but then again the outside was plastic. I was more than a little surprised-or maybe “suspicious” is the appropriate word-that Rasouli gave me the original rather than a copy. I was glad he did, though, because once I uploaded what I could I was going to find a way to get the flash drive into a diplomatic pouch for an expedited trip across the ocean. Once Bug got his sweaty little hands on it I was sure the drive would yield up everything there was to find.

Could Rasouli have had that in mind? Did he know about MindReader? Sure he did, he knew Vox.

My gut turned over. Every time I thought I had a grasp on how much damage-past, current, and potential-that could be laid at Vox’s feet, something came along to broaden my perspective. MindReader was an ultrasecret system and part of its strength lay in the fact that the bad guys didn’t know about it, or if they did they didn’t know what it could do. Vox did. That meant that anyone he told, every government or terrorist organization, would be scrambling now to upgrade their computer-security protocols. Common knowledge of MindReader’s intrusion properties could easily create a new spike in security technology for computers. Grace Courtland once told me that the whole Chinese GhostNet program was their response to rumors that something like MindReader existed. And Vox himself had clearly financed some big-ticket research because he had provided the Seven Kings with the only cellular phone system that MindReader couldn’t trace or crack. Bug, the DMS computer hotshot, said that designing such a system could not have been done by accident, it had to have been created specifically to thwart our computer.

I plugged the flash drive into the USB port on my phone and immediately got a bunch of read-error messages. The thing had been in someone’s stomach, so that was no surprise. However, I went through the steps to do a forced upload of bulk data and soon images were whipping across the screen too fast for me to see. Damaged or not, there was a lot of stuff on the drive. The upload failed twice and I had to repeat the steps, but eventually I got the UPLOAD COMPLETE message.

I scrolled back through the contents at a slower speed until I found a series of JPEGs, one of which was the picture Rasouli had showed me. It looked so innocent, so nondescript in its metal case. And though I know that machines have no personality, I could not help but ascribe the word “evil” to it, as if the malign intent of its creators had been somehow transferred to the device during its construction.

I took a breath, engaged the code scrambler, and punched a speed dial. The phone rang three times.

“Go,” was all Church said, which is more than he usually gives when he answers a phone.

“Boss, I have a Firehall One situation.”

“Is there a finger on a trigger?” His voice sounded as calm as if I asked him who pitched for the Orioles last night.

“Unknown. But… from the vibe I got from my source I’d say this is something coming at us rather than already here.”

“Tell me.”

“I just uploaded the contents of a flash drive to the server. It’s damaged goods. It’s filed under my name and coded for you, eyes only.”

I could hear him tapping keys on his laptop as I spoke.

“Okay, I have the data. Where did this originate? Who’s your source?”

“You’re going to love this,” I said, and told him everything. He did not interrupt once, and I hoped that he was alone because this was going to really test his Vulcan calm.

After a short pause, Church asked, “Were you able to verify his connection to Vox? Could Rasouli have simply thrown the name at you to win your trust?”

“I don’t think so. Vox told him to tell me that he vetted Grace and she was clean. He said ‘She wasn’t one of mine.’”

There was a longer pause. “Interesting.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“Rasouli made no move to arrest you?”

“Just the opposite,” I said. “Rasouli teased me by saying that one of the devices might be in the U.S. He couldn’t have been more vague if he’d spoken in code, though.”

“You don’t believe him?”

“I’m not sure I’d believe him if he said the desert was made out of sand. But…”

“Where are you?”

“My hotel room.”

“Bug might be able to salvage more of the damaged files. I’ll reroute a local asset to pick up the flash drive. Wait for his call.”

“I don’t think I should leave the country while-”

“You’re not. You’ll be taken to a safe house you can use as a staging area. We’ll evaluate the situation so be prepared to go after that device in Iran. I’ll have Echo Team rendezvous with you there.”

“Speaking of my team… did everyone make it out okay?”

“Everyone but you. Safe and sound and over the border.”

“Outstanding. What about the packages?”

“The three young people are with their families. They’ll go to London for a thorough physical, and we’ll have them home in forty-eight hours.”

“Not seeing anything in the news.”

“Iran hasn’t acknowledged the incident. There’s some question here about how they’ll play it. Fifty-fifty split between them producing dead soldiers and claiming that we launched an illegal attack that resulted in casualties; or they reach out to us on the sly and agree to a public statement that they worked with us to insure the safe release of suspected spies who have since been cleared. My money is on the latter. State is prepping a variety of responses,” he said.

“Be nice to have the good guys win. Those three kids were pretty tough. They didn’t break, and we both know the Iranians didn’t go light on them.”

“Admirable,” Church agreed, and that was about as sentimental and weepy as he ever gets. “What do you need, Captain?”

“I’m equipment-light. I need weapons and gear. Can your asset drop that stuff off?”

“I can arrange weapons, but he won’t have a field kit. Echo Team will bring the party favors. And I’ll have Bug send you the latest disarming protocols.”

“Once last thing, Boss,” I said. “Do you think this is the return of the Seven Kings?”

“Impossible to say at this juncture,” he said. The line went dead.

In my best impersonation of Church I said, “Why, thank you, Captain Ledger, damn fine work.” Ghost gave me a look and went back to his dried goat.

I studied the picture of the bomb. Jesus. Someone wanted to nuke the entire Mideast oil fields.

Understand, I gave just about half a warm shit about the whole oil wars thing. I cared even less about the politics of it. But there were hundreds of millions of people in the region. I thought of all the people coming and going in the cafe. Their families, their kids. All of them. Working, eating, sleeping, loving, and living on top of four, maybe six, nuclear bombs. Maybe more.

I stood up, swayed for a moment, then ran like hell into the bathroom, dropped to my knees in front of the toilet and vomited. It was so immediate and desperate that I could hear myself screaming as I threw up.

My stomach spasmed on empty and I dropped the lid with a bang. Ghost was in the doorway, barking at me, scared and nervous. I pulled some toilet paper off the roll and wiped my mouth.

“It’s okay,” I gasped, reaching out with a trembling hand toward Ghost. He gave my knuckles a nervous lick. “It’s okay.”

I flushed the paper and used the sink to pull myself upright. I ran the water on cold and stuck my face down into the spray. I rinsed out my mouth and tried to spit out the taste of terror.

The shakes hit me then and I had to ball my hands into fists as I walked into the bedroom. You can only play it like Mr. Cool for so long before the realities of emotion and brain chemistry show up to kick your ass and prove to you that you’re just as human as everyone else. Maybe Mr. Church has a lock on invulnerability, but I haven’t cracked the code yet. I sat down on the edge of the bed and tried not to cry.

In the movies, Bruce Willis doesn’t cry. He’s a stoic. He’s also working off a script that he knows has a happy ending. I wasn’t. What if it came down to me to stop these things? Me and what I can do pitted against the potential loss of life that numbered several hundred million. I’m one guy. A year ago I was just a cop.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, and I could hear the raw horror in my own voice.

Chapter Sixteen

The Hangar-DMS Central HQ

Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

June 15, 12:49 a.m. EST

Mr. Church typed his personal code into his laptop and brought up the Rasouli files. He scanned the index and then began viewing the files one by one. His face was relaxed, composed, without expression, as data, charts, diagrams, lists, and photographs came and went, came and went on his laptop screen.

The room was still except for music playing softly. “Smokin’ At The Half Note” by Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery. The current track was Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.” Mr. Church appreciated the simple intensity of Wes Montgomery’s guitar work on the track, and he let it play through before he did anything.

Mr. Church selected a vanilla wafer from a plate, tapped crumbs off of it, and took a small bite. He munched quietly for several seconds. He was a large man, broad-shouldered, strong and blocky. It was generally believed by those who knew him that he was north of sixty, but people agreed that age did not seem to touch him. The gray in his hair was the only real mark; and the scars on his face and hands suggested that his years, no matter how many they were, had not been idle.

His eyes were half-closed behind the tinted lenses of his glasses as he looked inward, assessing what Ledger had told him, working through the implications of the information on Rasouli’s flash drive. If anyone had been in the room they would have thought he was a man lost in the subtleties of a piece of classic jazz. There was no outward sign of agitation.

A slender cell phone sat on the desk blotter next to his laptop. The image on the laptop’s screen was the one Joe Ledger had sent via e-mail. When the song ended, Mr. Church picked up his cell and opened it, punched a number, entered a code that engaged a 128-bit scrambler, and waited for the other party to answer. After three rings, a man’s voice said, “Hello?”

Mr. Church said, “Mr. President, we have a situation.”

Chapter Seventeen

The Kingdom of Shadows

Beneath the Sands

One Year Ago

The fat American sat uneasily on the edge of a metal chair that was draped with red velvet. He was not accustomed to being uneasy. For most of his life it was other people who were uneasy around him. The other man-if “man” could accurately describe the pale figure who sat opposite him-was not like other people. The American doubted this creature feared anything.

Their chairs were identical, ponderous wrought-iron monstrosities looted centuries ago from a desecrated mosque. A single small candle in a shaded sconce cast the only light, and its pale glow was far too fragile to hold back the enormous walls of darkness that closed in on them from every side. The American could only guess at the size of the chamber in which they sat. During the long and convoluted walk down here from a hidden entrance in the city above, the American could see that it had been carved out of the living rock, and was forever filled with shadows that dripped and whispered. The black mouths of tunnels trailed off into darkness all around them. The American knew that there were guards in those tunnels-creatures equally as pale and strange as this man-but he could not see them.

He could, however, feel them. And he caught glimpses of luminous red eyes staring at him with suspicion and pernicious hunger.

The American and the pale man sat in silence for long minutes. Studying each other with the frankness of butchers.

The pale man was tall and gaunt, dressed simply in black trousers and a collarless shirt the color of old rust. No shoes on his pale feet, no jewelry on his hands, and only a crystal locket on a silver chain around his neck. Long white hair was brushed back from a narrow, ascetic face. When the American had first met him, the man looked like a starving albino, but on closer inspection there was a ferocious vitality in the thin face and long-fingered hands. A lupine, predatory quality. The American adjusted his opinion: this man was not wasted by hunger, but defined by it. Made powerful by it.

When the American had been ushered into the room he had brought with him a heavy metal briefcase which he set on the bare rock floor between them, equidistant between the chair provided for him and the three-step dais on which his host sat. The pale man regarded the case but did not ask that it be opened or inspected.

“So,” said the American, “LaRoque wasn’t bullshitting me when he described you.”

The pale man said nothing.

“I believe his exact words were,” continued the fat man, “‘the King of Thorns.’ I thought it was some kind of lurid nonsense at the time. Some bit of poetry that he was using to try and spook me. But…”

“The Scriptor,” said the pale man.

“Beg pardon?”

“You will call him ‘the Scriptor.’ We do not use his daylight name.”

“You may not, chum, but I do,” laughed the American, but his smile was fragile and fleeting. “Okay, yeah. The Scriptor. Silly damn name, though.”

“So says the ‘king of fear,’” murmured the other. “Or am I mistaken about who you are, Mr. Vox?”

Hugo Vox straightened in his chair and eyed the pale man shrewdly for a few seconds. “Yeah, okay, cards on the table. Call me Hugo. What do I call you, though? ‘King of Thorns’ is a bit clumsy for a casual chat.”

“You may call me Grigor.”

“Good. I prefer first names when I do business.” Vox pursed his lips. “If you know about me, then I guess that means you know about the Seven Kings.”

“Yes.”

“Who told you? The ‘Scriptor’?”

Grigor shook his head. “The Scriptor does not choose to come down here. He calls when he needs his Red Knights.”

The pale man’s voice was strange, heavily accented, and controlled, which made it a challenge for Vox to read inflection and subtext. Even so, he could detect an edge of contempt in Grigor’s phrasing in that last sentence. Certainly disapproval, and maybe more than that.

“So, what, he phoned in about me? Just up and broke his word to me? He told you the secret he swore on his life that he wouldn’t share with anyone?”

The pale man smiled and made a small dismissive gesture with one hand.

“No, uh-uh,” persisted Vox, “we don’t just drop that. How do you know about me?”

“It is the business of the Red Knights to know everything-”

“Yeah, cut the sales pitch. I’m not a rube and you’re not at one with the universe. This is supposed to be a very hush-hush meeting and you are not supposed to know who I am. That information was mine to share or not. The fact that you do know makes me pretty goddamn twitchy about the whole deal. My business associates-”

“Your associates are terrorists, corrupt officials, and mass murderers, Mr. Vox. Let’s not pretend they are anything else.”

“And you’re what? Kermit and the Muppet Babies? You really want to measure dicks to see who gets the bigger boner from screwing the public?”

Grigor looked amused. “What the Red Knights have done, and what we continue to do, has the blessing of the church.”

“Bullshit. It has the blessing of one twisted fuck of a priest who is even scarier than you and me put together, and I know for a fact that the Vatican has no clue what he’s giving his personal blessing to. If they did, they’d go Old Testament all over the Red Order, the Red Knights, and Father-frigging-Nicodemus, and you can put that in the bank.”

Grigor said nothing. He steepled his long fingers and simply stared at Vox. Around them the shadows echoed with the scuttle of rat feet and the distant weeping of women.

“Fuck it,” said Vox and stood up.

“The priest.”

Vox stared at him. “What?”

“The Scriptor did not betray your trust. It was Father Nicodemus who told me your name. It was he who told me about the Seven Kings and what you and your mother are planning. Weaponized versions of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Father Nicodemus thinks that it is a beautiful plan.”

Vox narrowed his eyes. “How does he know about that?”

“He did not say.”

“No,” muttered Vox. “He wouldn’t. Spooky bastard.”

Vox remained standing for a moment. He looked around and saw milk-white faces watching him from the tunnel mouths. The watchers seemed to be cast in black and white except for their eyes. Like the man on the dais, everyone down in the shadow kingdom had dark red eyes. Vox was only half sure that it was stage dressing designed to create exactly the reaction he was having. Naked fear.

To the pale man, Vox said, “Which means that LaRoque-excuse me, the Scriptor — probably knows, too.”

“The Scriptor and the priest do not have secrets from one another. That is one of the pillars on which the Ordo Ruber was built.”

The Red Order. Vox did not speak the translation aloud, but he knew what it was. LaRoque’s grandfather had told him the whole story decades ago. That sharing had been a betrayal of the strict rules of the Red Order, and knowledge of it was supposed to be a death sentence for anyone not initiated into their ancient brotherhood.

“Okay,” he said, “then let’s both lay cards on the table. You know who and what I am? Fine. Turns out, I know who, and much more importantly, what you are.”

The pale man looked skeptical. “Then who and what am I?”

Vox smiled thinly as he spoke a single word. “Upier.”

He heard gasps and angry mutters from the surrounding shadows. Grigor’s eyes widened briefly and then narrowed to dangerous slits.

Vox held up a hand. “If you’re planning on giving me one of those ‘men have died for less’ speeches, save it for the tourists. We got off on a bad foot here. I’m appropriately skeeved out by you and your troops down here, so you can put that in your win category. Still-to make this completely fair, I think you should be a little more afraid of me.”

Grigor smiled at that. “The Scriptor said that you were brash, but he neglected to tell me that you were a fool.”

“The Scriptor is a paranoid schizophrenic and a fucking moron who couldn’t find his own dick with both hands and a set of printed instructions,” said Vox. “And just so you don’t think I’m blowing smoke up your ass, take a look at what I brought.”

He nodded to the briefcase. Grigor stared down at it with sudden suspicion, his pale lips parting slightly, but he made no move toward the case. Vox nodded approvingly.

“We both know what’s supposed to be in the case,” said Vox. “Contact info for every arms dealer on three continents, and some of my untraceable cell phones. But, since I’m not hideously stupid, the contact information is on a password-protected laptop and the cell phones can’t be activated without a special access code.”

Grigor’s eyes narrowed to lethal slits. “You did not bring them?”

“No,” said Vox, “I did not bring them down here to your deep, dark ultrascary secret lair. Like I said, I’m not stupid. What I brought instead, is a bomb.”

He removed his right hand from his pocket and raised it to show the small black plastic device he held.

“Yup. Detonator. The case also has two pounds of C-4 in it. Probably won’t kill everyone down here, but it’ll turn both of us into clouds of pink mist and bring down a hundred tons of rubble on the rest.

Grigor’s pale face went whiter still and he took an involuntary step backward, forking the sign of the Evil Eye at Vox and barking out a few sharp words in a language Vox could not recognize.

“Okay,” said Vox in a hushed tone that did not carry beyond the small circle of lamplight in which they stood. “Now we know whose dick is bigger. Let’s cut right to the chase. You think I came down here as a gofer for the Scriptor. Pretty apparent now that it isn’t the case. Though the Scriptor thinks it is. He thinks I’m kindly old friend of the family. I can’t begin to tell you how fucked up LaRoque is. He has no insight into people at all. He’s known me his whole life, knows about the Seven Kings, and still thinks I’m just some guy he can send on errands.”

He took a step forward. Grigor tensed, clearly debating whether to attack or run, but Vox showed him the trigger. A red light glowed beneath the arm of the detonator. “Dead man’s switch. I die, you die. Stop thinking bad thoughts and let’s see if we can talk serious business.”

To his credit, and to Vox’s appreciation, Grigor’s body gradually relaxed and he held his ground. Still on the dais, a king of death looming above the king of fear.

“Why have you come here, then?” asked Grigor. “What do you want?”

“I’m here because you need me.”

Grigor smiled, revealing his unnatural teeth. “What I need from you I could take.”

Vox shivered despite himself. “Christ, don’t do that, you big freak. I’m trying to talk business here.”

The candlelight glimmered on the wicked points of Grigor’s fangs. Vox licked his lips. It felt like the cavern floor was tilting under him. The moment was as terrifying as it was surreal, but he stood his ground even as sweat poured down his face and stung his eyes.

Finally, Grigor allowed his smile to fade and the fangs slowly vanished. He sat back in his chair. “Then talk business.”

Vox let out a tremendous sigh. “Jesus H. Christ,” he growled. “You really groove on your own mystique, don’t you? Shit.” He used his free hand to mop his forehead with a handkerchief, and despite the fact that every nerve he possessed screamed at him to run, he took a step closer to the foot of the dais. Grigor arched an eyebrow in surprise, or perhaps in appreciation for the nerve that such an action displayed. Vox said, “Since you know about the Kings, then it’s only fair that I tell you that I know everything about the Red Order, and I do mean everything.”

He watched Grigor’s eyes, saw them jump in surprise, and saw how Grigor looked quickly away to hide his reaction.

“That is between you and the Scriptor,” said the pale man.

“No it isn’t,” replied Vox, and Grigor’s eyes settled once more on him. “When I say that I know everything about the Order, that means everything. That means I know about the Upierczi.”

Grigor leaned forward. “And what is it that you think you know?”

“I know why you really want the names of all the arms dealers… and it’s not to buy guns, no matter what LaRoque says.”

“No.”

“What’s a gun to someone like you? Maybe twenty years ago, maybe before you guys got your ‘upgrade.’ Yeah, don’t look so surprised, Grigor. I told you I know all about you. I know how strong you’ve become. I don’t think Charles LaRoque has a fucking clue.”

Grigor did not correct him this time.

Vox took another step. “I know that despite being called a ‘knight,’ the Red Order thinks of you as a slave. They treat you like slaves. You are slaves.”

In a pale and dangerous whisper Grigor said, “What else do you know?”

“I know that your slavery is about to come to an end. You want to break the chains. You want to stage a slave revolt that will make Spartacus and the gladiator rebellion look like a frat party.” Vox smiled. “Don’t you?”

Grigor’s eyes burned with red flame. “Yes.”

“And,” said Hugo Vox, “I want to make sure that happens. That… and so much more.”

Chapter Eighteen

Tactical Operations Center (TOC)

The Hangar

Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

June 15, 12:49 a.m. EST

Jerome Williams-“Bug” to everyone-sat amid a web of computer terminals, screens, coaxial cables, encoding buffers, and other equipment, and all of it inside a big glass box. Two inches of reinforced glass and a sophisticated multiform entry scanner separated him from the fifty other people in the sprawling Tactical Operations Center. The TOC was a monument to computer-driven sophistication, and rising like an obelisk was the primary processing tower of MindReader. That, too, was safe behind the bulletproof glass and guarded by two unsmiling soldiers with M4s.

Bug glanced up from his keyboard at the flow of people in the TOC. Some were hunched over workstations connected through monitored sockets to MindReader’s servers; others spoke on phones or milled like frenzied insects, going about the thousand crucial tasks related to the current crisis.

Despite the constant flow of cool air into his fishbowl, Bug was sweating heavily. Six rogue nukes. Just the thought of those weapons hidden out there terrified him. Violence was such an alien concept to him, despite where and for whom he worked. Most of the time it was an abstraction, a crazy concept no more real than the aliens, monsters, orcs, and zombies he battled in video games. He knew that the problems the DMS faced were real, but they weren’t real to him. He had never heard a shot fired in anger, never saw the enemy anywhere but on a computer screen. It was easy to stay detached if you lived like that.

Bug was a small man. Thin, spare, slightly hunched from a life spent at the keyboard. His work for the DMS was usually pure support. Crack a code, break through an anti-intrusion firewall, steal some guarded information. Fun stuff. Even when providing real-time intel for the field teams there wasn’t much actual pressure on him. After all, MindReader was the fastest computer on the planet. The basement of the hangar had a cold room lined wall to wall with a supercomputer cluster. The primary computer block was made up of three thousand premarket upgrades of the Tianhe-1A system which flew at a speed of 2.507 petaflops. That was more than thirty percent faster than the Cray XT5 Jaguar. Sometimes Bug would sit with his palms flat on the MindReader obelisk and feel the power surging through him. That was real to him.

But today… the real world seemed to have found a way past all of his personal anti-intrusion systems. Fear was like an unbearably shrill sound in his ears.

“Find those other devices.” That’s what Mr. Church had said to him before the Big Man went in for his conference with the president. Not “try” to find them. Find them.

It was on him.

Him.

He closed his eyes and breathed in long and deep through his nose. The air in the fishbowl was ripe with the hot-wire smell of ozone. A beautiful smell.

“Come on, baby,” he said aloud as his fingers hovered above the keyboard. “Come on, my baby. Don’t make me do this alone. Talk to me…”

Almost as if in answer to his plea, a bell softly pinged.

Chapter Nineteen

Park Avenue and McMechen Street

Bolton Hill

Baltimore, Maryland

June 15, 12:53 a.m. EST

The bedside phone began ringing at precisely the wrong moment. Circe O’Tree was naked, covered in sweat, painted by candlelight, and on the verge of screaming as she moved in a frenzied pace up and down. Her black curls danced above her bouncing breasts as the rhythm drove her up and up and up toward the crest of climax. Beneath her, drenched and straining and grimacing with the beginnings of his own orgasm, Rudy Sanchez growled out her name over and over again.

The phone kept ringing.

They ignored it. They were only aware of it on some distant level, their immediate need transforming the intrusive sound into a mere component in the symphony of sounds and sensations. The music from the speakers, the sounds from the street outside of Circe’s window, the creak of the bedsprings, the urgent slap of flesh against flesh, and their marathon panting breathing were all parts of something much greater.

“Oh, God!” cried Circe as the orgasm reared above her like a dark wave of velvet beauty, and she screamed incoherently as he came too. Together they spun to the edge of the precipice and plunged over, crying out each other’s names, saying meaningless words, making sounds provoked by sensations that were beyond even the most precise articulation.

The phone rang through to voice mail.

Circe collapsed onto Rudy, showering his face with many small, quick kisses as beads of crystalline sweat dripped from every point of her onto his skin. He gathered her in his arms and kissed the hot hollow of her throat and her cheeks and her eyes and finally her lips.

The phone began ringing again.

They ignored it.

It rang five times and stopped.

Circe could feel Rudy’s heart beating as insistently as hers. She clung to him, her body wrapped around his.

“I love you,” she whispered.

“Te quiero,” he murmured.

Then his cell phone began ringing.

They both glanced at it.

“Let it go,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed. They did not move as it rang through to voice mail.

There was silence. Circle let herself fall off of him in delicious slow motion, his arms around her to catch her fall and keep her close. Rudy looked at her. Lean and yet ripe, tanned skin a shade lighter than olive, and eyes that held more mysteries than he could count. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever touched; the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Movie-star beauty coupled with a fierce intellect and a personality as complexly faceted as a diamond. He took a strand of her hair and held it to his nose. It smelled of incense and wood smoke and sex. He wanted to tell her all of this, but in more poetic terms, and he fished for words that would convey what he felt without sounding like lines cribbed from old movies.

“I-” Rudy began, and then her house phone started ringing.

And her cell.

And his cell.

All at the same time.

“Damn,” Circe said.

Rudy cursed quietly in Spanish as he stretched an arm over and picked up both cell phones. Circe took hers and answered first.

“Dr. O’Tree.”

“Where are you?” asked Mr. Church.

She closed her eyes and mouthed the word “Dad.”

Rudy looked at the screen display on his. It said TIA. Aunt. Aunt Sallie.

He nodded to her.

“I’m home,” she said.

“How quickly can you get to the Warehouse?”

“Why? I’m off this week. I have to do revisions on the chapter on-”

“That can wait.”

“But it’s important.”

“Not as important as this,” said Mr. Church.

Circe sighed and considered smashing the phone against the wall.

Then Mr. Church said, “Bring Dr. Sanchez with you.”

Before she could ask a single question, he disconnected.

All of the phones went silent.

“What?” asked Rudy, and Circe told him. Then she buried her head against his chest.

“I hate this,” she growled. “I hate that he can just pick up a phone and ruin a perfect moment for me.”

“I expect,” said Rudy, “that he hates it too.”

She looked at him for a moment, reading his eyes. She sighed again and nodded. “Damn it.”

Five minutes later they were in Rudy’s Lexus breaking speed laws all the way to the Warehouse.

Chapter Twenty

Warbah Island

The Persian Gulf, Near the Mouth of the Euphrates River

Kuwait

June 15, 8:57 a.m.

Top Sims sat on the edge of the open door of a stealth helicopter. The helo was a model Top had never seen or heard of before last night-a Nightbird 319, a prototype variation on the OH-6 Loach used by the CIA during Vietnam but updated with twenty-first-century noise reduction technology, better construction materials, and radar-shedding panels that made the craft look like it was coated in dragon scales. The Nightbird had skimmed a few yards above the sand as it crossed the Iranian border, flying well below radar and inside the bank of total darkness provided by the rocky landscape. Almost totally silent beyond two hundred feet, it used special rotor blades that thrummed out a much softer vibration signature than that used by regular helicopters. If the pilot had not sent Top a locator signal, the two cars would had driven right past them in the night.

Echo Team abandoned the cars and crammed themselves and the rescued college students into the chopper, but then they had to endure a terrible two minutes of waiting and praying as a phalanx of Iranian Shahed 285 attack helicopters came sweeping across the star field above. Top was very familiar with those birds. Each Shahed was rigged with autocanons, machine guns, guided missiles, antiarmor missiles, air-to-air and air-to-sea missiles. Seriously badass, and Iranian helo pilots were no fools.

However, the helicopters swept past and then split into two groups, heading north and south along the border, their surveillance systems looking right through the bird on the ground.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” breathed Bunny. The three former hostages were panting like dogs. Khalid was murmuring prayers in Egyptian.

Top felt every one of his very long, very hard years settle over him as he exhaled a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“We’re clear,” said the pilot over the intercom. The rotors spun up to a higher whine-though still eerily quiet-and the Nightbird lifted off. “Next stop Kuwait. First round’s on me.”

That was ten hours ago.

Now the three freed American college students were with their families. Laughing and weeping, hugging each other, kissing their families and each other. A happy ending and for once no one had died. Despite his weariness, it made Top feel like there was some clean air to breathe in the world.

Bunny sat nearby on an overturned milk crate, sipping Coke from a can. Khalid was throwing grapes into the air and catching them in his mouth. Lydia, who had found her own way out of Iran, had her boots off and her feet in a bucket of cool water.

The three of them looked like they were at a picnic, but Top wasn’t fooled. He knew every trick in the book about the “fake it till you make it” approach to regaining personal calm. All of them were feeling it. Anyone who ran this kind of game or played in this league felt it; but all of the nerves, the fears, the existential doubts were wrapped tight in affectation and shoved out of sight of the rest of the world.

To let it show would be to admit openly that they were human, and they couldn’t do that. Not on the job. Not in front of people. Not when there was another mission ahead, and another after that.

Top ached for the cigarettes he’d given up fifteen years ago. Or maybe a nice cigar. That would give his hands something to do, and concentrating on the smoke rolling down into the lungs and then swirling out again was something orderly and controllable. Even if the cigarettes were killing you, the process of lighting, inhaling, holding, exhaling, watching the smoke, shaping it with lips and tongue as it flowed out, and tapping the ash-all of that was deliberate process. Process was part and parcel with calm. But he didn’t have a smoke and promised his ex-wife that he would never start again. So, instead he chewed a piece of gum very slowly and precisely, and he grinned at the hikers and their families.

It was Bunny who finally spoke, starting the process of talking about it. “Smith should be here pretty soon.”

Top nodded. Smith had called from a border post right before climbing into a jeep with a Kuwaiti sergeant. “Any time now.”

A few seconds blew by on the hot wind.

“You think the Cap’s okay?” Bunny asked.

Khalid caught two grapes in his mouth, bobbing and weaving like a boxer to get under each of them. “Cowboy’s always okay.”

“Uh-huh,” agreed Top. It was a lie, though. Their captain spent as much time being stitched and splinted as the rest of the team put together. And they all knew that he was half crazy. Maybe more than half crazy. No one had the details, but rumors had leaked out in DMS circles that Captain Ledger had a party going on in his head. Not that it mattered to them. As far as Top was concerned, the captain could have the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Ave Maria” in his head and it didn’t change a thing. Ledger was their captain and their friend, and they’d follow him into hell. Top thought about that and smiled ruefully. They had followed him into hell.

His earbud buzzed and he tapped it. “Go for Sergeant Rock.”

“Sit rep,” said Mr. Church crisply.

“Sir, all quiet on the western front. Waiting on Chatterbox and Cowboy.”

“Give me a status report on combat readiness,” interrupted Church.

Top winced and almost cursed aloud. He was bone weary, and he ached for a hot bath, a cold beer, and twenty hours of sleep. Preferably with someone curvy, brown, and warm snuggled up against him.

“Always ready to rock and roll, sir,” he said with energy in his voice that was a total fabrication. “What’s the op?”

Khalid and Bunny shot him looks that went from inquisitive to surprised to murderous in the space of a second. Top spread his hands in a “what can I tell you” gesture.

Bunny bowed his head and sighed. “Oh, man…”

“We are at Firehall One,” said Church. That rocked Top and slapped all the fatigue from his nerves. Firehall was DMS combat code for a nuclear threat.

“Jesus…”

“Acknowledge,” snapped Mr. Church.

Top stiffened and the others caught the sudden jerk of his body. They clustered around him.

“Acknowledge Firehall One, sir,” said Top, and the others exchanged stunned looks. “Echo Team is ready to respond.”

“Then listen closely,” said Church. “Time is critical…”

Chapter Twenty-One

The Kingdom of Shadows

Beneath the Sands

One Year Ago

The King of Thorns rose from his chair and loomed above Hugo Vox. In the dense shadows pale figures crept closer, surrounding Vox with burning red eyes and hungry mouths.

Vox turned in a slow circle, looking at the twisted figures. Some were vastly old, with crooked bodies and crippled limbs; some had the blank moon faces of deeply inbred retardation; but seeded throughout the crowd were creatures like Grigor. Taller, whole, and powerful, their skin the color of milk, their eyes blazing with intelligence and an unnatural vitality that seemed to burn into Vox, threatening to steal away his life and breath.

Vox held up the detonator. “Careful now,” he murmured in a ghost of a voice. “Let’s all be very, very careful.”

“I am not afraid of your bomb,” sneered Grigor. “The Upierczi do not fear death.”

That annoyed Vox and he snapped, “Don’t lie to me, Grigor. Not to me. Everyone fears death. Even monsters like you. And… monsters like me. I’m not here to bring death and you damn well know it. I brought the bomb because I need to speak openly with you. No coy bullshit. We don’t know each other enough for trust, so shared fear is a good platform. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Grigor ran his tongue over the serrated ridge of his teeth.

“Talk,” he said.

Vox took another step, which brought him to within reach of Grigor, but the pale man remained motionless, his eyes glittering.

“The Scriptor and the Red Order don’t give a shit about you unless they need you to do their dirty work,” said Vox. “To do the work they are too weak and too afraid to do themselves. Isn’t it time to stop being their dog?”

Grigor’s eyes seemed to blaze with real heat. “Yes.” He hissed the word, filling it with endless hatred and cold fire.

“Yes,” agreed Vox.

“I know what happened to you. I know that eight hundred years ago Sir Guy LaRoque, the first Scriptor, sought out the Upierczi because the Order had a need for killers. Not any killers, but the best. Better than the Hashashin the Tariqa were using for their part of the so-called Holy Agreement. Nicodemus told LaRoque where to look, and he found an Upier in England, in Newburgh. He found another in France, and more in Italy, Poland, Russia… all through Europe. Not a community of you. Individuals. Hunted, wretched, hungry. Persecuted by the church. Condemned as monsters, as demons, as the unholy. LaRoque brought the Upier back to Nicodemus, and the priest created the Order of the Red Knights. Must have sounded pretty great at the time. To those poor, miserable fucks who had been hiding out in crypts and forests and ruins-to them it must have felt like they were people. Like they mattered. And, I guess they did matter; but only in the way a bullet matters if you want to shoot a gun. That’s what the Upierczi were, no matter what fancy-ass labels the Red Order hand out. Tools, weapons, slaves. For you guys, all three words mean the same thing.”

Grigor gave a single, slow nod.

“But the Order hit a snag with you. Something Sir Guy and Nicodemus didn’t foresee. You guys can’t breed worth shit. There are no female Upierczi, which screws things up from the jump. You guys are genetic freaks, a sideline of human evolution that didn’t pan out. The genes that make you what you are rarely present in females, and when they are the females look human and they sure as hell don’t want to breed with you. Not by choice. That meant that the Red Order had to start a forced breeding program. How many women did they take over all those years? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? More? And every one of them had to be forced. Eight hundred years of rape isn’t a legacy to be proud of.”

Grigor sneered. “They are women. Who cares?”

Vox smiled. “Yeah, I’m the last person to throw stones. Anyway, the breeding program hit some of its own snags. Turns out only one in fifty or a hundred women was able to give birth to a healthy Upier. Most of the babies were-how should I put it? Less than successful? Stillbirths, freaks. Once in a while one of the breeding slaves popped out a half-breed. Always female, though, right? Whaddya call ’em? Dhampyr?”

“Abominations!” The word rippled through the darkness, spoken by a hundred mouths.

“Glass houses, stones. Any of that ring a bell?” asked Vox, amused. To Grigor he said, “The real bitch of it all was that the Red Order focused their breeding program on those few women who could produce Upierczi. They bred them and their children, over and over again, which left a pretty shallow fucking gene pool.” He gestured to one of the Upierczi who had mongoloid features and a vacuous expression in his eyes. “Inbreeding didn’t work for the Hapsburgs, and it sure as hell didn’t work for you.”

“That is the past,” growled Grigor.

“I know,” said Vox, smiling broadly. “I know that really goddamn well, which is why I’m here. Charlie LaRoque’s dad, who was probably one of the better Scriptors, as far as that goes, decided to try something different. Genetics. Gene therapy, gene splicing. Not rebreeding but a careful and deliberate remodeling of the Upier DNA. Very smart, very expensive, and very illegal. Which is how I found out about it, because if it involves science and it’s against the law, I’m always involved, I’m always making a buck on it, and I always find out about it.”

“What is it to you? What is any of this to you? You have the Seven Kings. You are their King of Fear. You are more powerful than most of the governments in the world above.”

Vox reached up, threaded his fingers through his hair, and revealed a bald pate that was blotched and unhealthy.

“I’m a walking dead man,” he said. “Cancer. I’m done. Best-case scenario gives me eighteen months.”

Grigor’s eyes glittered like rubies.

“Nobody knows. Not the Kings, not my mother. Not the Scriptor. Nobody.”

“Why come to me? Do you want a quicker death?”

“No… I want to live. You see, the other thing that I know about is what the scientists discovered while they were engineering the new generation of Upierczi. They cracked your DNA. They found out why you never get sick, why you lucky pricks live for so damn long. They know what makes you as close to immortal as living flesh and bone is ever going to get.”

Vox took a last step closer to Grigor, well within reach.

“I know about the treatment. I know about Upier 531,” he said fiercely. “And I fucking want it.”

“It isn’t for your kind. It would kill you.”

“It might kill me,” corrected Vox. “Or it might make me live forever.”

Grigor laughed. Low and soft. If a wolf could laugh, Vox thought, it would sound like that.

“Why should I give it to you? What could you possibly give me in return?”

“I can give you the whole fucking world, Grigor. I can make sure that no one and nothing can put you in chains again. I can guarantee it.”

“Prove it,” demanded Grigor.

He and Vox stared at each other for a long minute, their faces less than a yard apart.

Vox raised the detonator between them. He turned it over and slid back a small panel on the bottom, revealing a nine-digit touch pad. Vox showed this to Grigor and then slowly and deliberately punched in a complex code. The LED light glowing under his thumb faded to black. Hugo Vox raised his hand, palm out, offering the inert detonator to Grigor.

“All hail the King of Thorns,” he said.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:01 a.m.

Knowing that Church was working on finding the nukes was a tremendous relief. Even I don’t have a sense of all the forces he can bring to bear at need. His connections and his political clout are considerable, and he doesn’t allow red tape to slow him down. With Vox in the mix? Well, let’s just say that I pity anyone who got in his way today.

Having handed off the ball, I switched my focus to the second part of Rasouli’s message. The Book of Shadows and the Saladin Codex. I had no idea what they were and I did not believe for a moment that they were entirely tangential to the nuclear issue. Rasouli had been a little too casual about mentioning them.

I called Bug. He wasn’t good with computers-he was a freak. When 9/11 happened Bug was still in high school, amusing himself by hacking into the school board computer to give everyone he liked a 4.0 average and to put the school disciplinarian on a sex offenders watch list. A couple of years after the planes hit, Bug tried to hack Homeland, believing that if he had access to their data he could find Bin Laden. The next day Grace Courtland and Sergeant Gus Dietrich-Church’s personal bodyguard-showed up at his front door to offer him a choice: jail or a job with the DMS. Bug made the smart choice.

Since then he’d become the high priest in the church of MindReader. And back in 2011 he got his wish by helping track Bin Laden to his Pakistani compound.

He answered the call with: “Hey, whaddya know, Joe? Heard about the hikers gig. Echo Team kicks a-a-a-a-ass.”

“Thanks, Bug, but listen up. Something else is about to hit the fan. The Big Man will be calling you any minute about-”

“I know, the nukes. I’m looking at it right now. Frigging scary as shit, huh?” Bug said with the kind of excitement you hear from video gamers who have found a challenging new level. I sometimes wonder if Bug knew that he didn’t exist in a purely virtual world.

“So you’re already tied up?”

“Nah, this stuff is crap. Got to run it through a bunch of filters and a clean-up program before we can do much with it. That’s going to take a couple of-”

“Good. Then, before you get swamped with that I need you to start a database search for me. It’s part of the nuke thing; but it’s a different arm of the investigation and to tell you the truth I don’t have a clue how it relates. All I have are the names of two books. No authors, no other data.”

“Fire away.”

“The Book of Shadows and the Saladin Codex.”

“Saladin, as in the sultan who-?”

“Presumably. Rasouli dropped his name during our little chitchat, so I figure that was some kind of hint.”

“Okay. Wait-there’s something about them on the drive. No… forget it. Stuff’s corrupted as all shit. Reads like some kind of gibberish. I’ll have to see if I can translate it. What do you need?”

“Anything you got. General and specific. I had to dump my tactical computer and PDA, so send it to me via e-mail so I can read it on my phone. You ring any serious bells, call me directly. If I don’t answer, hit scramble and leave it on my voice mail.”

“You got it, Joe.”

I disconnected, and again I could feel another layer of stress crack and fall away.

Ghost came over and leaned against me. He does that. I know it’s more of a greyhound trait and the fuzzmonster is pure White Shepherd, but Ghost isn’t one to pass up a trick that might get him petted. I ran my fingers through his fur.

“I don’t suppose you know how to sniff out a nuclear bomb, do you?” I asked him. “No? Guess I’d better do it.”

He wagged his tail to show that he believed me to be Captain Invincible who could find those pesky nukes and crush them in my hands of steel. That or he thought I had more goat strips in my pocket.

I debated taking a shower and maybe drowning myself. Might be a tension breaker.

Instead I called Rudy Sanchez.

“Cowboy!” he said instead of hello. “Are you home?”

“I wish. Where are you?” I could hear wind rushing past the phone.

“On the way to the Warehouse. Mr. Church called ten minutes ago and told us to come in right away. Can you tell me what’s happening?”

We were both on scrambled phones, so I gave him the highlights.

“ Dios mio! ”

“No kidding.”

“How are you doing with all of this?”

His question, I knew, had very little to do with the mission and a lot to do with my overall mental health. Rudy and I have a lot of history. When I was a teenager my girlfriend Helen and I were jumped by a gang of older teens. The guys completely trashed me, breaking bones, rupturing some stuff inside. While I lay there coughing up blood they took turns with Helen. That image is seared onto the front of my mind. I see it every single day.

Helen and I healed from the physical trauma. I got involved in martial arts and made myself as tough and as ruthless as I could. Helen wandered down a few dark corridors inside her head and never found her way out.

We met Rudy during his psychiatric residency at Sinai in Baltimore. Helen was having one of her frequent breakdowns and Rudy did some amazing work with her, pulling her back from the brink time after time. He also helped me work on my internal wiring. Unfortunately the darkness was too much for Helen, and one day she let it take her.

I kicked in her door and found her.

Her death nearly killed me. Nearly killed Rudy, too. He’d never lost a patient to suicide before. We were already best friends, and that friendship probably saved us both. Since then we’ve become closer than brothers-certainly closer than I am to my own brother. Rudy is the only person in whom I place total trust.

He’s also the person who helped me make sense of the wreckage in my head. As I healed, I began to realize that I was not completely alone inside my mind. Over time three distinct personalities emerged. One was the Civilized Man, and Rudy says that he is my idealized self, the version of me that I wish could survive in this world. Optimistic, compassionate, nonviolent; and he’s been taking a real beating over the last couple of years as I hunt bad guys for Mr. Church. Then there is his complete opposite, the Warrior. Or, as I sometimes think of him, the Killer. He’s the part of me that was born on that day when the children that Helen and I had been were destroyed. He is ruthless, highly dangerous, and unrelenting. His bloodlust is intense and constant, and although he can be glutted, his hunger will eventually come back. I have to keep a real eye on him, especially while working for the DMS, because the more evil I see in the world the harder it is to rationalize putting him in a cage.

The third personality is the one that I believe truly defines me. The Cop. He’s not a cynic or a wide-eyed idealist. He’s rational, cool, calculating, and balanced. He emerged even before I joined the police; in a lot of ways he has a Samurai vibe. Skilled, but self-controlled.

They’re always with me, and Rudy taught me how to manage them. How to make them more fully a part of a whole rather than disparate entities. I’m not entirely convinced I’ve managed that.

I trust Rudy’s judgment, though. In that and in most things. When I got my gold shield with Baltimore PD, my father-then the commissioner-arranged a consultant’s position for Rudy, which later expanded into a full-time gig. Rudy specialized in trauma cases, which is something he really dug into after Helen’s death. He was in New York after the towers fell, working with survivors and families and with the legion of heroes who risked their lives to search through the rubble. He was in New Orleans and Mississippi following Katrina, in Thailand after the tsunami, in Haiti, and in Japan. He knows that he can’t save everyone, and every lost soul gouges a deep mark into his own soul, but he saves more of them than anyone else.

When Mr. Church hijacked me into the DMS, Rudy became part of the deal. I often think that he does a lot more good with quiet conversations and a patient ear than I do with a pistol. Which is very much as it should be.

“I’m okay,” I said. Rudy grunted, knowing that I was lying. He’d let me get away with that as long as I was in the field, but once I got back home I’d have to fess up. I’d need to by then.

“Joe-Mr. Church called me late last night and told me about the hikers.”

“Yeah.”

“That was well done,” he said. “That one will really matter.”

“All part of the job.”

“No,” he said, but left it there. Knowing Church, he would probably have Rudy sit down with the hikers.

“Why’d Church call you in on this?” I asked.

“I think he wanted Circe more than me. This is her field more than mine.”

“Not if the nukes go off,” I said.

“Mother of God.”

“Speaking of Circe-how’s she doing?”

Dr. Circe O’Tree was a PhD in a handful of overlapping subjects including Middle Eastern history and religions, cults, anthropology, psychology, and a few others I’m probably forgetting. She has more letters after her name than anyone I’ve ever met. She was also Mr. Church’s daughter, a fact that was shared by only a few people and that I’d only found out by accident. Although Circe now worked for the DMS, she and her father had been estranged for years. I was under very specific orders from Church not to mention the family connection. To anyone. Ever. He didn’t actually come out and threaten to disappear me, but I didn’t want to push the issue.

“She’s wonderful,” said Rudy.

I smiled. I’ve never seen Rudy happier. Even though I hadn’t yet heard him throw around the L-word, whenever he looked at Circe there were little red hearts floating all around him.

“Tell the missus I said ‘hi.’”

“Cowboy,” he warned, but I laughed at him. Laughing felt good. It felt like I was still in the real world.

My phone pinged softly. Someone else was trying to reach me.

“Hey, Rude… I have another call coming in. I’ll talk to you soon.”

I disconnected and looked at the screen. No caller ID. Church said he would have Abdul, our local asset, call me, so I punched the button.

“Hello,” I said in Persian.

“I see you got a new battery for your phone,” she said in English. “Sorry I made you throw out the last one.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:03 a.m.

It was her. Same voice, same hint of an Italian accent. A bit more pronounced now. I fought the urge to check my body for laser sights. There were none, but I moved out of the line of sight of the hotel window.

“What is it now?” I asked. “You want to set me up for a playdate with Satan?”

She laughed. At least someone thought I was funny. “No,” she said, “you said you wanted to meet me.”

“I do.” I tried not to sound too eager. I used my thumbnail to slide back a panel on the side of my phone. I pressed a button that activates a trace. “Name a place. I’ll buy the coffee.”

“Sorry… it will have to be over the phone. I want to ask a question.”

I almost laughed. “Why on earth would I want to answer one? Last time we chatted, you put a laser sight on my balls.”

“I could have shot your balls off. I did not. You can check if you like. I’ll wait.”

“Okay,” I said, “admittedly you get some Brownie points for not blowing my balls off. Thanks bunches, but it’s hardly a basis for enduring trust.”

“‘Brownie points’? You are a strange man, Captain Ledger.”

“You have no idea.”

“Maybe I do.”

Before I could respond to that she came at me out of left field. “What did Rasouli give you?”

“What makes you think he gave me anything?”

“He said he wanted to give you something.”

“Okay, there’s that. He’s your boss, why don’t you ask him?”

She made a gagging noise. “God! I would rather shoot myself than work for such a cockroach.”

“Didn’t look that way an hour ago.”

“Eh,” she said dismissively. “It was contract work. Believe me, Captain Ledger, it is all I would ever be willing to do for him.” With her accent she pronounced my last name as “La-jeer.” I liked it. Made me feel exotic and mysterious.

“Even so,” I said, “why not ask him?”

“He doesn’t know me. I’m a voice on a phone to him. Why would he trust me?”

“Why would I?”

“I am asking very nicely,” she said.

Despite everything, I laughed. She did too. “I’ll think about it.”

“I promise not to shoot you.”

“Yeah, that earns you those brownie points, but so far you’re only a sexy voice on a phone line. You don’t have enough points to buy much more than civility.”

There was a short silence as she considered this. I looked at the display on the side of my phone. The trace was about halfway completed.

“Maybe I can earn some extra ‘brownie’ points,” she said.

“How?”

Instead of answering she asked, “Can I call you ‘Joe’?”

I smiled and shook my head in exasperation. Ghost looked at me in disgust. He would have hung up a long time ago, I suppose. “Only if I have something to call you.”

“You have to know that’s impossible.”

“Then give me anything. A nickname.”

“I have a thousand names.”

“Yes, that’s very ‘international woman of mystery’ of you, but I only need one.”

After a few seconds she said, “Violin.”

“Violin,” I said, testing the name. “That’s pretty.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll bet you are, too.”

“No,” she said, “I’m a monster.” And in those four simple words her tone changed from playful humor to something else. She packed that word with such intense sadness that I was momentarily left speechless. Before I could fumble out a reply the line went dead.

I stared at the phone. The LED tracer went from green to red. Trace incomplete.

“Okay,” I said aloud. “That was surreal.”

Ghost stared at me with huge doggie eyes. Sadly he offered no wise insights into what the hell was going on.

Chapter Twenty-Four

The Kingdom of Shadows

Beneath the Sands

One Year Ago

They walked through the shadows, two incongruous figures that did not look like they belonged in the same century let alone the same reality. Vox found it very amusing even while it was frightening. He admitted to himself that Grigor scared him. In Vox’s estimation, Grigor-with his pale skin, black clothes, and otherworldly demeanor-would scare anyone. He wondered how much of it was window dressing to sell the idea of immortal monsters, and how much of it was the real deal. Not knowing the difference is what made the fear sweat run icy lines down Vox’s back.

After all, Grigor was in many ways the real deal. He was one of Upierczi, the reigning king of his kind. Ancient by any ordinary standard and, if the stories the Scriptor’s father had told him were true, faster and more powerful than any of his followers-and they were faster and stronger than…

Than what? He asked himself. Than humans?

As they walked, Vox pondered that question and his fear grew and grew.

Grigor led him through a maze of tunnels, some of which looked to be centuries old. Some of the tunnels opened into well-organized living quarters, with proper lights, rooms like dormitories, niches for worship, mess halls, and many rooms for training. There were cells down there, too, and as they walked past, Vox could hear the wretched whimpering of female voices.

He paused. “What’s that?”

Grigor turned and regarded the line of cells with heavy-lidded eyes. “Breeding pens.”

“Who are those women?”

“They are not women,” sneered Grigor. “They are cows. If they are lucky, if God favors them, they will bear a Upierczi son.”

“If they don’t?”

“Then they are less than useless to us.”

He spat on the floor and turned to continue down the long corridor.

Vox lingered for a moment. One voice, a very young voice, suddenly screamed with the absolute and immediate horror of someone who was being brutally used and who knew, with absolute certainty, that no one would ever come to rescue her. It made Vox feel sick. He tried to tell himself that it was the chemo upsetting his stomach. If it accomplished nothing else, the lie at least kept him from vomiting.

He hurried to catch up to Grigor.

After another quarter mile, Vox stopped again, this time to peer at a piece of broken mosaic on a cracked wall. When Grigor saw him staring at it, the pale man said, “That is Darius the Great being crowned. It was placed there on the first anniversary of the Persian king’s death. This wall was made four hundred and eighty-five years before the birth of Jesus Christ.”

Vox turned and looked at the open mouths of tunnels and side corridors. “These tunnels are that old?”

“Some are,” agreed Grigor. “Some are older still; and we have tunnels like these in many cities.”

“You dug these holes?’

“The Upierczi did much of it, but your kind made many of them,” murmured Grigor, still caressing the stonework. His eyelids drifted shut. “Do you know how the Upierczi came to be the slaves of the Ordo Ruber?”

“I… know the version I was told by the Scriptor’s grandfather. About Sir Guy going looking for… your kind.”

Grigor leaned his cheek against the stone wall. “Father Nicodemus sent Sir Guy out to find Upierczi anywhere he could. In Turkey and Russia, England and Romania. Many places. There were rumors of us, of course, and most rumors were false. They said that we were the corpses of the dead risen from graves to haunt and prey upon the living.” He laughed and then shook his head. “We were not a race then. We were an aberration, an abomination. Freaks who were born to live in shadows, always hungry, always on the point of starvation, driven to mad acts of violence merely to survive. It is no different with any creature God has made-in the direst moment need overwhelms control.”

“That hasn’t changed,” said Vox.

Grigor nodded. “Your people feared us, and that is to be understood. The Church, however, denounced us as demons, as children of Satan. Knights and warrior priests and anyone who could raise a sword on behalf of the Church were empowered to kill us, to hunt us to extinction.” He sighed. “Think of that life. To be alone, and to believe that there is no one like you. No one who shares your nature, no one who understands your hungers. No one who loves you.”

“Love?” said Vox quietly. “They make a lot about that in movies. Dracula and Twilight and all that shit. I don’t suppose you get to the multiplex very often, but that’s a kind of a theme out there. They think you are all about eternal love and romance. But I heard those women in the cells. Didn’t sound like love songs to me.”

Grigor turned away and looked deep into the shadows, and Vox wondered how much the man could see that he could not. Without immediately commenting on Vox’s statement, Grigor continued his story.

“When Sir Guy died, his son and successor, along with Father Nicodemus, created the Red Knights. A new order of chivalry, of knights errant given authority by the Church to prosecute a campaign against faithlessness. But that was in name only. They called us knights, and we call ourselves knights, but that is not who and what we are.”

“Then what are you?”

“Assassins. We were created to be the Order’s answer to the Tariqa’s fida’i. We were chess pieces. We were a sword, a knife, a gun. No different. Tools of war.”

“You’re more than that,” said Vox.

“Yes,” said Grigor and it was the first word he’d spoken that had real passion. “We made true knights of ourselves. We became in fact what they said we were in name only. We became a true order of chivalry. We became a society. A people.”

“You still live in tunnels, Grigor.”

“Because we choose to. It is our world, within but apart from the world above. We have thousands of miles of tunnels. We come and go and no one knows we are here. Archaeologists and miners sometimes find the tunnels, but we collapse connecting tunnels, and we are experts at disguising our private tunnels. We are not found unless we choose to be found.”

“That’s pretty fucking impressive.”

Grigor gave a half smile. “It’s necessary. We know that we could never integrate into the world above. We can play dress up and ‘pass’ for one of you, but not on close inspection. And we are still hunted up there. The Inquisition was created by a papal bull to hunt us down. Us and other things that move in the dark, most of who are only fantasies concocted by fools. Father Nicodemus was able to use some aspects of the Inquisition so that he and the sitting Scriptor could find true Upierczi. Find and recruit us; but to the Church at large we were monsters and therefore evil; and they still hunt us. We do not fear any man in single combat, or any two or three men. But the Inquisitors did not come at us in small numbers. They sent armies against us. They sent special teams-the Sabbatarians, the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, and many others over the years. Some-most-of those groups are long gone. Died out or killed by us or disbanded by changes in Church policies. Only the Inquisitors remain, and after a long silence they’ve become active again.”

“Yeah,” said Vox, “I know about one of them. The Sabbatarians. The Seven Kings ran into them a couple of times. I even used them once in a while for some wetworks stuff, but I broke off my ties with them. Idealistic trash. They’re still around, though, and they’re formidable in numbers.”

“In the same way locusts are.”

“There are a lot of them,” said Vox, and Grigor nodded.

“Over the years we-with the help of Father Nicodemus-have managed to weaken their effectiveness by feeding them lies about who and what we are. About our strengths and weaknesses.”

“Disinformation,” Vox supplied. “Stakes, crosses, sunlight, that sort of shit?”

“Yes.”

“Nicodemus is a tricky bastard. What about garlic?”

Grigor did not answer.

Vox said, “I heard a rumor that some other group is gunning for you too. Arklight?”

Grigor hissed like a snake. “Whores and daughters of whores.”

“Maybe,” said Vox grudgingly. “Whores with high-powered sniper rifles, though.

With a black-nailed finger, Grigor pointed into the darkness in the direction of the wretched weeping. “They were our whores once. There is not one of them who has not screamed for us.”

“Charming,” murmured Vox. A wave of nausea swept through him and he stopped to steady himself on a wall. “When do we start the treatments? I’m losing a lot of ground here.”

The King of Thorns smiled.

“The treatment will make you scream,” he murmured.

“Then I’ll fucking scream,” snarled Vox.

The word “scream” echoed through the endless darkness.

A challenge. A promise.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Homa Hotel

51 Khodami Street, Vanak Square

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:06 a.m.

The sniper’s name was not Violin.

But it would do. For Joseph Ledger and for this crisis, it would do. The name meant something to her from a long time ago. Back when she meant something to herself. When she had a life instead of a mission.

Violin.

Even the sound of it in her mind was bittersweet. A memory of a girl who laughed freely and who thought that all the monsters in the world were in storybooks. Back before her eyes were opened.

Violin. She had liked the way Ledger had repeated it. He had truly tasted the name, the way a sensualist would. That intrigued her. She already knew that he was a passionate man, that was clear from the profiles Oracle had read to her. Ledger was a sensuous man, and a tragic one. He wore death and grief like garments.

And Violin understood that very well.

What she did not understand was why she had lingered to watch him, or worse yet, why she had called him. It felt correct while she was dialing, and yet in every way open to her analytical mind it was wrong. A tactical and strategic error and a clear break with Arklight protocol. Mother would be furious.

No, she corrected herself, Mother will be furious. The call was now part of her phone log, which meant that it was part of the mission file. Lilith would never overlook it.

“Oracle,” she said aloud.

The screen on her small computer lit up with its smiling Mona Lisa.

“Oracle welcomes you.”

“I want to enter a new code name.”

“Voice recognition is active. What code name would you like to enter?”

“Violin.”

“Is this for file or field use?”

“Field use. It will be my call sign for this mission. Enable.”

“May I inquire as to why you have changed your code name? Has your cover been compromised?”

“My cover is intact. The change is to… maintain high security standards.”

“Thank you. Call sign ‘Violin’ is enabled. All appropriate field teams will receive a coded memo. How may I help you, Violin?”

“I need to speak to my mother. Right now.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Tehran, Iran

One Year Ago

Hugo Vox sat in his car and wept.

He had never felt pain like this before. Not during chemo or radiation. Not even the cancer hurt this bad. Upier 531 was a lot more than gene therapy. Vox knew about gene therapy and it didn’t hurt beyond the simple injections.

He felt like every cell in his body was tearing itself apart.

The car was soundproof, so his screams bounced off the windows and the leather seats and smashed into him like fists. He punched the steering wheel and dashboard.

Tears ran down his face.

“God!” he begged. “Please, God…”

But God had never once answered his prayers, even when Vox still believed.

Vox felt his mind fracture, felt pieces fall away. A fever burned through him and his skin was as hot as if he sat in a furnace. The sweat ran down so heavily that he felt like he was melting.

What had he done?

How could he have thought that this was going to save him, because now he was sure it was killing him.

Not only gene therapy.

Grigor’s pet mad scientist, Dr. Hasbrouck, had given him three injections of something else. Three syringes with long needles. Syringes filled with fluid the color of blood.

No, not just the color of blood.

Upier 531.

Blood of the damned. Blood of the monsters who tunneled like pale moles in the bowels of the earth.

Blood of vampires.

Hasbrouck had strapped Vox down for those injections. Bound his wrists and legs and chest. And then he had raised one gleaming syringe above him. A bead of blood gleamed on the needlepoint.

“This may hurt a little,” Hasbrouck had said with a sadistic chuckle. And then he had plunged the needle into his chest.

Into his heart.

Vox had screamed. Oh, how he had screamed.

The pain was so far beyond his understanding that he had no adjectives to describe it. He felt the alien blood as it entered him.

It shrieked its way into his heart, into his blood, throughout his body.

Vox did not pass out until the second needle. Hasbrouck, courteous man that he was, splashed cold water in Vox’s face before he gave him the third injection.

“You really should pay attention to this,” said the doctor. “It’s not every day that someone makes you immortal. Have a little respect.”

The third needle was the worst of all, because every inch of Vox’s skin tried to recoil from it. Like a torture victim who knows that his last inch of unburned flesh is next to feel the Inquisitor’s touch.

Vox passed out again.

And woke up behind the wheel in his own car.

The pain came and went. Discovering that he was still alive was little comfort. He put his face in his hands and sobbed.

A voice said, “Stop it. You embarrass me.”

Vox’s head shot up and he jerked sideways in his seat. A scream bubbled inside his throat, but it died on his tongue.

“How the fuck did you get in here?”

Father Nicodemus smiled. “What does it matter?”

Vox stared in mingled horror, doubt, and fascination at the old priest. It had been years since he’d seen him, but the cleric had not changed at all. Not a line, not a day.

“No, I guess not. But damn you’re a spooky bastard. And, besides, I thought you said it was too dangerous for us to meet like this,” Vox said, turning to glance through the tinted windows.

“No,” said Nicodemus, “that isn’t what I told you. I said it was dangerous for us to meet.” He smiled. “Not at all the same thing.”

A wave of agony swept over Vox and he recoiled from it as from a blow, shutting his eyes, hissing through clenched teeth. Through the haze of agony he heard Nicodemus speaking.

“Do you feel it?”

“Yes, I feel it, goddamn it. It fucking hurts!”

“No. Don’t be a child, Hugo. Look through the pain. Look into its heart, see it for what it is.”

Vox was panting like a dog, each breath a labor.

“Deep inside the pain something wonderful is happening.”

“What?” gritted Vox.

The priest bent close and whispered to Vox, “You are becoming one of them.”

Them.

“Please…” he begged.

Part Two

By the Rivers Dark

All warfare is based on deception.

Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. — SUN TZU

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Warehouse-DMS Field Office

Baltimore, Maryland

June 15, 12:40 a.m. EST

The Department of Military Sciences maintained eleven active field offices within the continental United States. The Baltimore field office was the seventh office to be established, and it occupied a warehouse once used by a terrorist cell to prepare for the launch of a global pandemic. Mr. Church had repurposed it and outfitted it with the very latest in anti- and counterterrorism technologies. A staff of one hundred and sixty-three people worked at the Warehouse, including two full field teams, Alpha and Echo.

The TOC-Tactical Operations Center-was not as grand as the one at the main headquarters in the Hangar at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, but to Rudy Sanchez it was dazzling. The TOC was the heart of the Warehouse, a command center filled with computers and control consoles whose purpose Rudy could only guess at. He was a medical doctor and psychiatrist, but his knowledge of advanced tactical computer systems was nil. He was fine with that. Standing and watching as the technicians and officers worked gave him a chance to observe the staff under a variety of stressful conditions, and that was useful for him in his job as chief psychologist for the DMS.

At the moment, he stood with his finger hooked through the handle of a cup of coffee, watching as Circe O’Tree settled herself into the computer array that was restricted for her private use. The computers formed a three-quarter circle around a leather swivel chair, and there were plasma and holographic screens at various levels. Rudy appreciated the science fiction appearance because he knew two things about it. The first was that the presence of the most cutting-edge technology made Circe-and the other senior staff-feel powerful. They had virtually limitless research materials at their fingertips, all of it backed by the MindReader computer system. It shotgunned confidence into people like Circe. And that was the second thing Rudy knew about it: Mr. Church always provided the most sophisticated and exclusive equipment for that very reason. It was not the only reason he did that, but it was definitely there. A trait of a man who manipulated everyone around him in order to coax from them the highest possible levels of confidence, personal power, and mission excellence.

Rudy sipped his coffee. The coffee was first rate too. Everything here was, and that was part of Church’s method. Treat everyone with the highest respect, provide them with things of quality, and demonstrably respect their opinions. The result was that the DMS staff tended to operate at a level of efficiency that was statistically freakish. Rudy felt it in himself, and he knew that Joe did too. Joe’s track record of amazing field work owed as much to Church as it did to Joe’s own exceptional nature.

He leaned a hip against the curved row of computers that surrounded Circe and watched her work. She logged on to the server and went through several levels of security in order to log into the MindReader network.

“I’m in,” she announced and then patted the chair next to hers. “Have a seat. This might take some time… but don’t touch anything.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Rudy with a smile as he slid into the companion chair. He cupped his hands around his mug-which had the olive-drab Echo Team logo on it-and watched as Circe filled the screens with lists of data.

“What is all that?” asked Rudy.

“The materials from Joe’s flash drive.” She peered at it for a while, frowning and occasionally shaking her head. “Lot of junk here.”

“Joe said that the agent swallowed it. Stomach acids and all that…”

But Circe said nothing. She chewed her lower lip as her eyes flicked over the information, and all the time her fingers were busy on the keys.

Weapons of mass destruction and the people who chose to use them were the core of her field of study, and that field had roots buried in history, religion, folklore, literature, psychology, and other fields. It was her particular genius that she could see connections between those disparate disciplines and then collate them into a cohesive profile. She worked in silence with an expression of ferocious interest on her lovely face.

Rudy studied it too, though much of the information was highly technical data on nuclear devices. Aside from that, he was not a field agent and despite the months he’d been with the DMS, he had yet to become inured to such words as “nukes” being thrown around as if they were a normal part of everyday life. It hurt him that this was a part of his life, and more so that it was part of the lives of the people he cared about.

Then suddenly everything seemed to jolt to a stop. While Circe was opening a file filled with random surveillance photos, one image hit them both like punches to the heart.

A big man, dressed in expensive clothes, stood with his head bowed in conversation with a smaller and much younger man. The image was labeled “Hugo Vox and unknown companion.”

Vox.

“God,” murmured Circe in a small, hurt voice.

Rudy reached out to take Circe’s hand.

“No,” she said. “I’m okay.”

It was a lie, though, and they both knew it. Rudy knew it better than anyone. Whenever Vox’s name came up, Circe’s lovely face took on a haggard look, like a prisoner who had been too long away from sunlight and clean air. Aside from the damage Vox and the Seven Kings had done to the world, and the betrayal of Church, he had also been like an uncle to Circe. She had worked for him at his counterterrorism training facility, Terror Town, for years. It was Vox, rather than her own estranged father, to whom Circe went with personal and career problems. Rudy knew that the hurt and betrayal she felt would take years to heal, if it ever did.

Circe pounded the arms of her chair. “Goddamn it, Rudy! It’s not fair.”

“I know, querida. We all feel betrayed.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “You most of all.”

“Me and Dad.” She said this very quietly so that no one else in the TOC could hear. Even so, it made Rudy feel odd.

Dad.

Even now, after months of being a part of Circe’s life, Rudy still had a hard time connecting the austere and mysterious Mr. Church with anyone’s father. Let alone a “Dad.” Joe privately referred to Church as Daddy Darth, a phrase that would assuredly not play well with the man himself.

Circe sniffed and wiped a tear from the corner of one eye. Rudy picked up her hand and kissed it.

“I hate like all fuck to intrude on this chick-flick moment.”

They looked up to see a woman’s face smiling sourly at them from one of the holographic screens. Middle-aged, black, wearing chunky designer jewelry and a Caribbean-print dashiki. Her dreadlocks were threaded with gray, and she wore granny glasses perched on her blunt nose. When she spoke, however, her accent was pure Brooklyn. Aunt Sallie, Mr. Church’s second in command.

“Don’t fret, Tia,” soothed Rudy, “you know my heart belongs only to you.”

“Nice try,” said Aunt Sallie, “but flattery won’t get you a threesome.”

“A- hem, ” growled Circe softly.

Laughing, Aunt Sallie said, “Okay, kids, let’s have first impressions. Did you find anything?”

“This information is recovered from a damaged flash drive, right?” asked Circe. “This is everything?”

“Yes,” agreed Aunt Sallie.

“Do we have the actual drive in hand?”

“Ledger’s sending it.”

“And we’re absolutely sure this flash drive is genuine?”

“We’re not sure of anything.” Aunt Sallie’s eyes narrowed. “What are you thinking, girl?”

“I hesitate to use the word ‘bullshit,’ but-”

“But it fits?” finished Auntie.

Circe’s eyes were hard. “Yes.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Homa Hotel

51 Khodami Street, Vanak Square

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:14 a.m.

Violin nibbled a callus on her thumb while she waited for her mother to call. Oracle had forwarded her urgent request, but Lilith was always handling urgent requests. Especially now that the Red Order was so aggressively active here in Tehran. The mosque bombing, the assassinations… so many things impacted Arklight.

When her phone rang Violin jumped and dropped her cell but she darted out a hand and caught it before it struck the floor. Bad nerves, good reflexes, she thought as she punched the button. Story of my life.

“Hello, Mother.”

“I was in an important meeting, girl,” growled Lilith. “There had better be a good reason.”

No hello, no inquiry about her safety. Another part of the story of her life.

“I know you probably haven’t had time to read my field report,” began Violin, “but the mission was scrubbed.”

“By you?”

“By the client.” Violin waited for a reply, got none, so she took a breath and plunged in. “You were correct, Mother, Rasouli was looking to hire an independent hitter, but we were wrong about the target. Rasouli wasn’t gunning for Charles LaRoque.”

“Who was the target?”

“President Ahmadinejad.”

“ What? ”

“It wasn’t a kill. He wanted a near miss. Something to scare him and shake things up.”

Iran was involved in a very discreet internal war between Ahmadinejad and Rasouli. In public they were friends, happy and smiling for the press, always shaking hands, clearly men with a shared agenda. In truth Ahmadinejad was losing favor and losing ground and was trying to repair his position by removing key political opponents. A near assassination might wipe the smug smile off of Ahmadinejad’s face, and do so publicly. If the president showed fear-and there would be hundreds of press cameras to record every expression that crossed his face-the perceived weakness would greatly strengthen Rasouli’s position.

Lilith grunted. “What do you infer from that?”

Her mother was not asking for advice or an opinion; this was a test. It was always like that with her.

“There are two clear possibilities,” said Violin, who had been preparing her answer since Rasouli contacted her. “Both possibilities are tied to Rasouli’s political aspirations and to the offer made to him by LaRoque.”

“Tell me.”

“The first is that Rasouli is going to accept the position of Murshid and sign the Holy Agreement with LaRoque and the Red Order. Ordering a hit on Ahmadinejad would be a demonstration of his commitment. Also, he’s been very vocal in denouncing the mosque bombing and the spate of assassinations. By now he must know that the Red Order is behind all of that, and yet he hasn’t said anything. That in itself could be a message to LaRoque and the Order that he can keep their secrets.”

“And the other possibility?”

“If Rasouli is not going to sign the Agreement, then it’s likely he was going to use the bungled assassination attempt to begin the process of exposing the Red Order to the world. He would need to do this in a big way-so big, in fact, that LaRoque would not dare to have him killed. Exposing the Order could be orchestrated into a rallying cry to unite all of Islam against the West. Pretty easily, too. It would emasculate European power in the Middle East, and by association irreparably damage the United States. And it would give religion itself a shot in the arm if Rasouli exposed who and moreover what the Red Knights are. The Catholic Church, the Upierczi, the Inquisition… that could spark a true jihad that would put Catholicism and probably all Christians in the crosshairs. Islam has never been truly unified against the west, but this could do just that.”

Lilith made a small sound that might have held an ounce of approval. “Which scenario do you think is most likely?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Violin, though she hated to show uncertainty. “The first serves Rasouli directly, and his profile paints him as severely ambitious. The second would make him a hero of Islam, and although that would give him more power, it would tie him more securely to the ayatollahs. Rasouli would be a hero of the faith, and he’d have to live that role. His psych profile, however, suggests that his personal faith is more political than actual. He’s never a fundamentalist unless the cameras are rolling.” She took a breath. “We need more information before we can decide how he’s playing this.”

“Yes.”

“We do have some new information that might give us a fresh perspective,” continued Violin. “When Rasouli scrubbed the hit on Ahmadinejad, he offered me a bonus to provide security for a meeting with an American agent.”

She told her mother about the meeting in the coffee shop and about trailing Captain Ledger to his hotel.

Lilith was silent for a while and Violin could almost hear the wheels turning. It had taken Arklight seventeen months of careful work to get the right credentials in place for Violin’s team of shooters to be considered “first choice” for quiet political hits. It meant actually doing some hits, though luckily none of them had been saints. Far from it.

“I… ran a search with Oracle on Ledger,” ventured Violin. “In case he was a traitor or a suspected agent of the Red Order.”

“And-?”

“He works for St. Germaine.”

She heard a sound that sounded like a gasp; but that was impossible. Mother was far too controlled, too cold, to have such a human reaction.

“Mother-?” she prompted gently.

“Follow Ledger,” barked Lilith. “Find out what Rasouli gave him and what he knows. I don’t care how you do it, you find out.”

Before Violin could say another word the line went dead.

Violin stared at the device for several seconds, totally confused by her mother’s reaction. She set the phone down as gingerly as if it were a sleeping scorpion. Then she bent to her sniper scope and studied Joseph Ledger with intensified interest.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The Warehouse

Baltimore, Maryland

June 15, 1:05 a.m. EST

“Why is it bullshit?” demanded Aunt Sallie.

“Let’s conference in Bug,” said Circe, and a moment later the bespectacled young man was peering at them from a screen next to the one showing Aunt Sallie.

“Here’s the problem,” began Circe. “I’ve done extensive work on damaged and partial documents. If you look at the history of recovered writings, from cartouches on Egyptian stelae, the Dead Sea scrolls, to things like this flash drive, the information gaps are random. They’re determined by chance, by exposure to elements, and other factors.”

Bug nodded agreement, and Rudy could tell that he was already on the same page as Circe.

Auntie peered over her glasses. “That’s not what you’re seeing here? So what am I missing?”

“It’s the inventory,” answered Circe. “We have two clear JPEGS of nuclear devices and several other ‘damaged’ image files. That gives us the type of device and establishes that they are already in place. We have field notes from an operative with a Geiger counter. Not a tape or digital recording of the counter, but personal observation notes that look like they were transferred from a phone text message. We have a list of targets, which is naturally compelling but also weirdly precise, considering that Rasouli has no verifiable ‘source’ for any of this. There’s more, but that’s my first impression.”

“Wow,” said Rudy. “You got all that by looking at this for twenty minutes? You always impress me, my dear.”

“No,” interrupted Circe, “that’s just it, this is too fast. Too easy. It’s like we’re being handed too much too soon.” Again, Bug was nodding along with everything she said.

Rudy frowned. “Isn’t that was Rasouli was trying to do?”

“Yes,” conceded Circe, “and I might have been less suspicious if the drive was intact. What troubles me is the fact that the drive was damaged and yet there are a lot of very key pieces here.”

“Exactamundo,” agreed Bug.

“It doesn’t make sense, though” Circe said, then quickly corrected herself. “No-it does make sense, but only if the person placing those files on the drive knew that the drive would be damaged.”

“Yup.”

“No, that’s wrong, too,” murmured Aunt Sallie. “Damage from moisture is random. Does this mean that the files were added after the flash drive was removed during the autopsy?”

“I don’t think so,” said Bug. “In fact I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.”

Rudy asked, “Admittedly I don’t know what I’m talking about, so forgive me if this is a foolish question, but… we can’t actually be certain that the drive was really swallowed by Rasouli’s agent, can we? So, could the moisture damage have been deliberate?”

Bug grinned so hard his face looked ready to explode. “Bingo!”

“Okay, boy genius,” said Aunt Sallie, “tell us.”

“I could do it,” said Bug. “In fact I’m really, really, really sure that someone else who is almost as smart as me did exactly that.”

“Almost as smart?”

Bug sniffed. “If I did it, no one would ever have figured it out.”

“Arrogance is a serious personality flaw,” said Rudy, but he was smiling.

“The whole package here is a little too cute,” said Bug. “Either Rasouli thinks we’re pretty dumb, which isn’t likely; or he thinks we’re really smart. I’m going with that, because layer after layer he’s giving us useful stuff, but stuff only we’d figure out. I mean, I’d buy the whole ‘this was damaged’ business if there were more bits of useless junk, but there’s hardly any of that. Almost everything we have is useful in some way.”

“Which is statistically improbable,” added Circe.

“Why the subterfuge?” mused Rudy. “If the drive was deliberately damaged, should we infer that Rasouli is double-crossing us in some way?”

“Possibly,” said Bug. “At the same time, I don’t think he knows enough. By fragmenting the data he has, it tells us a lot while at the same time possibly disguising all that he doesn’t know.”

“Why go to such lengths?” asked Rudy. “He reached out to us for our help.”

“Politics,” suggested Aunt Sallie. “He’s an ambitious little bastard. Maybe he found a way of strengthening his position within Iran, or maybe within Islam, while still removing a possible threat to his country. The less specific he is with us, the easier it could be to spin the actual outcome in his favor.”

“That’s cynical,” Rudy said.

“Hell, we do it all the time. Spin control is the second most important tool of statecraft, and probably the third most important weapon of war after big guns and strong allies.”

“It’s also devious,” added Rudy. “Very much the Hugo Vox model.”

Circe sighed. “Yes.”

“Do we trust the information?” asked Auntie. “ Can we trust it?”

“Do we have a choice?” muttered Circe.

Chapter Thirty

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:42 a.m.

I kept expecting the woman to call back, but she didn’t.

Violin.

I went into the bathroom to pack my toiletries. Ghost came and sat in the doorway, watching me in case I happened to discover a beef bone in my shaving kit.

As I puttered around, I tried to make some sense of the pieces of the mystery I had, but it was like trying to assemble one picture with pieces from four different puzzles. There was the hikers thing. That’s why I was here in Iran. There was no intention or even possibility of any interaction with the Iranian government. I don’t think I had ever spoken Rasouli’s name aloud before today; until now it was only a name in news stories and in a handful of CIA field reports that crossed my desk.

Before Rasouli, there was not even a whisper of rogue nukes. I mean, sure, everyone knows about Iran’s nuclear project-which is not even a “leaked” secret. Iran was behind the first press stories. They wanted the fear of it to give them leverage. What the general public didn’t know was that their program was about eighteen months ahead of the timetable predicted in the press, and that the whole thing had been kicked off with technology sold to them, and overseen, by the Russians. The Cold War was far from over-it simply had a new mailing address.

The CIA analysts were convinced to a high degree of confidence that Iran already had nuclear bombs. Maybe ten of them. But those bombs would be much smaller than the unit in the photo. They would be tactical nukes built into warheads. It was a scary fact of political life, and it’s why the United States did absolutely nothing in direct support of the various waves of antigovernment unrest. And, it’s why they let the hikers rot for a year. If it wasn’t for the danger posed by leverage on Senator McHale, Echo Team would never have crossed the border.

So… okay, look at that. The hikers were collateral in the nukes thing; but the nuke in the picture isn’t an Iranian nuke. It was probably of Russian manufacture, in whole or part, but the Russians were sharing a sleeping bag with Iran and if Rasouli wasn’t lying, then this bomb was positioned as a threat against Iran.

“So whose nukes are they?” I asked Ghost.

He wagged his tail because that’s what dogs do. They’re too polite to interrupt.

Blowing up the Mideast oil field was a pointless act of destruction. Where was the advantage? How did that make a political statement useful to anyone involved in either the oil wars or the religious pissing contest?

And Violin? Who and what was she?

The fact that Rasouli knew Hugo Vox made all of my math fuzzy. This whole thing could be a Seven Kings beach party, in which case trying to sort through the lies to find the truth would be like trying to pick fly shit out of pepper.

I sighed. I had way too many questions and so far… not one single answer.

Ghost suddenly turned at a sound and then trotted into the other room. I didn’t hear a knock, but Mr. Church’s asset was due any minute. Maybe Ghost heard him on the stairs.

I reached for a clean shirt and was pulling it on when I suddenly heard two sounds that chilled me.

The first thing I heard was Ghost letting out a single savage bark of warning.

Then I heard a sharp yelp of pain. The sound was instantly cut off.

Chapter Thirty-One

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:53 a.m.

I came out of the bathroom at a dead run and slammed into a figure in dark clothes and a hood.

We rebounded from one another, and for a weird moment I thought it was a ninja and that I was in a very bad movie. Then I saw that his clothes were ordinary black pants and a baggy shirt, and his mask was a simple balaclava.

The eyes that glared at me through the opening in the mask were weird, though. Really weird. They were a luminous red-like a white rat’s eyes-with long slitted pupils like a snake’s. Obviously contact lenses, and probably for the dual purpose of disguising his looks and trying to spook his opponent. If I was the kind of guy to stand there and gawp at him, I’d be dead.

Ghost lay twitching on the rug by the front door. Two metal flechettes were buried in his pelt and electricity coursed into him through silver wires that trailed up to a Taser the man held at arm’s length. The attacker spun and tried to pistol-whip me with the Taser.

I ducked the swing, came up fast from the crouch and smacked him over the ear with an open palm. It’s a useful blow that hurts like hell and jolts the balance, but if he was hurt, it didn’t show; and his balance didn’t suffer at all. He reacted by dropping the Taser and punching me in the ribs hard enough to lift my feet an inch off the floor. He tried to combine it with an overhand hammerblow, but I chopped it aside with my elbow. My ribs were white hot with pain, but I let that simply stoke the fury that had been burning in me since Rasouli ruined my morning. I wanted to hurt something that would scream, so I pivoted and drove at him with a flurry of precise strikes and nasty low kicks.

He matched me like we’d rehearsed this, blocking and parrying, slipping and evading every single strike; and he foot-jammed all my kicks. Then he found a hole in my attack, ducked in low and fast and drove a two-knuckle punch into my solar plexus. It missed the xiphoid by an inch as I turned away from it, but another white hot flare of pain exploded in my torso.

The punch almost dropped me. That one glancing blow was so immensely powerful that it sent me reeling halfway across the room.

That gave him a bigger hole, and he launched himself at me, snapping out with a vicious front kick that I barely evaded by turning and dropping into a three-point crouch. He landed and pivoted and his second kick was a side thrust that missed my knee by half an inch and shattered the heavy wooden leg of the desk chair. This guy was slimmer and shorter than me, but damn if he wasn’t strong.

I hooked my fingers around the slatted backrest of the chair and swept it off the floor, catching him solidly on the shoulder. The blow knocked him against the wall, but he rebounded and shattered the chair with a backward sweep of his arm. I threw an arm up to protect my eyes from the splinters; but even as I did that I did a backward kick and caught him in the stomach with my heel. I put a lot of torque in that kick and it should have knocked him out and given stomach cramps to his whole family back home.

All he did was grunt.

I mean… holy shit. A full-grown silverback gorilla couldn’t have stayed on his feet after a kick like that. My kick did exactly jack squat.

Well, not entirely true. It made him mad. And it was no fun to discover that up till now he hadn’t actually been trying to kill me. The Taser and his first selection of attacks were meant to disable. Now he was pissed, and he drove at me, stabbing at my eyes with his fingertips and trying to crush my throat with the stiffened webbing between index finger and thumb. The vicious prick fought like I did-only he was a lot stronger and a whole lot faster.

And I am really frigging fast.

So I changed the game and barreled straight at him, wrapped my arms around his thighs and picked him up to drive him right into the cheap wooden dresser which exploded into a shower of splinters, socks, and underwear. We crashed down onto the floor and I tried to slam his head into the broken base of the dresser, but he kicked up between my legs, catching me on the butt and knocked me headfirst into the wall. I got my elbow up in time to save my skull, but it left my side open and he punched straight up and caught me in the gut.

As I staggered away from that, he kicked out with both feet and sent me flying back onto the bed. He was up before I finished landing and he pounced on me. The force trampolined us off the mattress and down on the far side between the bed and wall. The attacker put a knee on my chest and cocked his fist for another of those pile-driver punches of his, but I grabbed the edge of the night table and jerked it down into the path of the punch. His fist hit the table, and for the first time he reacted. He yanked back his fist and cursed.

Not in Persian. Not in any Middle Eastern language. It sounded Italian but wasn’t, and though I couldn’t quite understand it, his words seemed strangely familiar. It was like trying to understand Portuguese when all you knew how to speak was high-school Spanish.

In the split second while he flexed his injured hand I saw a few inches of bare skin in a gap between his glove and his sleeve. There was a small tattoo, less than an inch long. It was shaped like a cross but made from a longsword standing vertical with a horizontal dagger as the guard. That image overlaid a red circle the color of a drop of blood. A word was written above it, arching over the image, but it wasn’t in English and I didn’t recognize the alphabet.

No time to ponder that now. I pulled my knees sharply up and then kicked him in the chest with both heels. He flew backward onto the bed and fell off on the other side. I scrambled up and flipped the twin mattress on top of him, then threw myself on top of it like a kid doing a cannonball into a pool.

That tore another grunt from him. Louder, filled with more pain.

I liked that effect, so I jumped up and down a few more times.

But on the third drop he shoved up on the mattress and my body landed on a slant. I fell one way and the force sent him the other way.

We got to our feet three yards apart, our backs to opposite walls. We were both panting now, though even with the pounding I’d just given him he looked fresher than I did. The bastard.

“Where is it?” he said, this time in heavily accented English. His voice was low and raspy. A mean, nasty voice.

I knew what he wanted. I figured that much out when we started this dance.

“Fuck you,” I said. Actually, what I said was “ Vaffanculo, testa di cazzo. ” Even if he was speaking some weird regional dialect of Italian I was pretty sure he’d catch my meaning.

He did, and as expected he didn’t much like it.

His red eyes flared with murderous rage and rushed me. I tried to stall him with a kick, but he swatted my foot aside, grabbed me by the shirt, and threw me across the room. I crashed into the wall hard enough to knock the cheap paintings from the wall; then I crashed down on the floor.

You see guys in movies do that-pick someone up and throw them across the room. That’s the movies. In the real world, it can’t be done. Not with someone my size. Not fifteen feet through the air so that I hit the wall at head height. It is not physically possible for a human being to do that.

My brain kept telling me that as I crashed to the floor in a heap.

I rolled onto my hands and knees and spat blood onto the floor. There was a piece of tooth there too. Fireworks exploded in my eyes and my head felt like it was cracked in forty places.

“Where is it?” he demanded again as he stalked toward me. Then he did something weird-even when added to the other weird stuff that was going on. Ghost was sprawled on the floor between us, and when the man suddenly realized that he was about to step on Ghost’s tail, he jerked his whole body sideways to avoid contact. A small, guttural cry escaped his throat as he did so. He rattled off something in that weird language, touched his heart, and drew a line with his fingers above his eyes. It had the same ritual feel as Catholics crossing themselves, though I’d never seen this gesture before. The Cop part of my mind wanted to make sense of the gesture and the man’s strange aversion to touching Ghost, but the Warrior was running the show, even though he wasn’t doing a great job of it, and that anomaly got buried under the need to survive the moment.

I tried to get up, but too many things hurt.

“What is on the flash drive the Murshid gave you?”

“The what?”

“The Tariqa,” he bellowed. “The Saracen! Where it is? Where is the flash drive?”

“I shoved it up your ass-why don’t you go look for it.”

He kicked me in the side and I barely managed to tuck my elbow against my side to save my ribs. Even so, the kick knocked me against the wall and the impact ignited more starbursts in my head.

“Who are you working for?” he said. His anger made his eyes seem to catch fire. “Are you Rasouli’s dog or are you working for that whore?”

“No,” I groaned as I fought to get to my knees, “your mother hasn’t called me.”

He tried for another kick, but I was ready and I rolled away from it and got shakily to my feet.

“It’s her, isn’t it?” he said, his voice heavy with contempt. He spat out another word, loading it with bile. “Arklight!”

I had no idea who or what that was, and now didn’t seem like a good time to ask. Running seemed like the best option, but my legs were rubbery and the room was doing a tilt-a-whirl around me.

Ski mask snarled at me. “Tell me or I will cut off your balls.”

“What the fuck is it with you guys?” I demanded. “How come every psycho in the Middle East has a grudge against my nutsack?”

I think he actually smiled, though all I could see was the crinkle around his crimson eyes. Then he rushed at me so fast that his body seemed to blur, hands reaching to grab. I tried to parry him, but he slapped my hands away, clamped his fingers around my throat and picked me up. And I mean all the way up so that I hung suspended with my feet inches from the floor.

Again, for a guy his size and a guy my size, this simply was not possible.

He bent close so that those unnatural eyes were inches from mine. His hands were as cold as ice.

“Last chance,” he sneered. “Where is the flash drive?”

“Fuck you. Where are the nukes?”

He paused for a moment, and I could see that I’d both hit a nerve and said the wrong thing.

“You know…” he breathed. Then his red eyes flared with rage that was ten times hotter than before. “Listen to me, you piece of shit-you have no idea what you are interfering with here. Give me the flash drive, tell me exactly who you’ve told, and I will end this quickly for you.”

“Or,” I choked out, “you could go piss up a rope.”

His eyes grew hotter still. “I am doing God’s work, and if you don’t tell me what I want to know I will rip your throat out and drink your life.”

Okay, I never heard that one before.

Not in real life.

I had a couple of witty comebacks for him. Stuff about his mother and livestock. But I thought that I was losing my audience. So instead I kneed him in the nuts as hard as I could. I put all of my pain and rage and fear into it. The impact canted him sharply forward, so I grabbed his head and clamped my teeth on his nose and tried my absolute best to bite it off. Blood exploded through the fabric of his mask, splashing against my face as cartilage collapsed between my teeth.

He screamed-so high and shrill that it hurt my ears. Then he started thrashing and tried to pull his head back from my teeth, but I wasn’t about to let go. I growled at him, clenched harder, and whipped my head back and forth like a dog. Hot blood gushed into my mouth.

His screams hit the ultrasonic. He flung me away from him and staggered back, pawing at his ruined face with both hands. I slammed into the wall again and dropped hard to the floorboards on knees and palms. The blood in my mouth was hot and tasted of salt. I gagged and spat it out. Part of his nose and the lower half of his mask flopped onto the floor.

Screw fair play. Screw the rules.

The man reeled and thrashed, slamming into one wall and then the other, keening in a high-pitched wail of inarticulate agony. His mask hung in dripping shreds. Most of his nose was gone. His mouth and chin were slick with dark blood.

I got shakily to my feet, sick and dazed. I figured I had him now if I could manage one more really good hit. Maybe break his neck, or crush his hyoid bone.

Then the son of a bitch wheeled toward me and hissed. His lips peeled back as he bared his teeth.

Suddenly the whole world froze and in that fragment of time I stared at his mouth.

At his teeth.

Good God.

His teeth were all filed to razor-sharp points. Like the teeth of a shark. But the canines-something was wrong with them. Really goddamn wrong. They weren’t just sharp, they were too long. Way too fucking long. Like the fangs of a dog. Or a wolf.

Or-

No. My mind refused to make that connection. It was insane and the day was already out of control.

And then the sharp-toothed, no-nose freakazoid son of a bitch pulled us right back into the real world.

He reached into a pocket and produced a gun.

Nothing weird or alien. Totally ordinary.

He had me and we both knew it.

So I let out a scream that was louder than his and I drove into him at full speed and force. It was a big, meaty impact that knocked blood from his face so hard it spattered the walls and ceiling. The gun went flying over my shoulder. Even then he tried to step out of it, but I had him and together we crashed through the glass door and all the way to the wrought-iron balcony. We hit the railing five flights above the empty street. There was glass and curtains and broken pieces of wood-framing everywhere, and even with all that we kept jabbing and punching at each other. Those jagged teeth bit the air, snapping at my face, my throat.

I shoved him back and then smashed him across the mouth with my elbow, exploding half his teeth over the rail and down into the street five stories below.

And still he fought.

Despite all of the injuries, the torn face, he spun me around and started bending me backward over the rail. I could feel my spine bending too far and too fast even while I wailed on him, smashing ribs and eyebrows and knocking more teeth out of his mouth.

Then suddenly his head jerked away from me like he’d been pulled by a rope. I heard a crack as his neck snapped, and saw a geyser of blood and brain matter splash against the shattered window frame, painting the floor and overturned mattress.

His body spun away back into the room, and he collapsed down onto the ruined bed like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

I never heard the shot that killed him. But I threw myself into the room and dove behind the bed.

Had the shooter been aiming for him?

Or had they tried to shoot me and missed?

Chapter Thirty-Two

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:46 a.m.

I lay there, panting like a marathon runner five feet from the finish line. Everything hurt, every inch of skin, every muscle, every nerve. I was drenched in sweat and blood, but I remained motionless, trying to hear an echo from a distant shooter.

But there was nothing. No sound except my own labored breaths.

The dead goon’s pistol lay on the box spring, but it was in direct line of sight from the window. I had no gun, no weapons in the hotel room. Why should I? After all, I was a tourist on vacation here in Tehran. All of my tactical gear was slag on the street outside the police station.

I tried to melt into the floorboards, waiting for the next shot, for the next round to punch a hole through the wall and through my body.

My attacker lay in a twisted sprawl. The shot had taken him in the left temple and the exit wound had blown most of his head off. A big damn bullet, traveling at three thousand feet per second.

I waited.

Nothing.

I waited some more.

More nothing.

Across the room, Ghost chuffed and twitched. His ribs rose and fell as he fought to swim back to consciousness.

The memory of the dead man’s teeth kept lunging out of the shadows in my mind, trying to eat away at what sanity I had left.

Gradually I decided I was waiting for something that wasn’t going to happen. The shooter was almost certainly gone by now, not after a kill. Not in a security-obsessed country like this one. The shooter was in the wind. I had to get out of this room, though. Couldn’t risk going outside yet. The basement had a nice, quiet laundry room. Good place to lay low for a few minutes at least until Ghost was able to travel.

The Warrior part of my personality was howling for blood; but the Cop part of my brain was analyzing what just happened. Or at least as much as was possible with a body that felt like it had been thrown down an elevator shaft and a head full of loud noises and thorns.

I grabbed the corner of the box spring and pulled it toward me until it tipped, sending the pistol sliding into my hand. I shoved it into my waistband at the small of my back. Then I wormed my way across the floor to the shooter. I had to risk reaching into the sniper’s line of fire to grab the guy’s foot, but I darted my hand out, clamped my fingers around his ankle and dragged him away from the window.

It was a wasted effort. I searched his pockets and got nothing. No jewelry, no scars or marks. All I got for my efforts was a better look at the tattoo, which told me nothing more than it had when I first spotted it. I pulled up his sleeve and used the camera in my cell to take a photo of it. It was written in an alphabet that was unknown to me, which was odd because I’m a student of languages. I speak a lot of them and can recognize a lot more. This wasn’t anything I’d ever seen.

The dead man’s mouth hung open and I could see his remaining front teeth. I took photos of them, too. Inside my chest my heart skipped a couple of beats. At close range those sharp shark teeth did not look like they’d been filed down. They looked like they’d grown in that way. I tried to pull one of the fangs loose, hoping that it was a fake. Some kind of combat denture. Something cosmetic. After three tries I yanked my hand back and wiped it on the rug.

I will rip your throat out and drink your life.

Hearing someone say that was bad enough, but people in my trade tend to talk all kinds of over-the-top trash. Fine. However, having someone with fangs say it is a whole different thing. You didn’t just shake that off. Even though I knew- knew — there had to be a rational explanation, no matter how exotic the science, it still hit me harder than it should have. It was so weird, so real that it awakened an atavistic dread that took me all the way back to the cave. Like I was some grunting Neanderthal huddling by a meager fire while outside strange and unnameable sounds came out of the midnight darkness.

My inner voices-Cop, Warrior, and Civilized Man-were all silent. Afraid to speak to me, unable to tell me what to do.

“Joe Ledger,” I told myself, “you have got to get the hell out of Dodge.”

I said it aloud because I needed to hear my own voice sounding nice and normal. It didn’t. I sounded scared and shaken and that didn’t help a goddamn bit.

I got to my feet and fell right down on my ass again, and the sound provoked a weak woof from Ghost. His eyes were still closed, though.

Next time I tried to get up I did it slowly. My hands were shaking and they were ice cold.

Making sure to stay away from the window, I bent and dragged Ghost out into the hall and kicked the door shut. None of the other doors on my floor opened, which was the plan. When our local contacts had picked this hotel for Echo Team they’d rented all the rooms just to leave them empty. Most of the floor below me was empty too. No witnesses, no curious faces peering out from between cracked doors. I doubt anyone knew about what had just happened except the sniper, me, and whoever sent the son of Dracula in there.

There was nothing in the room that I needed more than I needed to get gone. My cell was in my pocket, but now was not the time to make a call. Besides, I think my hands were shaking too badly even to hit speed dial.

It took Ghost another minute to wake up and two more before he could stand. As soon as he was on all fours, we crept down the back steps to the laundry room. I wanted to clean us both up and get myself together before we went looking for a safe house.

Ghost had his tail between his legs and in my way so did I.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski

Munich, Germany

June 15, 9:54 a.m.

The young man sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the pistol he had just finished loading. It was a slim, lightweight. 22. Easily concealed, simple to operate. He had used guns like this for years. He had killed with them. Men and women. Many of them.

He even knew most of their names.

The fact that he did not know all of their names was like a nail in his head. The floor around the bed was littered with crumpled up sheets of paper on which lists of names had been scribbled. On the first few sheets, the names that he could remember were written in a neat, flowing script. On the more recent ones they were scrawled in haphazard fashion. More than once the tip of his pen had gouged into the notepad, cutting fresh pages like blades on flesh.

The young man knew about that, too. He had used knives more than once.

Even a garrote.

The most recent page lay crumpled on the floor between his bare feet. Beside it lay yesterday’s bottle of Scotch. Today’s was in splinters at the base of the wall where it had been thrown.

There were other bottles too. The room was a disaster, the trash can the only place uncluttered by discards. It stood empty, like a statement, by the open refrigerator door. Inside the fridge, a week’s worth of leftovers had become worlds for new life forms, and the odor was appalling.

The young man did not care.

“Dr. Sirois!” he shouted suddenly, remembering another name. With fevered hands he began his list again. Seventy- eight names now. Seventy-eight.

He wrote them as carefully as trembling fingers would allow. As neatly as his mind would allow, but by the time he was halfway done the list even he couldn’t read most of what he’d written. He’d lost count somewhere in the forties and tore the page from the pad, crushed it in his fist, and hurled it as far as he could.

Then he screamed.

“ Seventy-eight, you sodding freak! ”

Seventy-eight was too much. He knew that. Too many deaths. Too many murders. Far too many to atone for. There was no way anyone could be forgiven for that many deaths. A saint would burn for half as many, and he knew that he was far, far from that kind of grace.

Seventy-eight. Too many.

But not enough. There were more. He could remember them. He could remember the trigger-pulls, the plunge of blades. But why couldn’t he remember their names?

He screamed again, an inarticulate plea to a God he knew would not spit on him.

When the phone rang, his screams died in the humid air of his hotel room. There was a ghost of an echo, and then silence.

Until the second ring.

The young man stared at the phone.

Not the hotel phone, which had been silent since he checked in three weeks ago.

Not at his personal cell phone, which lay smashed on the floor under the shoe he had used to destroy it.

No, this was the other cell. A bright purple one with a ruggedized rubber shell. The one he had picked up a hundred times, ready to make a call, ready to beg for forgiveness, but which he had put down each time.

The phone kept ringing.

It had not rung for weeks. Not since he had left the private villa that sat in the shade of the Kolakchal Mountain, Jamshidiyeh Park in Tehran. Not since he had been caught reading the encrypted computer files. Hacking those files had taken months. Reading them had broken his heart. Being caught reading them had resulted in a terrible fight. Shouts, hard words, and a single punch-the hardest the young man had ever thrown-that left the owner of those files dazed and bleeding on the floor. The words that man had said as the young man backed away from the horror of what he had just done-those words had opened up a fissure in his mind. They had broken something that the young man knew could not be mended.

Maybe not even by God Himself.

The purple phone kept ringing.

On the eleventh ring, he answered it. He did not speak, did not say hello, did not ask who was calling. There was only one person who could possibly have this number.

“Toys,” whispered Hugo Vox. “C’mon, kid… say something for Christ’s sake.”

Toys bent forward as quickly and sharply as if he had been punched in the stomach.

“Toys!” begged Vox. “Are you there?”

Into the phone he said, “No.”

And he disconnected the call.

Chapter Thirty-Four

Private Villa Near Jamshidiyeh Park

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 9:59 a.m.

Hugo Vox drew in a ragged breath and let it out through his nostrils, feeling his whole body deflate.

That single word.

No.

Vox stared at the coded cell phone on his desk. It lay beside a bottle of Scotch and a tumbler that was nearly empty. Vox snatched up the glass and drained the last of the Scotch, shivering as the ice rattled against his teeth.

He refilled the glass, drank half of it, set it down.

His sleeve was still rolled up and he looked at the injection mark, then touched the others beneath his shirt. They still hurt, but other things hurt worse.

“You miserable backstabbing little fuck,” he said aloud. The house, however, was empty. Toys had been gone a month now, and Vox knew that he would never be back. On the computer monitor in front of him was the log-in screen of the bank to which he’d wired the billion he’d given to Toys after the Seven Kings fell apart. One hundredth of the assets Vox had in over seven hundred global markets, banks, and trusts. When Toys had left him, Vox had been determined to switch all but a penny out of it. That would have made a statement, sent a message.

So far he hadn’t done it, even though he logged in to the banking site as often as six or seven times a day.

The fact that he could not yet do it irritated the shit out of him.

“You goddamn Judas,” he growled. It was far from the first time he’d said that.

What troubled Vox most was his own reaction to Toys’s betrayal. He should have been doing an Irish jig instead of sulking. Toys had found exactly what Vox had wanted him to find. Upier 531, the Upierczi, the Holy Agreement. All of it, exactly as planned. Vox still could not understand why Toys had reacted so… weirdly. This was exactly the sort of thing Toys had been involved with his whole adult life, first as Sebastian Gault’s personal assistant and since then as Vox’s protege and unofficially adopted son. This was Toys’s fucking heritage. All he had to do was join him for this last little bit of fun and the kid would have access to the other ninety-nine billion dollars.

How could anyone piss on that?

He closed his eyes and remembered the fight they’d had.

Vox had been in the kitchen at their villa, removing cardboard containers of takeout food from a cloth bag and placing them on the table. Humming to himself, happy with the way things were going with Grigor, and with that numb-nuts Charlie LaRoque. When he heard Toys open the cellar door, he looked up and smiled.

But the smile died on his lips.

“What the fuck-?”

Toys stood swaying in the doorway, his eyes red-rimmed, cheeks streaked with old and new tears. A pistol hanging limply from his hand, the barrel pointed at the floor.

“Hey, kiddo,” Vox began, “what’s-?”

Toys tossed a ring of keys onto the counter. Duplicates for the keys to Vox’s office and the cabinet with his computer files. Vox shrugged; he’d known that Toys had made dupes. There were faint smudges of wax on two of the keys from where Toys had made impressions for copying.

“So what?” he asked.

“Upier 531.”

Vox removed a container of rice from the bag. He glanced from Toys to the pistol and back again. “Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think? What kind of question is that? You think I want to die?” demanded Vox. “You think I’d let myself rot if there was a way out?”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” said Toys. “You know it isn’t.”

“What do you think it’s about? What’s it ever about? You went into my banking records, right? You saw the deposits and the transfers. Christ, is this about the split? Are you turning on me over your share?”

“It’s not about the money.”

“The fuck it’s not about the money, you little shithead,” Vox fired back. “Okay, so I promised you a hundred billion when I died, and I’m not giving you a hundred billion ’cause I’m not fucking dying. Those injections are giving me a new shot, kiddo, and I’m fucking taking it-and I’m keeping the money I earned because now I’m going to have a chance at spending it. So, boo hoo, I’m a bad man. Are you trying to tell me you can’t live off of one billion? Are you standing there and telling me that? You wouldn’t have a fucking dime if it weren’t for me. I treated you like my own son, you ungrateful shit. I’m giving you a billion fucking dollars, though. Who else ever gave anyone that kind of cash? It’s already transferred to your account.”

“It’s not about the money,” Toys repeated, his face growing red. “It’s about where it’s coming from.”

Vox barked out a harsh laugh. “Oh, please, do not even go there.” He paused and shook his head. “Look, don’t think I don’t know that you’ve been getting all moody and guilty lately. Ever since Gault died you’ve been watching way too many televangelists. It’s creepy and it’s silly, but I figured if it works for you, then who am I to tell you how to whitewash your soul. It’s your money now, and a billion dollars buys a lot of forgiveness.”

In two quick strides Toys closed the distance between them and struck Vox across the mouth. Not with the pistol. He used his open hand, a single whipcrack of a slap that spun Vox violently around and sent him crashing into the table. It tipped under his weight and Vox fell amid a torrent of exploding cartons of food and cutlery. He landed heavily, his face and chest splattered with hot soup and rice and cooked lamb. Vox screamed and slapped at his skin. But before he could recover, Toys bent down and shoved the barrel of the pistol hard against Vox’s temple.

“Shut your mouth,” whispered Toys in an icy hiss. “So help me God, Hugo, if you say one more word I will kill you.”

Vox groaned and pawed at his mouth. His lip was pulped and bleeding and he stared at the red smear on the back of his hand. Despite Toys’s warning, Vox growled, “If you want all of it then take it and fuck you. The bank codes are in-”

“I have the bank codes,” snarled Toys, “but I don’t want your sodding money. Piss on you and every penny of it. Keep it and choke on it.”

Vox turned his head, ignoring the presence of the gun, and he glared up at Toys. “Then what do you fucking want?” When Toys did not speak, Vox chuckled. “Well goddamn,” he said wonderingly, “I can see it in your eyes, boy, you really have lost your fucking mind and found Jesus. Ho-lee shit. I thought it was a scam. I thought you were running some kind of schuck, or maybe going through some kind of spring cleaning of the soul. Shit, I thought it was a frigging phase and-”

“A ‘phase’?” echoed Toys softly.

“Of course,” snapped Vox, “and that’s what it damn well is. You’re feeling some dumbass Catholic guilt because I filled your head with a bunch of bullshit about Judas last year when I was trying to get you away from that dickhead Gault. There was a point to all that, kiddo, and I thought you understood it. What, did you think I was proselytizing? I was trying to get you to understand about necessary sacrifice and how sometimes we all have to make a hard choice. Was I wrong about you? Are you too fucking stupid to understand that?”

“No,” murmured Toys, “I understood you perfectly.”

He cocked the hammer of the pistol, and it was the loudest sound Vox ever heard.

“Listen to me, Hugo,” Toys said, so very softly. “Try to understand. Try, for once, to listen objectively. Don’t filter it through your own agenda. Just this once. Can you do that?”

Vox cleared his throat. His face and back hurt. The food was trickling down inside his clothes. “Yeah, sure, kiddo. Say your piece.”

Toys leaned so close that his voice was a hot breeze on Vox’s ear. “You lied to me, Hugo.”

“Fuck it, kid, I lie to every-”

“Shhhh. Don’t say anything. Just listen.” The barrel of the gun slid along the line of Vox’s cheek. “I never wanted your money. You thought I did because that’s all you’re capable of thinking. I almost pity you. Even Sebastian wasn’t like that. At least he could love something. Amirah… your mother. Sebastian loved her. But you, Hugo? You don’t love anything. I doubt you ever have.”

Vox started to say something, to protest that statement, but Toys leaned toward him, forehead to forehead, the pistol now touching the point of Vox’s chin.

“Please,” begged Toys, “please don’t say anything. Don’t say that you love me. I’ve heard that. You said it a thousand times. That you love me like a son. Don’t let me hear you say those words. I can do more than kill you. I will if you say that.”

Vox said nothing.

“I’m not like you, Hugo. I’m not like Sebastian, either. I’m not strong in the same way… but I’m not weak in the same way, either. I didn’t know that before. I thought I was weak, I thought I was broken. A broken toy. Quaint, I know. Corny. But it isn’t the way things are, and I didn’t know that until I read the files. I could have forgiven you about the money. After all, it’s not even your money to give. It’s all stolen, it’s all blood money, and I have enough blood on my hands as it is. I could have forgiven you about Upier 531. A gene therapy that could cure your cancer? Something that could make you live for years? Maybe forever? That’s wonderful, Hugo. That’s magic, even if it’s unproven. I could forgive any risk you’d take to change that.”

Tears welled in Toys’s eyes and fell on Vox’s cheek.

“But the price you were willing to pay. Good Christ, Hugo. All those people? What is it with you? What was it with Sebastian and the Seven Kings? Are people unreal to you? Do you think they’re simply bit-part players in your personal drama? No-don’t say anything. I know the answer. That’s exactly what you, and what people like you, think. No one else is real, no one else matters. Only you, your power, your profit, and whatever pieces of the world you can steal.”

He sniffed, but the tears still fell. Vox was frozen to stillness.

“Hugo… you think that I’m like a son to you. Or, you thought so. When you found out you were dying I was the only way for you to become immortal. Fathers do that with their sons. That’s what you thought you were going to leave behind. Me-a clone of you, someone to carry on the things you’ve done your whole life. More murders, more plots and plans. More chaos. When you looked at me, that’s what you saw.”

Toys pressed the pistol harder against Vox’s chin.

“How could you hate anyone so much that you would want them to be like you?”

A last tear rolled from Toys’s eye and fell, striking Vox on the lips.

Toys straightened and stepped back, his arm out, gun pointed, the barrel trembling but only slightly.

“You are a monster, Hugo,” murmured Toys. “I’m not.”

Vox sat up and wiped away the salty tear on his lips. He sneered at Toys. “Yeah? Then what the fuck are you?”

The answer was there in the young man’s eyes for Vox to read. The hand holding the pistol stopped trembling, the black eye of the barrel stared without pity.

Then Toys dropped the pistol onto the tile floor.

“I’m damned,” he said.

Without another word, he turned and walked through the house and out the front door.

Vox refilled his glass and drank.

He stared at the bank account log-in on the screen, seeing a smeared version of it through the hot tears in his eyes.

Beneath his skin he could feel the changes, feel the tissues moving and adapting.

He drank the Scotch.

“Fuck you,” he said aloud.

And reached for the bottle.

Chapter Thirty-Five

The Hangar

Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

June 15, 1:30 a.m. EST

The president of the United States was ten feet tall.

Even seated behind his desk in the Oval Office he was a giant, towering over Mr. Church, who stood with his hands clasped behind his back. The giant plasma screen in the Hangar conference room had flawless fidelity and except for the disparate scale, the president might have been there in the room.

“I wish I had more encouraging news, Mr. President,” said Church. “However, we are still assessing the intelligence brought to us by Captain Ledger.”

“I have to admit that I’m disappointed. I expected more. I expected to hear that you’d at least confirmed the location of all seven of the devices.”

“When I learn to perform actual magic, Mr. President, I will make sure you receive the memo.”

The president said nothing. With anyone else from the president of Russia to his own chief of staff he would have fired back a retort and fried them. Instead, he cleared his throat.

After a moment, Church said, “We have, in fact, established probable locations on four of the devices. There is a high probability that the one in Rasouli’s photo is located in or near the Aghajari oil refinery in Iran. There is a slightly lower but still actionable probability that the other three are at the Beiji oil refinery in Iraq, the Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, and the Toot oil field in Pakistan. DMS teams are en route to those locations. When and if we get locations on the other three I want to do a coordinated and simultaneous soft infiltration of all seven. We should get the best JSOC teams in the air.”

The Joint Special Operations Command included many of the nation’s elite teams, including Delta and the SEALs.

“What about the device here in the States?”

“We need to remain at our highest state of readiness without doing anything that sends a signal. Not to our allies, not to our enemies, and not to the world press. At this point we don’t know if there is a device on U.S. soil, and if there is we have no idea where it might be. It could be a red herring, or it could be real, we don’t know. So far there are no hints on Rasouli’s drive beyond a possibility of our unknown enemies targeting oil fields.”

“We have a lot of oil fields, Deacon.”

“I am all too aware of that, Mr. President.”

The president sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. “I want to hang Vox’s head on the Capitol building spire.”

“Get in line,” said Church dryly. “But as much as we both want to see that happen, we don’t know if Vox is our enemy in this particular game.”

“He steered Rasouli toward Ledger.”

“Yes, which means that our only source of information about a potentially catastrophic situation came about because of that.”

“I hope you’re not suggesting that Vox has had a change of heart and now wants to help us avoid an act of terrorism. You couldn’t sell that on a soap opera.”

“I believe you know my take on Hugo’s patriotism.”

“Then what is his role in this?”

“He is a trickster and manipulator. If he delivered a workable cure for cancer I would look for an angle. If he’s helping us then he has a way to profit from that.”

“Enemy of my enemy?” suggested the president. Church shrugged.

“Unknown. Now that we know the scope of his treachery as the head of the Seven Kings, we know that he has more friends in the Middle East than he has here. Iran would be in that family.”

“So… he could be helping Rasouli,” ventured the president. “If this is a real threat to Iran’s oil fields, then Vox could be using us to help an ally.”

“Yes. That’s likely, but it doesn’t mean that it’s Hugo’s only motive.”

“I’m putting a lot of trust in you and MindReader, Deacon. We have to find those nukes. We can’t allow a single device to detonate.”

“We may not have a choice, Mr. President. I believe that it would be prudent to begin working on how to manage a crisis based on a variety of worst-case scenarios.”

“I just had that conversation with State. No matter where a bomb goes off it creates a different political nightmare. At this point it’s impossible to determine which worst-case scenario is actually the worst. On one side there’s the risk to civilian populations, on another the risk of contamination to the oil fields is considerable. And the political fallout, pun intended, could cripple us in the region.”

“I wish Captain Ledger had been able to record that conversation. We’d be able to haul Iran before NATO and the world and hang them out to dry for consorting with Vox. They would have to back down on their nuclear program-”

“Which would be nice,” interrupted Church, “but it would still leave us with seven possible nukes in place, and no one to blame.”

“We can blame Vox and the Seven Kings.”

“We could,” said Church dubiously, “but we would be guessing. That might sharpen focus or distract it entirely. Guesswork doesn’t put our true enemy in the crosshairs.”

The president looked at his watch. “I’m heading to the Situation Room now. We’ll conference you in. Two minutes.”

“I’ll be here,” said Church.

Chapter Thirty-Six

The Kingdom of Shadows

Beneath the Sands

June 15, 10:01 a.m.

The King of Thorns stretched out a pale hand to accept the cell phone offered by his fourth son. Grigor’s fingernails, thick and dark, curled around the slender phone, trapping it in his palm like a tiny mouse caught by a spider. He was familiar with phones, but he did not care for them. All they possessed was sound. No smell, no taste. With a small sneer of distaste he put the phone to his ear.

“Yes.”

“Grigor,” said Charles LaRoque, “Your knight failed.”

“Failed?”

“Yes, and I am very disappointed,” said LaRoque in a waspish tone. “I was led to believe that the knights were more capable than this. A simple hit on a single target. Perhaps I should have hired someone who understands his profession.”

Grigor’s fingers tightened on the phone. Cracks jagged their way through the plastic cover.

“How did it happen?”

“Who cares how it happened? It happened. He failed. You failed, Grigor, because you chose the knight. You chose someone who apparently could not complete a simple mission, and now we have a potentially catastrophic situation. His body is still at the target site.”

“I-” began Grigor, but the Scriptor cut him off.

“Don’t humiliate yourself with excuses, Grigor. Clean it up and complete the assignment. Do not disappoint me again, I’m warning you.”

The line went dead and Grigor lowered the phone from his ear. He regarded it with hooded eyes as if by looking at the device he could see the weak, doughy face of the new Scriptor. His white fingers curled around the phone until they formed a fist. There was a screech of protesting metal and plastic, and then Grigor opened his hand to let the mangled pieces fall.

Silence washed through the darkness for several moments.

“Nothing ever changes, does it?” asked Hugo Vox.

Grigor turned. Vox stood at the foot of the dais, a glass of Scotch in his hand. In the year since he had first met the former King of Fear, Vox had dwindled from a bombastic fat man to a ghost. His flesh was as loose as his clothes, and there were dark circles under his eyes.

“You heard everything?”

Vox nodded. “Charlie’s old man treated you like dog shit and so did his grandfather. How the fuck did you put up with it this long?”

A grunt was Grigor’s only reply.

“Are you going to do what LaRoque wants?” asked Vox.

“Yes,” said Grigor.

The American nodded. “Because you want to, not because you have to, though. Am I right?”

Grigor gave that a single nod.

“Good,” said the American. “That works for us.”

Grigor made a slight gesture and one of his aides came hurrying out of the shadows. Grigor spoke to him in the language of the Red Order-a language Vox had learned well enough over the last year to catch the gist of Grigor’s orders. The aide bowed and scuttled away.

“It will be so delicious to hang him by the heels and let his blood rain down. I would not even drink it. I would let it pool upon the ground and then piss in it.”

“I like the way you think,” said Vox, “but we need him alive for a little while longer. Him and Rasouli.”

“Why? All we need now are the codes.”

He gestured to a small device that lay on a brass table beside his throne. It was a converted satellite phone that had been rebuilt with Vox’s own scrambler technology.

“Everything’s in motion, Grigor,” assured Vox. “A little more patience, a couple of tweaks, and then you can start your revolution and crack the pillars of heaven.”

The King of Thorns glared with red hatred into the shadows. “I wonder sometimes if I can trust you, Hugo.”

“You can definitely-” Vox suddenly doubled over as a ferocious coughing fit tore through him. He spat out the whiskey and reeled, catching himself on a stone wall as the coughs racked his wasted frame. The coughing fit lasted a whole minute during which Grigor did nothing except observe with a faint smile of amusement on his lips.

Vox tore a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his mouth as the last deep coughs shook him. When he removed it the center of the cloth was stained with a few drops of blood. The scent of it perfumed the air.

“God,” he wheezed. “Goddamn it…”

Grigor traced the contours of his own mouth with the tip of a black fingernail.

“What does it feel like to be so weak? To be sick?”

Vox glared up at him from beneath knitted brows. “Fuck you.”

The King of Thorns laughed.

“You’d better step up the goddamn treatments,” rasped Vox, “because that scrambler isn’t worth shit without the access code, and without that scrambler you and your bloodsucking freak show of a race are going to remain slaves for the rest of time. So wipe that shit-eating smile off your face and find out where that asshole Dr. Hasbrouck is. I need my shots.”

The smile on Grigor’s face faded only a little as the echoes of Vox’s words bounced off the cold stone walls of the caverns. “The doctor says that you’d never survive the last round of treatments.”

“You better pray he’s wrong, Grigor.” Vox spat onto the floor. The sputum was dark with blood. “If I die then all your dreams die with me.”

Part Two

By the Rivers Dark

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 10:02 a.m.

Ghost and I made it down to the hotel’s basement laundry without being seen by anyone. I opened the back door and listened for commotion or sirens. There were none. I was right-no one had heard the fight and the shot was either silenced or fired from a great distance. It felt a little weird to me, even after everything I’ve done, that such a traumatic and dramatic moment could go unnoticed by people a couple of floors away. It makes you wonder about all of the ghastly things that happen every day all around us.

There were so many things about what had just occurred that I didn’t know where to begin thinking about them. No-that wasn’t true. The goon with the fangs knew about the flash drive, and he seemed pretty damned stunned when I mentioned the nukes. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. Did it mean that he knew what was on the flash drive but didn’t think either Rasouli had told me or that I’d had a chance to check the drive’s contents? Or was the nuke thing a big surprise to him?

Or did I not yet know enough to ask myself the right question?

Yes, muttered the Cop in my head.

The Warrior was still freaked out about the goon with the fangs. When you spend most of your life training in martial arts, military technique, and the specialized skills of special ops as I have, you come to accept that combat in all of its forms is a science. It’s largely mathematical. If you hit someone in a specific part of the body at a precise angle and with sufficient force there is a predictable response, give or take some necessary variables. The same applies for a wide range of things, from lifting a barbell full of weights to shooting a pistol at a target. For some of this stuff there are thousands of years of trial and error as well as data collection to support what we know. Not what we guess but what we know. When you separate it all from sports or esoteric pursuits, combat is a science. I’ve dedicated my life to that science; if I have a church then that’s it.

However, what I just experienced did not make sense according to anything I knew or believed.

I will rip your throat out and drink your life. The killer’s voice kept whispering that to me.

I pulled out my cell and called Church.

“Go,” he said.

“Boss, I am having a really, really bad day,” I said.

“Are you talking about the devices?”

“Not directly.”

“I’m on with the president. Do you need immediate assistance or can you wait ten?”

“I can wait ten,” I said, “but not eleven.”

“Understood.” Church disconnected.

I sighed. In a very odd and childish way I felt snubbed by Church. I recognized it as a human overreaction to great fear mingled with physical injury. I needed Mommy or Daddy to kiss the boo-boo and tell me everything’s all right. So, yeah, I’m immature at times. Just like everyone else.

I found a cracked bowl and filled it with clean water for Ghost. While he drank, I tried to assess my current situation. It was like inventorying a Kansas trailer park after tornado season. I hurt in so many places I stopped counting. My arms throbbed from blocking his punches and kicks, let alone those spots where his shots had actually landed. When I pulled up my shirt I saw huge red bruises forming; the intensity of color a clear indication of the amount of tissue damage he’d inflicted. Last time I had bruises like that was when I’d taken a pair of heavy-caliber rifle rounds in my vest; the Kevlar had kept me alive but the psi of the impacts had to go somewhere.

Ghost looked up from his bowl, water dripping from his snout. I doubt Shepherds could identify bruises by sight, but his sensitive nose could probably smell the blood seeping through the damaged muscle tissue.

He whuffed and began drinking again.

“Whuff,” I agreed.

I dearly wanted to curl into a fetal position on my couch and sleep until November. Alternately, six shots of Jim Beam and a gallon of beer would work well as comfort food; but I was deep in Indian country, and there were hard miles to go before I had any kind of comfort.

“If you’d gone to the damn FBI academy you could have been politely arresting people between afternoons on the golf course,” I reminded myself. All of my inner voices told me to shut the fuck up.

The coin-operated washers and dryers were full but no one was down there. I jammed the cellar door shut, then I turned on the faucet in the laundry sink and held my head under the cold water for almost a minute. The water that sluiced over my scalp ran red for almost half that time. The cold knocked the pain level down a few notches though, and I could feel my brain reluctantly starting to clear.

My phone rang. Church was early. Sputtering and pawing water out of my eyes, I pulled my phone and punched the button.

“Yeah, boss?”

“Hello,” she said. “How many brownie points do I have now?”

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Golden Oasis Hotel

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 10:04 a.m.

“Ah… shit,” I said into the phone.

Violin laughed.

“That was you?” I asked.

Instead of answering she asked, “How badly are you hurt?”

“Why do you care?”

“ How badly are you hurt? ”

I sighed. “Somewhere between trampled by a soccer mob and found dead in a ditch, but… I’ll live. What’s it to you, anyway?”

Violin took a beat before answering, and even then she didn’t answer the question. “You’re lucky.”

I clicked the button to initiate the trace. Not that I thought it was worth the effort, but what the hell. “Lucky? In what way?”

“The knight should have killed you.”

“‘Knight’? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Another pause. “I don’t know if I should be telling you this.”

“Will it keep me alive?”

“Maybe.”

“Then tell me, for Christ’s sake. That son of a bitch nearly tore my head off. You should have seen him. You should have seen his frigging teeth.”

“I have-”

“He had fangs for- Wait, what?”

“I have seen his teeth,” said Violin. “Not that same knight, of course, but I’ve seen their teeth.”

“When? How?”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you should not have seen him at all.”

“Meaning that I shouldn’t have and still be alive? Like that?”

“Like that, yes.”

I was quiet for a moment, thinking it through. “What are they?”

She took her time before answering. “I don’t know for sure, Joseph.”

“I think you’re lying to me. And what’s with the ‘Joseph’? Why so formal?”

“I like ‘Joseph’ better than ‘Joe.’ ‘Joseph’ is more dignified, more serious than a ‘Joe.’”

“I have to warn you,” I said, “I’m more of a ‘Joe’ personality type.”

“We’ll see.”

“Wait, rewind a second. You called that guy a knight. Knight of what? Round Table? Columbus?”

“No,” she said. “I can’t tell you that without approval.”

“Whose approval?”

She didn’t answer.

“You’re wasting my time, girl,” I said. “I’m going to hang up now and get my ass out of here.”

“You can’t,” she warned. “The knight was dropped off by a car and it keeps circling the block.”

“You’re still watching my hotel?” I asked, not sure if that was a comfort or another layer of worry to stack on top of everything else.

“Yes, and if you go outside they’ll see you. The best thing you can do right now is wait.”

“I don’t want to be here when the cops arrive.”

“I’m monitoring the police channels. No one has reported a thing.”

Which is what I expected, but didn’t say so. “What if they send in another of these knights? Or a whole team of them?”

“I don’t think they will. Its broad daylight and they won’t risk a full-out raid, and they won’t risk a room-by-room search. Especially since they can’t know what happened to the knight who attacked you. They’ll circle for a while and then they’ll break off and fall back to wait for fresh intelligence.”

“You seem to know a lot about them.”

“We know enough.”

“We?” I asked again. “Who’s team are you on? Mossad, MI6?”

“No.”

“AISE?” I asked. With her accent she could easily be with the Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna, Italy’s version of the CIA.

“No, and stop trying to guess,” she said. “You won’t.”

Impasse.

“What can you tell me?” I asked, fighting to keep the exasperation out of my voice. “If you’re on my side, Violin, then help me out. What am I facing here? That bastard had incredible strength and fangs. Tell me something that makes sense of that.”

“The knights are extremely dangerous. That’s all I’m prepared to say right now. Just be glad you’re alive.”

“I’m always glad I’m alive. I leap out of bed singing Disney songs. But look, I know a little bit about genetics and I can’t see how gene therapy accounts for his strength. He threw me all over the place and he simply did not have the mass for it. That guy was spooky strong.”

Again she evaded the question. “Be glad he didn’t bite you.”

“I’m also always glad when people don’t bite me.” I checked the trace. It was still running but it was clearly getting nowhere. According to the meter the call was coming from Antarctica, which I somehow doubted. “If I tell you what the knight said to me, will you tell me what he meant?”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“Let’s try. The knight asked me to give him what Rasouli gave me.”

“What did Rasouli give you?”

“Indigestion and a feeling like my right hand will never be clean again.”

“You won’t tell me?”

“Maybe later. My question is, why was the knight looking for that. Or, better yet, who sent the knight?”

“I’m not sure, because it doesn’t make much sense for the knight to be working against Rasouli.”

“Do they work for him?”

“No. They work for his allies. That’s why it doesn’t make sense.”

But as she said that her words slowed as if she was suddenly thinking that it did make sense. When I tried to get her to explain, she stonewalled me again. So I came at her from a different angle. “I think he told me your name. Maybe it’s a last name or a call sign, or maybe it’s your organization.”

“He didn’t know my real name.”

“Well, I’m just telling you what the knight told me.”

“What name did he say?” she asked cautiously.

I said, “Arklight.”

She gasped, very high and sharp, and then she took a long time before she spoke. “That’s not my name.”

“Then who-?”

She hung up.

“Damn it.”

It was so frustrating because I wanted more information. I wanted to know about that freak that shook my cookie bag back at the hotel. What the hell was he? How could anyone be that strong? Nothing I know could explain what just happened.

That really and truly scared me. It kept the adrenaline pumping through my system, and my hands still shook.

Ghost whined and rubbed against my leg. His eyes were glassy.

I stripped off my bloody shirt, opened a dryer that had about half-finished its cycle, and stole a white long-sleeved shirt that was damp and a bit too small. The buttons gapped but I could get it closed. My jeans were bloodstained, but there’s just enough of an artsy-cum-punk crowd in the capital to suggest that the red splotches were some kind of statement. Yeah, that statement was “Holy shit, I’m still alive.”

My hair was still dyed black from the police station raid, and I finger-combed it straight back and pulled on a painter’s cap I found that looked like it was a thousand years old. I rolled up my bloody shirt and wrapped it in a bath towel that I also stole from the dryer.

My phone rang again. Her.

“They’re gone,” she said. “It’s safe.”

And she hung up again.

I looked at Ghost. “Women, y’know?”

He whuffed.

Then I opened the back door, saw that the street was clear, and we went out.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

On the Streets

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 10:34 a.m.

I cut through the streets in a random pattern. I used glass storefront windows to check behind me and across the street. I went into stores and out the back, I cut through alleys. If there was a tail I did not see it.

My cell rang and when I saw who it was I ducked into an alley to answer the call. Bug doesn’t speak Persian.

“About frigging time,” I growled into the phone.

“Hello to you, too, man,” said Bug.

“What the hell have you been doing? Playing Halo?”

“No-though the new version of Halo is pretty badass. They got this one level that-”

“My whole body is a lethal weapon, you know,” I said. “I know more ways to kill you than you know how to die. Are you aware of that?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I promise I’ll faint when I take my coffee break. I wanted to get back to you on those books you had me look up. Are you sure you have the correct titles?”

“It’s word of mouth from an unreliable source.”

“I know, Rasouli. King Dickhead of all the world.”

“That’s the one.”

“The thing is, I can’t see how the Saladin Codex can be connected to the nukes or anything related to nuclear science.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it’s a math book that was written in the twelfth century based on an even older book, and I’m no physicist, but I’m pretty sure the whole nuke thing came later than that.”

“Shit.”

“And,” added Bug, “it’s not even a good math book.”

“Meaning?”

“It’s a rewrite of a classic book called Al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-gabr wa’l-muqabala.”

Bug murdered the pronunciation, but I could make out what he meant. “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing,” I translated.

“Right. It was written by some dude named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was a noted mathematician of his time. Apparently ‘ al-gabr ’ is the original word for algebra, which is what the book is about. One of the earliest books on the subject, or maybe the earliest book on the subject.”

“Algebra,” I mused. “Physics is all about math, isn’t it? Physics and nuclear technology are kissing cousins…”

“Well-sure, but this is pretty basic stuff. Nothing that gives us direct insight into nuclear science. I mean, c’mon, I learned this stuff in tenth grade.”

“Okay, what about the Saladin Codex?”

“That was written in 1191 by someone named Ibrahim al-Asiri. He was a diplomat who worked for Saladin.”

“Rasouli mentioned Saladin,” I said, and explained what he’d said.

“Huh,” grunted Bug, unimpressed. “Anyway, al-Asiri was also a mathematician, but apparently not a great one. His book attempted to refute some of the theories from the earlier work. No one was buying it, though, because algebra isn’t a theory. Math is math.”

“Tell that to my tax attorney,” I muttered. “How’s this help us?”

“That’s what I’m saying, Joe, I don’t see how it does. Al-Asiri’s book was largely discredited. At most it’s a footnote in the history of math.”

“If it was dismissed, then why is it even a footnote?”

“Discredited,” Bug corrected, “not dismissed. And it was only that particular book that was discredited, not the author. Al-Asiri was a very important man from a very, very important family. He was second cousin to Saladin and was involved in many of Saladin’s most historically significant treaties during the Crusades.”

“Saladin’s name keeps coming up in this. Rasouli made a point of mentioning it, so maybe there’s a clue there,” I mused. “What about the word ‘Saracen,’ I know that relates, but how exactly?”

Bug tapped some keys. “Easy one. During the time of the Crusades the Europeans called all Muslims Saracens. Later that changed to Mohammadan and then Muslim. Purely a European word choice.”

“Okay. What about the other one? The Book of Shadows?”

“Yeah,” said Bug slowly, “that’s where we go out of the blue and into the black. And by black I mean magic. Or, maybe it’s white magic. What do I know from magic?”

“Magic?”

“Uh-huh. the Book of Shadows is the book of spells for witchcraft.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Serious as a heart attack, Joe. What the hell are you into over there? I mean… is the DMS suddenly at war with the forces of darkness?”

I thought about the freak with the fangs.

“Right now, Bug, I’d believe just about anything. Look-keep digging and get back to me with anything you find.”

I hung up and lingered in the alley for a moment wondering if Bug’s information moved me forward toward understanding or pulled a bag over my head.

“Witches. What do you think?” I asked Ghost.

He lifted his leg and peed on the wall.

“That’s what I figured,” I said.

We kept moving.

Chapter Forty

The Warehouse

Baltimore, Maryland

June 15, 1:48 a.m. EST

“Hey! I got something,” cried Bug as his image popped onto a view screen. His face glowed with excitement.

After signing off with Aunt Sallie, Circe had buried herself in the material from the flash drive, and Rudy had followed her in, picking up the thread of her logic and working with her on the psychological aspects of the case. They looked up from the semicircle of data screens.

“We’re in the middle of something, Bug-” Circe, began, but Bug overrode her.

“I’ve been tearing apart the documents on the flash drive,” he said. “At first there didn’t seem to be anything more than what we already had, but on a whim I matched the volume of data we’ve downloaded against the drive’s storage potential and there was a discrepancy.”

Rudy frowned. “Because some of the files were supposedly destroyed by moisture after Rasouli’s agent swallowed the drive, correct?”

Bug gave him a pitying stare. “Silly mortal. ’Destroyed’ is a relative term. Or, maybe it’s a term people who are a lot less super-genius smart than me use.”

“Bug,” warned Circe quietly.

“Yeah, yeah, okay. There’s more stuff on the drive than was openly indexed, and I’m not talking about real or faked damaged files. I’m talking about stuff that was coded to react like damaged files.”

“You lost me,” admitted Rudy.

“A file name is nothing but a piece of computer language. Zeros and ones, but arranged to create a readable name. When you give a file a name the computer writes that name in computer language, but here someone deliberately coded a few files so that their names appear as ‘read error’ warnings. That way they get hidden among the errors from the damage.”

“Devious,” Rudy agreed. “How many hidden files are there and what is in them?”

“There are ten files in two separate subfolders. One was marked BOS/SC, and I don’t think I have to go too far out on a limb to presume what that stands for.”

“You lost me again,” said Rudy.

“It was part of the verbal intel Ledger got from Rasouli,” explained Bug. “Rasouli made oblique references to two books, the Book of Shadows and the Saladin Codex. BOS/SC. Anyway, when I cracked the files I expected to find complete texts or abstracts, but instead I got nine scanned images saved as pdfs. Very low-res and muddy. The other file is weird. All I could find was a Word doc with two words written in English. ‘Fuzzy math.’ That’s it. I’m running some additional cleanup and deep extraction programs to see if there are other hidden layers, but so far, bubkes.”

“Fuzzy math?” asked Rudy.

Circe grunted. “The Codex is supposed to be questionable commentary on an exact science, right? That says ‘fuzzy math’ to me. Could be some code hidden there. You get anything from the Codex, Bug?”

“Not so far. We don’t actually have a copy of the Codex, so I can’t check to see if there’s anything buried in the text.”

“Damn. Who has one?”

Bug made a face. “There is exactly one copy and it’s in the National Museum in Tehran.”

“Crap,” said Circe. “Any full or partial scans online?”

“Not that I’ve found, but searching all foreign-language databases will take a little longer.”

“What about the other one?” asked Rudy. “The Book of Shadows. Surely I’ve heard of that somewhere…”

Circe nodded. “It’s the book of spells used in Wicca.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” complained Rudy, flapping a hand. “Really? We’ve done zombies, clones, and mutants, now the DMS is squaring off against black magic?”

“Don’t laugh,” said Circe with surprising heat. “And stop being so Catholic for a minute. Wicca isn’t devil worship or black magic. That was all medieval propaganda created to suppress the rise of education among women. And even the concept of ‘black’ magic is completely unconnected to the modern Wicca, which is earthcentric and practiced according to positive energy and harmony with nature.”

Rudy held up his hands, palms out. “Mea culpa.”

Circe gave him a harrumph. “The modern practice is built mostly on a set of traditions created by Gerald Gardner, who first introduced the Book of Shadows to the initiates of his landmark Bricket Wood coven in the 1950s. It eventually became the central text for most of the other branches of the faith, including Alexandrianism and Mohsianism. But… I do have to admit that I don’t see how it could possibly relate at all to nuclear bombs.”

“I don’t think it does,” said Bug, “and the Gardner book probably isn’t the Book of Shadows involved in this case. Rasouli didn’t say anything to Joe about witches. Here, let me put the pdfs up and you tell me if this is Wiccan stuff or not.” He loaded an Adobe program and then opened the nine pdf files, throwing them onto nine smaller screens. Each file was a low-resolution scan of a single page from what looked like an ancient manuscript. Rudy bent forward and frowned at it. There were green and brown paintings of exotic plants that he did not recognize and line after line of writing in a language Rudy could not identify. Two of the pages were only text, and one was a complex diagram of the sun, with a face in the center and writing running in circles around the drawing.

“What language is that?” Rudy asked.

“I don’t know,” said Bug. “I just found these, and I wanted to show you before I started the recognition software. And the images are very low-res, so some of it might be hard to-”

Circe gasped. “My God!”

Rudy and Bug stared at her.

“I know what that is,” she said.

Chapter Forty-One

Barrier Safe House

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 10:39 a.m.

The good news was that between the CIA, the DMS, and a few other alphabet agencies, we had safe houses and equipment drops all over Tehran. One agency spook I knew told me that he could hardly walk down the street without seeing someone from the “family.”

“Invisible network my ass,” he added.

So, I went to the closest haven. When Echo Team had first arrived in Tehran we spent half a day at a safe house run by Barrier. It was staffed by two agents, a father and son. The father, Fariel, looked old enough to have been a school chum of Xerxes. His son, Cyrus, was a schoolteacher and probably the most boring person I’ve ever met. The kind of guy who speaks in a nasal monotone and can only talk about what he saw on TV.

Right now, though? I could use normal and boring. That house also had plenty of weapons and equipment. Rearming would go a long way toward chasing off the shakes. If I’d had a good fighting knife this morning then the encounter in my hotel room would have been a whole lot shorter and more satisfying.

At least I think it would have.

The Barrier safe house was a one-stop, two-room little pillbox near a bus stop. Lots of people coming and going all the time, lots of strangers. Good place to hide, right there in the open.

I knocked. There was no special trick. I didn’t have to knock three times then two then wait and knock four times. That was the movies. I knocked, and they answered.

Except that’s not exactly what happened.

As the locked clicked open and the door swung inward, Ghost stiffened and gave a sharp woof. Even dazed as he was he knew that something was wrong.

I pushed inside, driving whoever was behind the door in and back. I kicked the door shut as the man fell. I pulled the pistol and dropped into a combat crouch.

The man who lay on the floor staring up at me was Cyrus, the son of the man who ran the safe house. He looked up at me with eyes that were wild with fear and pain.

He was covered with blood, head to toe.

Ghost growled, but he was still trembling and looked ready to collapse.

I squatted near him and whispered in Persian. “How many are there?”

He tried to speak but only blood bubbled from between his lips. Cyrus gestured wildly toward the doorway at the end of the short foyer.

I was already in motion, running with quick, small steps, the pistol held in front of me, mouth set and hard. At the end of the foyer I crouched and did a fast look around the corner.

The living room was a study in crimson.

I eased around the corner.

Nothing moved.

But it was not empty. A man-Fariel Omidi-hung on the wall. Big carpenter nails had been driven savagely through his wrists and hands and feet. He had been crucified.

His head hung low, and from the damage I saw there was no way he could still be alive. No way in hell.

Ghost whined from the foyer but I waved him to stillness.

I could see through the living room into the eat-in kitchen. The back door was open to the sunlight. The door to the bathroom stood ajar and I crabbed sideways and wheeled around to cover the interior space. Toilet, sink, and tub. All bloody, all empty.

Every cabinet and storage trunk had been torn open. All of the weapons and equipment were gone. Even the trapdoor beside the fridge had been ripped from its hinges. The boxes of grenades, shape charges, detonators, and other explosives were gone.

At the back door I peered into the alley. There were two bloody footprints and then tire tracks in the dirt.

This was all past tense. I lowered my gun and pulled the door shut, engaged the locks and propped a chair under the handle. Then I grabbed a bunch of dish towels and raced back to the entrance foyer.

Cyrus was still alive, but only just. I gingerly peeled back the shreds of his clothes to see how bad he was hurt, and I was sorry I did it. Everything had been done to him. Cuts and punctures. The bruised and ravaged marks of tools, probably pliers. Big burned patches. Maybe a portable propane burner. That and more.

I was amazed he was still alive.

I sponged blood from his nose and mouth and rolled some of the towels to place under his head. God only knows how Cyrus had managed to stay on his feet long enough to answer the door. Hope, maybe? If so, it was one more crushing disappointment on the worst day of his life. Cyrus was shivering with shock. I rushed back to the living room for a throw rug and draped it over him. The rug was bloody, too, but that didn’t seem important.

“Hey, buddy,” I said gently. “Can you understand me?”

His mouth worked for a moment and he made only mewling sounds, but he nodded ever so slightly.

“Who did this to you?”

He shook his head.

“How many were there? How big a team?”

Cyrus managed to raise his hand a few inches. He held up a single finger.

“One?” I asked. “You’re saying that one man did this.”

He shook his head but held up the single finger again. I tried to get him to explain. It wasn’t one team, it seemed. It was one, but he objected to my choice of “man” or even “woman.”

Cyrus tried hard to speak, but each time it came out as a meaningless wet mumble. And then with crushing and horrible realization I understood why.

They had cut out his tongue.

I closed my eyes for a moment and tried hard not to scream. Ghost whined from the living room doorway.

When I opened my eyes I saw Cyrus looking at me. He was slipping past the point where pain mattered to him, and he knew it. We both knew it.

“Listen to me, Cyrus,” I said, dabbing cold sweat from his forehead, “I want to be straight with you, okay?”

He began to cry, knowing what I was going to say; but he nodded.

“You’re hurt bad. Very bad. I–I can call for an ambulance, but…” I let it trail off. I was feeling too cowardly to put it into words. Cyrus reached out with his swollen, bloody hand and did something that broke my heart. He patted my thigh. He was taking me off the hook from having to tell him that he was dying.

I took his hand and held it.

“I’ll find whoever did this,” I promised him. “So help me God, I will find them.”

He smiled with his ruined mouth. A small thing.

Cyrus touched one finger to his bloody chest and then slowly drew something on the floor. He used the pad of his finger to make a crimson dot, and then overlaid it with the symbol of the cross.

He looked from it to me and tried once more to speak the name of his killer. No-not a name. A word, a description. Two toneless syllables formed by a mouth that could not even speak that word.

Monster.

It was a horrible word, but it was no surprise to me. All this damage, all of the signs of physical power and rage-doors torn from their hinges, these men brutalized. I wonder if Cyrus and his father had stared into glaring red eyes as they were torn apart. A knight had done this, and if there was a better example of a monster hunting the streets of this country, I couldn’t imagine it.

Cyrus sighed and his hand dropped away. I sat with him while all that had made up this little man evaporated into the red darkness. I hadn’t liked him when I’d met him yesterday. A boring little guy who hadn’t much liked me either. But now that was different. He would live in my heart and head forever. Cyrus Omidi. A victim of the very old war that defines the Middle East? Or a victim of something new?

I spoke his name aloud seven times. Don’t ask me why. It felt like something I had to do.

I got to my feet and walked into the living room.

Fariel Omidi was past helping. There was nothing I could do for him. But I said his name seven times, too.

While I stood there, my phone rang.

“Captain,” Church said, “sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. Give me a sit rep.”

Chapter Forty-Two

Barrier Safe House

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 10:46 a.m.

I turned away from the dead man and stared at the floor. Ghost came and lay at my feet.

“I don’t know where to begin,” I said into the phone.

“Tell me,” said Church.

So, I told him. About Violin. About the Red Knight in my hotel room. About the dead men whose pain seemed to scream through the air around me. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but Church cut right through my words.

“Are you injured?” he demanded. “Do you need immediate medical attention?”

I paused. “No. No, I’m good.”

“Are you in shock?”

“I-” I began and then stopped, realizing why he was asking that. My mind replayed the last few things I’d said and there was a rising hysterical note to my voice. The room was too bright, the colors too vivid. And the smell…

I took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I’m good,” I assured him. “Been a bad day.”

“For all of us, Captain.”

We gave that a moment.

“You are going to need to get out of that location,” he said.

“I know.”

“Don’t go to another Barrier safe house. The Company has one close to you.”

“Soon as we’re done I’m out of here,” I assured him.

“The woman,” Church said, shifting back to my report. “Violin. Give me a read on her.”

“Hard to say exactly. She’s a voice on the phone and she’s probably lying to me.”

“Then give me guesswork and suppositions.”

I thought about it. “She sounds young. Late twenties. Her base accent is Italian, though she could be any nationality or race with an accent picked up by familiarity. She’s a trained sniper. She’s for hire. The people who hired her are connected to Vox, which is how Rasouli hired her. No idea whose side she’s on, though she doesn’t seem to like Rasouli. And she’s tied up with someone or something called Arklight.”

“Arklight,” he said, repeating the name slowly, seeming to appreciate it. “Interesting.”

“You’ve heard of it?”

“Yes. Did she confirm that she was part of Arklight?”

“No, when I asked her about it she hung up on me. Why? What’s Arklight?”

He didn’t answer.

“Yo! How about a little help for the guy standing in a room full of dead people?”

“Captain,” said Church, “to tell you anything useful about Arklight would mean betraying a confidence.”

“I don’t care.”

“It could also put you in danger.” He paused. “And, yes, I know how absurd that sounds, given the circumstances.”

“You think?”

“I need to make a call about this. In the short term, I have had dealings with Arklight in the past. Most of the time those dealings were harmonious. Working together against a shared threat, that sort of thing. But they are not allies. There are no standing nonaggression agreements between us.”

“Can you try to vague that up a bit more? I almost understood it.”

He changed the subject. “The man who attacked you at the hotel, you said that he was winning the fight? Assess that. Are we talking about superior combat skill or something else?”

“We were pretty well matched for skill and technique. It’d be hard to put a label on his fighting style, but he wasn’t trying anything on me that he hadn’t done a lot of times before. Everything was very smooth, very efficient.”

Church grunted his understanding. At a certain level, when you’re fighting to kill rather than trying to win a belt or a tournament, all style is stripped away in favor of a selection of techniques that are the most practical and effective at the moment. Experts who engage in these kinds of fights usually rely on a small percentage of the skills they’ve learned; skills that they know they can use, and which they can use without thinking about it. At that level a kick is a kick is a kick; a punch is a punch.

“What about enhancements?” Church asked.

“I don’t know. Nothing obvious, no exoskeletons or combat suit with joint servos. Nothing like that. He was faster and stronger, but the weird thing is that he didn’t have the bulk for it. This was way beyond the limits of ‘wiry strength.’”

“In the absence of the sniper, would he have won the fight?”

“Coin toss,” I admitted. “We were hurting each other, so I guess it would have come down to who wanted it more. I tend to want it quite a lot.”

“Fair enough.”

“On the other hand, let’s not rule out enhancement. Something chemical, maybe.”

“I wonder what Dr. Hu would find in a blood test. I don’t suppose you collected any-?”

“I didn’t take a cheek swab or get him to pee in a cup for me, but I have plenty of his blood on my clothes.”

“I’ll arrange a pickup.” He paused. “The attacker… gauge his strength. Use Bunny as a yardstick.”

“Twice as strong. Easily,” I said. “I know that sounds ridiculous, but that knight was a bull and-”

“Wait,” Church cut in sharply. “You just called the attacker a ‘knight.’ What did you mean by that? You didn’t mention that earlier.”

“Oh,” I said, and realized that he was right. When I’d blown through the story the first time I had called the attacker “the goon.” So I backed up and explained what Violin had told me.

There was a long silence on the phone.

“Describe the symbol Cyrus Omidi drew on the floor.”

“I can show it to you. The knight had it tattooed on his arm. I took a picture.” I fiddled with the phone and sent the e-mail.

I heard Church hitting keys to open the e-mail.

When he spoke again his voice was tight and urgent. “Captain, listen to me very carefully. Get out of that house right now.”

“Why-what’s wrong?”

“Violin was correct. That was a Red Knight you faced in your hotel and another one who killed the Omidis. That means Arklight is involved. Get out of that house immediately and call me from the CIA safe house.”

“Why-”

“ Go! ”

Chapter Forty-Three

The Hangar

Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

June 15, 2:25 a.m. EST

Mr. Church set the phone down and stared at it. His hands were balled into fists on top of his desk blotter.

Then he snatched the phone up again and punched a speed dial.

“Yo,” said Aunt Sallie after two rings.

“Auntie, the situation in Iran has just gotten significantly worse.”

“We’re hunting nukes, Deke, how much fucking worse can it-?”

“Captain Ledger is being hunted by Red Knights.”

There was a stunned silence on the phone, and then Aunt Sallie whispered, “Oh my God!”

Chapter Forty-Four

The Warehouse

Baltimore, Maryland

June 15, 2:26 a.m. EST

“Wait,” said Bug, “what?”

“Those pages,” said Circe. “I recognize them. They’re from an ancient codex called the Voynich manuscript. I’m sure of it.”

“I don’t think so,” said Bug dubiously. “Rasouli seemed to think this was the Book of Shadows.”

Circe shook her head. “You’re wrong, Bug. That’s the Voynich manuscript.”

“What is the Voynich manuscript?” asked Rudy. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s an old ciphertext,” Circe said as she accessed a browser and went to one of the university research sites she subscribed to. In a few seconds a screen came up with THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT MYSTERY in bold letters. She went through the directory and pulled up several scans of individual pages. The pages were crammed with writing in a language none of them knew.

Bug whistled.

“Well I’ll be damned,” murmured Rudy.

Circe pulled up more pages, and some of these had pictures. Plants, naked women, celestial diagrams. The drawings were primitive, but they were orderly-even if the sense of order was elusive. Then she found one that matched a page from Rasouli’s files.

“See? I was right,” Circe said triumphantly. In a few minutes she matched seven of the nine pages, but then she frowned as she ran through every single page of the manuscript. “Wait… did I miss them?”

“No,” said Bug. “The last two pages from Rasouli’s file aren’t in the Voynich thingee.”

“Slow down,” begged Rudy. “What is this?”

Circe took a breath. “The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious book that dates back to the fifteenth century. Radio carbon dating put it somewhere between 1404 to 1438 C.E., and from the materials used it’s believed that it was created in northern Italy, which was a very important and wealthy part of Europe at the time.”

“Who wrote this book?” asked Rudy.

“That’s just it,” said Circe, “no one knows who wrote it or why. It’s named after Wilfrid Voynich, a rare-book dealer from New York who discovered the book in 1912 during a buying trip to Villa Mondragone, near Rome. It was in a trunkful of rare texts. Voynich spent the rest of his life trying to decipher the language, but he never did. In fact no one ever has.”

“Maybe it’s a fake language,” suggested Rudy.

“Doubtful,” said Bug, peering at it. “It’s too orderly.”

“Can we suppose for a moment that the two remaining pages from Rasouli’s file are from the other book, the Book of Shadows? ” suggested Rudy. “If so, they’re clearly written in the same language. Maybe it’s a secret language, reserved for use by members of a society.”

“Sure,” Circe agreed. “That’s the consensus of scholars of the book, but it is an incredibly complex language. In all there are one hundred and seventy thousand distinct glyphs, or written elements. About thirty of these glyphs are used repeatedly throughout the manuscript.”

“An alphabet?” said Bug.

“Probably, but no one has cracked it.”

“Where is the book now?” asked Rudy. “And can we get it?”

“It’s at Yale, in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, but there’s no reason to get it. There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to the manuscript. Every page of it, including the covers, is available online.”

Bug reached up to tap one of the pages on the screen. “Wait, isn’t that a signature? I can almost read it. Jacob something something.”

“Jacobus de Tepenecz,” said Circe. “He wasn’t the author, though. More likely he owned it for a while. De Tepenecz was a seventeenth-century physician and an expert in medical plants. In 1608 he was summoned to Prague to treat Emperor Rudolf II who was suffering from severe depression and melancholia. Because of his success with the emperor, de Tepenecz was appointed Imperial Chief Distiller. Scholars believe that he was given the Voynich manuscript as either payment or as a gift by Rudolf, who was a collector of occult books and manuscripts of arcane sciences. The ownership of the book has a lot of gaps in it. We do know that when Voynich purchased it he found a letter tucked between its pages that had been written in 1665 by Dr. Johannes Marcus Marci of Bohemia, and in that letter Dr. Marci claimed that the book was written by Roger Bacon.”

“Who was-?” prompted Rudy.

“He was a Franciscan friar, philosopher, and alchemist in the thirteenth century. His nickname was ‘Doctor Mirabilis’-‘wonderful teacher.’ But… Bacon was likely born around 122 °C.E. He died in 1294, more than a century before the book was written.”

“Unless he really could do miracles,” said Bug, but they ignored him.

“What’s in the manuscript?” asked Rudy. “I see plants and diagrams…”

“That’s just it,” answered Circe, “on the surface the book appears to be a codex of herbology. But here’s the kicker, while some of the plants in the book are recognizable, there are some plants that are either so badly drawn that they’re unrecognizable, or they are plants that are currently unknown to science. Aside from the herbal drawings, there are others, including a number of cosmological diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. There are the twelve zodiacal symbols, and each of these has thirty female figures arranged in two or more concentric bands. Most of the females are at least partly naked, and each holds what appears to be a labeled star or is shown with the star attached by what could be a tether or cord of some kind to either arm.” She took a breath. “And there are sections that show small naked women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them clearly shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns. Some pages look like complex formulae, but for what is anyone’s guess. In short, we don’t know what the book is about or why it was written.”

Rudy said, “You called it a ciphertext rather than a codetext. What’s the difference? I thought a cipher was another name for code.”

Circe shook her head. “A cipher is the result of encryption performed on plaintext using an algorithm. It’s mathematical. A code is simply a method used to transform a message into an obscured form. Like letter transposition or word-swapping. You decipher a code with a codebook that has the letters, words, or phrases that match the coded message. A cipher is much more complex, and it’s often the word people should be using when describing something that has been encrypted.”

“I knew that,” Bug said quietly.

“I didn’t,” said Rudy, “and I have no idea what you just said. What I want to know is what the Voynich manuscript is and how it relates to seven nuclear bombs.”

Circe blew out her cheeks. “Scholars have spent the last century trying to decipher the manuscript. How that relates, or how it helps… is anyone’s guess.”

Rudy stood and bent closer to the screens showing the two mystery pages. He looked back and forth between them, and then studied the Voynich pages. He grunted.

“What?” asked Circe.

“Well… I’m no handwriting expert,” he said slowly, “but I don’t think these other pages were written by the same person.”

Chapter Forty-Five

On the Run

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 10:59 a.m.

Mr. Church said run, so I ran.

When Church is so rattled by something that he freaks at me on the phone, then my own scare-o-meter starts burying the needle. I ran like a son of a bitch and put a lot of gone between me and the death house.

Three blocks away I cut down an alley behind an abandoned house. Once I was sure that the place was completely deserted, I broke in. Ghost was too weak to do much running, so I left him in the kitchen and quickly cleared the whole house. Six empty rooms, lots of junk, some bugs, a dead rat, and nothing else.

There was no water, so we couldn’t stay long, but I needed more information from Church. He answered my call right away.

“Are you somewhere safe?”

I explained my location.

“Very well. I’m retasking a satellite to try and track you. Echo Team is six hours out, and I’ve alerted Barrier as to the hit on their house.”

“Good,” I said, “so now tell me why I ran away like a six-year-old from a party clown. Who the hell are these Red Knights?”

“They are trained killers. Very, very tough.”

“Yeah, well so am I.”

“Captain Ledger,” he said quietly, “take your ego out of gear for a moment and look at this objectively, I-”

“I am looking at it objectively,” I cut in, “but your lack of confidence is starting to piss me off.”

“Get over it,” he said quietly and waited for another smart-mouth comment from me. I said nothing. After a moment, he continued. “The Red Knights are members of a brotherhood of assassins that emerged during the later Crusades. Over the centuries they have been tied to acts of murder, sabotage, and destruction that by today’s standards would be classified as terrorism. Very little is known about them, and much of what is recorded is questionable. History distorts reliable intel; and, much like the ninja of Japan, the knights themselves contributed to, edited, and distorted their own mythology.”

“Gosh, where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah… your friend Hugo Vox. Are we saying that this is all his scheme?”

“Unknown.”

“Who runs these knights?”

“Also unknown, though there are unsubstantiated rumors of a group called the Red Order, but so far we haven’t been able to put together a file on them. It’s even possible Red Order and Red Knights are interchangeable terms; that’s to be determined.”

“Okay,” I said dubiously, “so why haven’t I heard of these Red Knights? If they’re political it sounds like something we should be handling. What do we know about them?”

“About their organization? Next to nothing. About operatives like the one you encountered? We know bits and pieces, and none of it is good. Do not underestimate them and don’t waste time with a database search on them. The DMS has not crossed paths with them before this.” He paused. “ I have.”

“Crossed paths or crossed swords?” I asked.

He didn’t answer that.

“Did anyone tell you to run away?”

“Captain-”

“Tell me why I just ran away, Church. Sure, the knight at the hotel blindsided me and I had some trouble. I was unarmed then. Different story now; and now I’m going to be expecting the next one to be stronger and faster than the average psycho asshole with fangs. And, speaking of which, what’s with those goddamn fangs? Do they hire freaks? Are they implants of some kind, or is this some gene therapy bullshit?”

“We don’t have time for a full briefing right now,” Church said. “Continue on to the CIA safe house and when you are safe and settled we’ll have a longer conversation. In the short term, I want you to be sensible of the degree of threat these knights represent. If you encounter another one, or even suspect that you are facing one of them, do not hesitate and do not give them a single chance. Escape if you can, and if that is not an option, do not allow yourself to be drawn into another hand-to-hand confrontation.”

“Because-?”

“Because it is unlikely you would survive it.”

“Kiss my ass. I was starting to win that fight.”

“From what you told me, Captain, the knight wanted information from you,” replied Church. “That opened a window of opportunity for you. If you are unfortunate enough to encounter another Red Knight, he’s likely to be less chatty. My recommendation stands: don’t engage them. The odds are not in your favor.”

“Gee, Coach, thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Mr. Church snorted. “You got lucky at the hotel, Captain. Don’t bank on your new girlfriend being on hand to save you next time.”

I will rip your throat out and drink your life.

“Jesus,” I said, “what are you trying to do here? Scare the hell out of me?”

“If that’s what it takes to drive the point home,” said Church. “You haven’t faced anything like this before. If you encounter another Red Knight, I want you to avoid contact and flee, or failing that, to terminate him immediately and with extreme prejudice.”

I bit down on a few of the things I would have liked to say to him.

“Sure,” I said.

“I’m serious, Captain.”

“Don’t worry, if I see another scary bad man I’ll run away screaming like a nine-year-old girl.”

He sighed. “See that you do. Call me from the safe house.”

The line went dead.

I looked at the phone. “Kiss my ass,” I said again.

But his words had made cold sweat break out all over my body.

Interlude One

Near the City of Acre

May 17, 1191 C.E.

A cold wind blew out of the desert, stirring the thousands of banners and flags that rose like a forest of silk above the camp. Hundreds of cooking fires set the night ablaze and the air was filled with laughter and songs and conversation. The fragile quiet of the night-time desert recoiled back from this rude intrusion, and overhead the stars seemed to turn shyly away from the firelight below.

Sir Guy LaRoque sat astride his horse and watched as his king, Philip II, walked toward the command tent with a phalanx of advisors around him. The whole camp was on fire with excitement. The kings of Europe were coming to the Crusade. Philip was there first, as was only right, bringing eight thousand men in one hundred ships and enough provisions to mount a countersiege against Saladin. By June, Richard the Lionheart of England would be here, and more crusaders would flood into the Holy Land in his wake. After a weary siege and inconclusive battles, the tide was turning.

The energy crackled like lightning in the air, and Sir Guy smiled. This was how it should be. This was what served God. Still smiling, Sir Guy tugged on the reins to turn his horse away from the camp, kicked it into a light canter, and set out into the darkest part of the surrounding desert. The standard-bearer, an old and trusted family servant, spurred his mount and followed. They rode in the general direction of the coast, but once there were hills between them and the camp, Sir Guy turned his horse away from the smell of salt water and headed toward the deep desert. A half an hour’s easy gallop brought them to an outcrop of rock that rose like a cathedral from the shifting sands. Sir Guy stopped on a ridge and ordered his companion to unfurl the white flag.

After a full minute, a small light appeared at the base of the tall rock. A lamp was unshielded for a moment and then covered again. Sir Guy waited until this action was performed again, and again.

“Stay here,” he told his servant. “Stay alert and sober.”

With that, Sir Guy dismounted and walked down the sloping sand toward the rock. When he was ten yards away he called out in perfect Arabic.

“ As-salamu ‘alaykum.”

“ Wa-laikum as-salam,” replied a voice from within the featureless shadows at the foot of the rock. There was movement and the lamp was once more unshielded, revealing in its glow the thin and ascetic face of a bearded Saracen. Sir Guy went forward to meet the other man and they shook hands warmly.

“Come, my friend,” said the Saracen, “I have food and a warm fire inside.”

Together they passed beyond the tapestry and entered a cave which cut nearly to the heart of the towering rock. Inside, the cave was comfortable, furnished with a rug for the floor, pillows, a low brass tray piled high with cooked meats and dried fruits, and a tall pitcher of clean water.

“You look well, Ibrahim,” said Sir Guy as he warmed his hands over the flame.

Ibrahim al-Asiri was a tall thin man with a hawk nose that had been broken and badly set, giving him a villainous look that was at odds with his role as diplomat and counselor to Salah-ed-Din Ayyubi. Like Sir Guy, his counterpart in the politics of the wars here in the Holy Land, Ibrahim was a scholar, but, unlike the Frenchman, the Arab was also a mathematician of some note and the author of complex books on engineering, geometry, and algebra.

While they ate, the two men picked up the thread of a conversation that had occupied them over many previous secret meetings.

“I am taking the matter to a priest,” said Sir Guy. “One of the Hospitallers of my order. An old friend of the family. He is a wise and subtle man, and I think he will see the logic of our plan.”

Ibrahim frowned. “What will happen if he does not agree with us? What will he do?”

“Do?” laughed Sir Guy. “He would denounce me and I would be lucky to escape being publically whipped to death. My lands and fortune would be seized and I would be excommunicated.” The Frenchman waved a hand at the expression of alarm on Ibrahim’s face. “No, no, my friend, that’s what could happen, but I do not think that it will happen. I know this man.”

“So far,” Ibrahim said, “this has all been nothing but an intellectual exercise, a discourse of a philosophical nature. Once you speak to this priest, it becomes something else.”

“I know. With the first words I say to the priest it becomes treason and heresy.”

They thought about that for several moments, each of them staring through the flickering fire at the future.

“We could turn back,” suggested Ibrahim. “Now, I mean. We could finish our meal and you could ride back to your camp and I to mine, and we could never speak of this again.”

“We could,” agreed Sir Guy.

“If we do not, then we are irrevocably set on a course that will wash the world in blood and pain and destruction from now until the ending of time.”

“Yes.”

“We must be sure.”

“I am sure,” said Sir Guy. “If you were not a heathen of a Saracen then we would drink wine together to seal the bargain.”

“And if you were not an infidel deserving of a jackal’s death we would spit on our palms and shake upon it.”

They smiled at each other.

“Let us do this, then,” proposed Sir Guy. He sat forward and took a knife and held the edge of the blade in the heat of the fire. The steel grew hot very quickly. “Since flame and steel and blood are the things with which we will prove our allegiance to God and with which we will preserve His holy name here on earth, then let it be with flame and steel and blood that we seal our agreement.”

“Our Holy Agreement,” corrected Ibrahim.

Their eyes met across the flame.

“Our Holy Agreement,” said Sir Guy.

He removed the smoking blade from the fire and opened his left hand. “The Crusades and the armies of the church are the right hand of God. We will be His left hand.”

He cocked an amused eye at Ibrahim, “And don’t tell me that your left is the hand you wipe your ass with, for I know that. No one will look there for proof of your fealty. And every time I see it I’ll laugh.”

“You are a whore’s son and the grandson of a leper,” replied Ibrahim, but he was laughing aloud as he said it.

Their laughter and smiles ebbed away as the edge of the blade turned from flat gray to a hellish red gold.

“Swear it, my brother,” said Ibrahim, nodding to the blade.

“I swear to defend the church, and to preserve it, and insure that it will endure forever. By my heart, by my hand, by my honor, and by my blood I so swear.” He set his teeth and pressed the flat of the blade into his palm. The glowing blade melted his flesh with a hiss and a curl of smoke. Sir Guy growled out in agony and then turned his cry into a ferocious prayer. “By God I swear!”

Gasping, gray-faced, he pulled the knife away and handed it to Ibrahim, then slumped back against the pillows. Ibrahim held the blade in the flames until the fading glow flared again. Then he, too, swore by his faith and on his God as he burned his promise into his skin. Then he dropped the knife into the heart of the fire where it would eventually melt into nothingness.

The smell of burning meat filled the tent.

The faces of the two diplomats were greasy with sweat.

Ibrahim held out his burned hand to his friend. “The left hand of God,” he said.

Sir Guy grunted and leaned forward, reaching out to clasp hand to hand.

“The left hand of God.”

They shook and it seemed to them that all around them the world itself trembled.

Chapter Forty-Six

The Hangar

Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

June 15, 2:30 a.m. EST

“I say we pull him,” growled Aunt Sallie. She flung herself into the leather guest chair across the desk from Mr. Church. “Pull him now before he screws everything up.”

“Why?” asked Church. He sat back, his elbows on the arms of his chair, fingers steepled, eyes unreadable behind the tinted lenses of his glasses. “Beyond your general dislike of Ledger.”

“He can’t handle the knights and you damn well know it.”

“He survived one encounter.”

“Because some psycho bitch with a sniper rifle bailed him out. Pure luck.”

“Ledger is lucky, Auntie. You have to admit that.”

She snorted. “He may be, but the people around him sure as shit aren’t.”

“That’s not entirely fair.”

“Isn’t it? Grace Courtland? Marty Hanler? Sergeant Faraday? I could keep going.”

“How are any of those his fault?”

“Come on, Deke, we both know his history. Everyone who’s ever been close to him has gotten killed or hurt.”

“Again, that’s not a fair assessment.” Church took a Nilla wafer and pushed the plate across the desk. Aunt Sallie took one and snapped off a piece with her sharp white teeth; then she pointed the other half at Church. “If we’re being fair here… then you tell me how it’s fair to leave him in play? You actually like that ass clown. Do you want to see him torn apart?”

“No.”

“Do you remember what happened in Stuttgart? In Florence? In-”

“I remember, Auntie.”

“No, I think you need to refresh your mind on what happened, Deke. The knights are tougher than they ever were. Someone or something has amped them up. They tore apart an entire Mossad team. Sixteen trained agents. Dead. Drained. Is that what you want to do here? Feed your boy Ledger to those things?”

“Of course not. The Mossad team had no idea what they were up against.”

“Does Ledger?” snapped Aunt Sallie, her eyes blazing.

They regarded each other across Church’s broad desk. Aunt Sallie cocked an eyebrow.

“That sniper chick,” she said.

“Violin? What about her?”

“She’s with Arklight, isn’t she?”

“Possibly.”

“‘Possibly,’ my ass. The number of woman snipers is pretty small, and the number of those who work the Middle East is a lot smaller. You do realize that she fits a certain profile.”

“Yes,” he said, “that has occurred to me.”

“Does that mean you’re going to call the Mothers?”

“Do you think I should?”

“If one of their gals is involved in this thing, I think you damn well better. I mean… who knows the knights better than Lilith and her secret society of psycho bitches?”

Despite everything, Church smiled. “I may actually tell her you said that.”

Aunt Sallie shrugged. “I’ve called her worse things over the years.” She leaned forward, forearms resting on her knees.

Church pressed a button on his phone. “Gus? Pack a go-bag and meet me on the roof. The situation in Iran is going south on us.”

As he sat back, he caught Aunt Sallie’s cocked eyebrow.

“You going over there to hold Ledger’s hand?”

“Hardly. I want to have a face-to-face with Lilith.”

“Wear armor.”

They regarded each other for a moment, sharing without word all of the implications that were unfolding before them.

“Have you told Ledger?” asked Aunt Sallie quietly. “Have you told him what he’s really facing over there?”

Mr. Church’s eyes were flat and dead behind his tinted lenses.

“No,” he said. “He’s scared enough as it is.”

Chapter Forty-Seven

On the Streets

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 11:04 a.m.

The call with Church did not exactly have the effect I was looking for. I wanted support, some fresh intel, and a clear direction. Instead he tried to scare the crap out of me-and maybe succeeded more than I’d ever let him know.

I sat on the floor of the deserted living room and checked Ghost again. He was not severely injured, but he probably needed at least a full day to shake off that Taser. So far I hadn’t given him ten minutes.

When I got to my feet and clicked my tongue for him to follow, he looked at me with huge eyes filled with equal parts hurt and disgust.

“Don’t look at me like that,” I told him. “We’re fugitives. No rest for the weary. Miles to go before we sleep, and all that.”

Nothing.

“Cobbler wouldn’t sissy out on me.” Cobbler was my aging house cat. He and Ghost had failed to bond. Spectacularly.

As Ghost finally hauled himself to all fours he gave me a look that could have chiseled my name on a tombstone.

I smoothed my clothes and ran my fingers through my hair, but I knew I still looked like crap. We slipped out the door and began heading toward the CIA safe house.

Even with a clean face and shirt, I looked like a street person, and I had a limping dog with blood on his fur. Not exactly the definition of nondescript, but as I walked I muttered to myself, reciting snatches of popular Persian songs and occasionally twitching my face and shoulder muscles. Even here, where suspicious characters are often questioned, no one likes to initiate contact with a disheveled man who is speaking to himself while twitching. People tend to pointedly ignore you, which is what I wanted. When anyone came too close I asked them for money, which usually guarantees that they quicken their steps while pleading poverty. A few threw blessings at me, which, hey… I took, all things considering. Twice people gave me money.

It’s a weird world.

Ghost and I kept moving.

Interlude Two

Jaffa, The Holy Land

September 1191 C.E.

Sir Guy LaRoque waited while the little priest read through the document. They stood in a shaded courtyard of the Jerusalem hospital that was the local headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller. No other of the knights were around. Their only company was a sun-drowsy wasp that drifted through the shadows under the fig trees.

Finally the priest smiled as he sharpened his gaze on Sir Guy.

“Have you considered the consequences of what you are asking of me?”

Sir Guy half bowed. “I have. But weighed against what we stand to gain, now and in future years, I-”

The priest held up a hand to halt a repeat of the argument.

“You come here, to a sanctified and sacred hospital dedicated to the treatment of those wounded in God’s own Crusade, and ask me, a priest, to willingly break the seal of the confessional.”

“No, Father, that is not what I ask. To break the seal would be to share with another person that which was said to God through you, the confessor. I do not want to know the secrets of my brother crusaders. I would not ask such a thing. I ask only that you consider what you have heard, and to balance it against what needs to be done to protect our holy church. I ask that these insights guide you in the selection of men-righteous Christian men-who will join with us in this new crusade.”

“You propose a crusade of secrets and lies.”

“They are only lies if you disagree with our viewpoint. We have discussed this many times, Father, and each time you did agree with me. Do you say now that you lied before? Or has fear stolen away your faith in your own opinion?”

The priest turned, not quickly, not in anger, but slowly and with a calculated deliberation that was far more threatening. As he did so, his eyes seemed to change and Sir Guy nearly took a backward step. The color seemed to shift from gray to a swirl of greens and browns. It was certainly a result of the priest’s movement through the sunlight and shadow, but it was momentarily unnerving.

“Softly now,” said the priest, “for there are snares and nettles in the grass around your feet. Do not let ill-chosen words lead you to take a painful misstep.”

Sir Guy placed a hand over his heart and bowed again. A deeper bow this time, held longer, the demonstration of apology and humility. “Have I offended, Father, then I am truly sorry. Before God and your holiness, I beg forgiveness for rude and rash words, poorly chosen and hastily spoken.”

He felt a touch on his head. The priest’s thin fingers caressed the brown curls that twisted out from under the silk cap.

“Peace, my son,” murmured the priest. “Look at me.”

Sir Guy slowly straightened, almost afraid to see that unnatural swirl of colors in the cleric’s eyes, but what he saw was the same golden brown he had known for years.

“Thank you, Father.”

“My son… this undertaking… it is with the consent and cooperation of the infidel and heretic Ibrahim al-Asiri? Cousin and private advisor to Saladin, enemy of God? You have made a preliminary bargain with a representative of the Antichrist on earth?”

“He is a Saracen, to be sure, but-”

“Yes or no, my friend?” asked the priest. “Did you enter into an agreement with Ibrahim al-Asiri?”

“I did. In the name of God and for my love of the Church, I did.”

The priest took his hand and patted it. “I just wanted you to say it aloud. Plain and not couched in the twisted language of diplomacy which, I must admit, often sounds like the mutterings of the devil. Tell me the truth, Sir Guy, for much hangs on it. If I were to say no-if I threatened to do the terrible things that we both know I can do and indeed should do to a man who has brought this to me and asked of me what you have asked-would you be willing to kill me?”

Sir Guy said nothing.

“Speak now or I will call the guards.”

“Yes,” croaked the diplomat, though he knew that he could never do such a thing. He could kill an uncle or brother before he killed a priest.

“Then tell me one more thing. If you escaped; if you fled this hospital and the city, if you took a boat to Spain or some other port, if you changed your name and lived forever in hiding… would you still want this plan of yours to go forward? Does the substance of this agreement matter more to you than titles, land, wealth, or your own name? Does this agreement matter more to you than your own life?”

“Yes,” Sir Guy said again. His throat felt like it was filled with shards of broken pottery.

The priest stepped closer, his face as severe as one of the saints of antiquity. “If I were to call my guards in here and have them strike you down and cut off your head and scatter the worthless pieces of your body to the vultures… would you even then want this agreement to move forward?”

Tears broke from Sir Guy’s eyes and he buckled slowly to his knees. He drew his sword and let it clatter to the flagstones. His dagger clanged as he dropped that across the sword. Sir Guy bowed his head.

“Yes,” he said in a voice that was filled with passion but without hope.

The tears dropped from his face onto the toe of the priest’s shoe. A moment later the priest raised his foot and touched the tearstained toe to the tip of the dagger. It lay almost parallel to the sword, but the priest nudged it slowly until it sat crosswise so that the dagger formed the bar of a cross. Or the hilt of a sword. How often Sir Guy had noticed how similar cross and sword were to one another.

“Look at me.”

Sir Guy raised his eyes and saw that the priest was smiling. It was not a nice smile. It was like looking at a snake smile, and as his seamed faced wrinkled with the smile, the priest’s eyes once more seemed to be as much green as brown. Like the mottled skin of a toad.

“Swear to me, Guy LaRoque, knight of the Sacred Order of Hospitallers. Swear that you will live according to this agreement, now and for all of the days of your life. Swear that you will do everything in your power-everything that your faith and your imagination and your will demands-to insure that the substance of this agreement comes to pass. Swear that to me, now, on your knees, before God.”

Sir Guy bent forward and caught a fold of the priest’s robe and kissed the hem. “I swear,” he said, the words as much a vow as a plea. “I swear before God, to the end of the world and the redemption of my sinner’s soul… I swear.”

“Then rise, Sir Guy LaRoque, knight of the holy Hospital of Jerusalem, protector of the Holy Land, soldier of God. I bless you and sanctify this Holy Agreement and all of its precious secrets. I bless it and God blesses it. Amen.”

Sir Guy wept and kissed the priest’s hem again before he climbed to his feet. “Thank you, Father. Thank you!”

The priest waved away the gratitude and the tears.

“What do you call this crusade of yours-of ours — my son?”

“In truth I have not yet thought of a fitting title. Ibrahim has already given his order a special name. The Tariqa. It is the Sufi word for ‘the path.’ He will be its first Murshid, its first guide along that path.”

The old priest nodded. “We will have to do the same, for you know that you cannot use the name of the Sacred Order of Hospitallers for this cause.”

“I confess that I’ve come up dry on that and-”

“ Ordo Ruber,” said the priest.

“Father?”

“The Red Order. We are born in the blood of Christ, are we not? And it is the blood of sacrifices and martyrs that shall sanctify our cause.”

Sir Guy murmured the name, feeling how the words and all of their many possible meanings fit in his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “That is perfect. The Red Order.”

They stopped in the archway, both of them bathed in purple shadows. Sir Guy’s heart was swelling with love and gratitude. He took the priest’s hand, bent and kissed the blood red ruby of his ring.

“Thank you,” he said. “I thank you with all my heart, Father Nicodemus.”

Chapter Forty-Eight

The Hangar

Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

June 15, 2:50 a.m. EST

Aunt Sallie and Church were still in his office when the phone rang with an overseas call. “Well, well,” he said and showed the display to Aunt Sallie.

Auntie smiled like a happy cat in a canary store. “This should be interesting as all hell.”

Church activated the scrambler and speaker.

Without preamble, Lilith demanded, “Have you talked to your agent, Ledger, today?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know that he met with Jalil Rasouli?”

“Yes.”

“Is he on or off the leash?”

“He has my trust.”

“Okay. Good to know, I suppose,” she said. Her tone was icy and scalpel sharp. “Word is that Rasouli gave something to Ledger. Care to tell me what it was?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“Because I think Rasouli is playing a game.”

“And that would be different from his normal behavior in what way?”

“Don’t try to be cute,” Lilith said tersely. “Do you know that the new Scriptor of the Red Order is trying to recruit Rasouli as the new Murshid of the Tariqa?”

Church cocked an eyebrow at Aunt Sallie. She shook her head and began tapping keys on the MindReader interface.

“I was not aware of that,” admitted Church. “Until today the Order has been off the radar since Baghdad. I am rather surprised to learn that they are active again.”

“They never really stopped. The new Scriptor-Charles, the last of the LaRoques-took over after we took his father off the board.”

“So that was you.”

Lilith ignored that. “The Order slowed down for a bit until they could build a list of candidates for a new Murshid. Rasouli’s been on the top of that list for a couple of years now.”

Aunt Sallie signaled to Church to look at the information on her monitor. Church nodded.

“It’s my understanding that Charles LaRoque has been treated for a variety of personality disorders since boyhood,” said Church. “Paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis. A handful of others. How is he able to run an organization as sophisticated as the Order?”

“The priest.”

“Priest?”

“The priest,” she said again, emphasizing the word.

“Lilith, you never mentioned a priest to me. Let’s remember that I’ve asked you many times for a complete history of the Red Order and each time you’ve refused. Actually, each time you never responded at all. So, again I ask, which priest? Who is he?”

There was a pause and when Lilith spoke again her tone changed. Less harsh, more cautious. “When Sir Guy LaRoque founded the Red Order he did so with the blessing of a priest from the Knights Hospitaller. Ever since then, each Scriptor has had a priest as his spiritual advisor.”

“And the current priest is part of the Order? And he is managing Charles LaRoque even though the young man is mentally unstable? That suggests that it is the priest who is the de facto head of the Red Order.”

“Yes.”

“Who is this priest?”

“Arklight has been trying to figure that out for a long time,” said Lilith. “There are some anomalies in his file.”

“Such as?”

“Such as the fact that when we compare a four-month-old surveillance photo of him it is a perfect match to a photo from 1936 that was part of some church records recovered after the Second World War.”

“There are a number of ways to doctor a-”

“And both photos match paintings hanging in churches in northern Italy. One from 1897 and one from 1633.”

Aunt Sallie mouthed the words “Oh shit.”

“We also have reliable visual confirmation from an agent in Baghdad that the current priest died in the bombing along with Charles’s grandfather and the Tariqa council.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m not saying anything, St. Germaine.”

“I prefer ‘Church’ these days. Or ‘Deacon,’ that still works. I don’t really have a connection to ‘St. Germaine’ anymore. I’m sure we’re both adult enough to understand why.”

“Why not for once simply use your real name?” groused Lilith.

Church’s voice was very cold. “Do you really want to open that door? There are other skeletons in the same closet.”

Eventually Lilith said, “No.”

“Will you give me the name of the current priest? And the names of any of the others you know to have been associated with the Red Order?”

“You still don’t get it,” said Lilith. “There is only one name.”

“They… all adopt the same name?”

“That’s one theory.”

Church cocked his eyebrow at Aunt Sallie, who parked a haunch on the edge of the table and stared at him over the lenses of her granny glasses.

“Give me the name.”

Lilith said, “Father Nicodemus.”

Chapter Forty-Nine

On the Streets

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 11:22 a.m.

Ghost and I walked quickly through five or six streets lined with houses that had been left to crumble beneath the relentless Iranian sun. I saw a single sign with a notice about rezoning and impending construction, but it was at least five years old. The only life we encountered there were starving dogs who fled from Ghost’s warning growls, and a single vulture who sat on a telephone pole that had long ago been stripped of its wires. The vulture’s ugly, naked head swiveled slowly on its scrawny neck, watching us as we walked past.

“Don’t get any ideas,” I warned the scavenger, and gave him an evil squint that entirely failed to impress him.

A few blocks later we reentered a residential quarter where people still lived, though even here there was a sense of life fading to dust. I knew from my travels that the typical meal in an Iranian home was unleavened bread and lentils. That’s it. Animal protein was a rarity. I wanted to sneer about it and speculate on how often the ayatollahs had lamb or chicken; but I’m from Baltimore. I’ve seen American poverty at its worst, and as the richest nation on earth we’re the last ones who should throw stones about allowing poverty and starvation within our own borders.

There were a handful of cars, mostly junkers that were held together by rust and need. But one car caught my eye. It was also beat up but it didn’t labor to make it down the block; and I saw it three times. Twice on streets that paralleled the one I was on, and once idling at a light a block ahead. My route may have been random, but I paid close attention to cars and people; and one of the tricks is looking down a cross street when you reach a corner to see what cars are moving along at your pace a block or two over.

Spotting the same car three times could have been a coincidence. Kim Kardashian’s boobs could be real, too, and that’s about as likely.

When I got to the next block, I cut through an alley, running only as fast as Ghost could manage. At the end of the alley, I went through a couple of backyards and then a side yard which took me back to the street just as the little sedan drove past. I was in deep shadows and the driver was looking slowly side to side to check the faces of pedestrians on a moderately busy market street.

The driver was a woman.

I could not tell much because she wore a chador, but her eyes were intelligent, intense and, except for heavy makeup, they did not look even remotely Middle Eastern. Northern Italian at best.

“Violin,” I said, and I knew that I was right. My own Sniping Beauty. And as I murmured her name she turned in my direction, but I was in shadows and the traffic gave her no room to stop.

She could not have heard me. No way.

I opened my cell phone and called Bug, giving him the make, model, and license plate number of Violin’s car.

“Whoa!” Bug said as soon as he ran it. “This is really weird. I got a screen pop-up that says all inquiries for this plate number are to be directed internally. Here, I mean. The DMS. The pop-up is initialed D.”

D. For Deacon.

Church.

“Put him on the line,” I demanded.

“I can’t,” said Bug, “he’s on a conference call with somebody overseas. Don’t know who and he’s marked his line for ‘no intrusion.’”

“Then make goddamn sure I’m his next call,” I growled, and hung up.

Violin’s car was gone by the time I stepped out of the alley with Ghost lumbering along beside me. A few people threw me annoyed looks. Iran had weird rules about dogs on the street. I ignored them.

As we picked our way through the crowds of shoppers, I kept one eye on the cars, watching to see if Violin circled back. Then I froze. Another car drifted along, and the driver, much like Violin, was looking side to side to scan the pedestrians. It wasn’t my guardian angel. It was a man, and when he turned my way I saw a gaunt face and red rat eyes staring through the glass.

A Red Knight.

Christ.

I darted out of the flow of traffic and stood in the dense shadows under the broad awning of a big vegetable stand. The car rolled along, and the head moved back and forth, and I held my breath. Then it was gone in the long flow of traffic that vanished into the heat haze. He hadn’t spotted me.

“Sheeez,” I breathed.

I was becoming increasingly paranoid. It felt like there was nowhere to go, no place, not even a street corner, where I could catch my breath. It was getting hard to catch my breath and that had nothing to do with the relentless heat.

The vegetable seller glanced at me and offered a handful of figs. I shook my head, and with a word to Ghost, turned and headed a different way. We needed to get off the street right now. The CIA safe house was close.

We kept our heads down and melted into the crowd.

Interlude Three

Council Chamber of the Red Order

Jaffa, The Holy Land

October 1191 C.E.

Sir Guy LaRoque and Father Nicodemus sat at the end of a long rectangular table made from a massive and ornate wooden door that had once hung in a Jewish temple. The temple was now in ashes, its treasures parceled out among the priests and senior knights of the Hospitallers.

There were a dozen seats at the table. Nine knights sat there, and the rest were minor priests of Nicodemus’s choosing. Each of them had sworn the same oaths, each had sealed their oaths with the tip of a heated knife blade.

Without looking up, Nicodemus said, “Do you know this story, Sir Guy? The binding of Isaac?”

The Frenchman hedged. “Perhaps not as well as I should-”

Nicodemus waved away the excuse with a gentle movement of his hand. “There are valuable lessons in the Bible’s older books.” He tapped the carving of Abraham with a long fingernail. “This one in particular. Abraham, a holy man, was commanded by God to bring his son to Mount Moriah, and there to build a sacrificial altar and sacrifice Isaac upon it. Abraham did as he was told. He built the altar and bound his son to it, drew his knife, and was ready-despite his breaking heart-to kill Isaac to prove his devotion to God. However, before the knife could plunge down, an angel appeared and stayed his hand, directing him to sacrifice a nearby ram instead.”

As he spoke the men seated around the table grew quiet so they could hear the story. A few stood to better see the carving. Nicodemus nodded approval.

“The whole drama,” he continued, “had been staged to force Abraham to prove beyond question his steadfast devotion to God.”

Two of the priests murmured “Amen,” which was picked up and echoed by the knights. However Nicodemus’s next words silenced them. “Or so Abraham told everyone.”

He looked at the men, each in turn, and the molten gold color of his eyes seemed to swirl with shadows. “Personally, I have sometimes doubted whether the story was fairly reported. After all, except for the boy, who was traumatized and confused, there were no credible witnesses.” No one said a word. No one dared. “The power of the story is immeasurable. Because of it Abraham became the father of the Israelites, the father of us all in many ways. He became a leader whose right to lead was bestowed upon him by God. Directly by God. And why? Because of the power of his devotion, a devotion so steadfast that he would have slaughtered his own son.”

The others nodded but said nothing.

“As I sat waiting for our brotherhood to gather,” continued the priest, “I pondered this story, as I have oftentimes pondered it. We know firsthand that the histories being written about our Crusades are often at odds with the facts, but seldom at odds with the truth.” He paused, eyes intense. “With the most useful version of the truth.”

A wealthy knight halfway down the table said, “Surely, Father, there is only one truth. Everything else is…”

His voice trailed off as Nicodemus leaned forward. “Doesn’t that depend on who is telling that truth, and who is listening?” Nicodemus allowed them to ponder that. “I have long ago accepted that history of any kind may be only a version told to suit the listener and serve the teller. Like the story of Abraham and Isaac. While we can understand and fully appreciate the effect of this story upon all of the generations that followed, we liberated thinkers are now called to look at the actual events. We can wonder what Abraham’s true feelings were for Isaac. He could as easily have despised the boy. Or found him bland and uninteresting. Or, if-as some church scholars insist-Isaac was a grown man in his thirties at the time of the sacrifice, then the whole event might have been concocted by father and son. Certainly the result was that their line became the bloodline of the Jews. To tell you the truth, I rather like the idea that it was an agreement between them. It shows high intelligence and careful planning and demonstrates, to us in particular, the power that can be harvested from such courses.”

“But you say that it might all be a lie,” insisted the youngest man at the table, a priest who was the brother of a powerful knight.

“Yes,” agreed Nicodemus, “a lie, but a lie with a purpose. A lie that guided the course of a nation, shaped the future of a people. A lie that, through the blood and history of the Jews, allowed for Christianity and Islam to be born into this world.”

Sir Guy tapped the table with his forefinger. “Yes!” he said emphatically. “And there are two things that are most important about that lie. First, is that it was a lie. That is crucial to know. And the second thing is that no one else knows that it’s a lie. Even you, Father Nicodemus, cannot and do not know that it was a lie. If proof ever existed it was either hidden away or erased, which is a very good thing to do with such dangerous truths.”

The men agreed and a few beat their fists.

Nicodemus smiled his approval.

“And what dangerous and important truths rest with us,” he said softly. “Tell me, my brothers… how will we write them into the pages of history?”

Chapter Fifty

The Hangar

Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

June 15, 2:55 a.m. EST

“Nicodemus?” repeated Church. “That’s very interesting. Is that a first or last name?”

“It’s all we have,” said Lilith. The speakers on Church’s phone were of the best quality, and it sounded like Lilith was in the room with them.

“There have been priests named Nicodemus associated with the Red Order for eight hundred years?”

“Yes.”

“And as far as you can determine they all look similar?”

“Disturbingly so.”

Church glanced at Aunt Sallie, who nodded.

“Lilith, I just e-mailed you an image file. Take a look at it and let me know if this man is similar in appearance to the priest currently working with LaRoque.”

“Opening it now,” said Lilith. She made a sharp, disgusted sound. “Yes, that’s him. Damn it, if you already know about him why are you grilling me on-”

“We did not know about the priest,” interrupted Church. “This photo is from a supermax prison in Pennsylvania, here in the States.”

“This man was in prison?”

“Yes. He was arrested at the scene of a multiple murder in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania and later convicted of the murders. The case was built on strong circumstantial evidence but there were no other suspects and he offered no defense.”

“This looks exactly like the priest. Exactly. What is his name?”

“Nicodemus.”

“When was this? When was he arrested?”

“1996.”

“When was he released?”

“Lilith,” said Church slowly, “he was not released. He was incarcerated at Graterford Prison until December of last year, at which point he apparently escaped.”

“Then it can’t be the same man. We have pictures of him from just before the air strike on the presidential palace in Baghdad on March 19, 2003. That’s when the old Murshid and the Tariqa high council were killed, along with the current Scriptor’s grandfather. So, your man would have been in prison.”

“Yes,” said Church softly. “Odd, isn’t it.” He did not phrase it as a question.

“One of us is working with bad intel,” growled Lilith, “and I really doubt it’s us. Arklight isn’t-”

“Please,” cut in Church. “No need to sell me on Arklight’s capabilities. But there’s something more about the prisoner Nicodemus. He was involved in the Seven Kings affair last year. The bombings and other attacks that were part of the Ten Plagues Initiative.”

“Hugo Vox?”

“Yes.”

“Mother of God.”

“Yes.”

“Vox knew most of the men who were killed in the Baghdad bombing. He’s known the LaRoques all his life.”

“I-didn’t know that,” admitted Church.

Lilith snorted. “You need better sources.”

“The DMS often relies on the goodwill of its allies and the exchange of crucial intelligence. Tell, me… how is Oracle working out for you?”

The only reply from Lilith was a stony silence.

Aunt Sallie mouthed the words, “Stop dicking around and play the card.”

Church sighed and nodded. “Lilith, when I gave you the Oracle system it was with the understanding that it be used to help your cause, and to provide occasional support for my operations.”

“That was long before you built the DMS. I have no standing agreement with the Americans.”

“You have an agreement with me,” Church said quietly. “And with Aunt Sallie.”

“Is she listening?” demanded Lilith.

“Yes.”

“Bitch.”

Aunt Sallie grinned, but said nothing.

“This conversation has made it abundantly clear,” said Church, “that you have information that is likely crucial to one of our ongoing operations. I have never used MindReader to intrude into Oracle, and I would prefer not to.”

The threat hung in the air.

“No. You tell me what’s going on. Why is your man Ledger taking meetings with Jalil Rasouli.”

“I want your word that this will be a fair and free exchange, Lilith. No games, okay?”

Instead of answering the question, Lilith said, “The shooter tracking Captain Ledger is my daughter.”

Church sat back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment.

“You put her in the field?”

“Of course I put her in the field. That’s what she has trained for.”

“Have you told her?” asked Church. “Does she know who her father is?”

Lilith took a moment, and when she spoke her voice was bitter. “She knows. Telling her was the cruelest thing I have ever done.” She paused. “But I don’t need to tell you about breaking a daughter’s heart, do I?”

Church sighed again. “That’s unkind, Lilith. I do what I do to protect Circe from who and what I am.”

“So, she doesn’t know who her father is?”

“She knows enough,” said Church. “I don’t see any benefit in doing her any additional harm.”

Lilith snorted. “And now she works for you. Do your people know that she’s your daughter?”

“Only those who need to know,” he said. “And that topic is closed.”

“Very well,” said Lilith. “Now tell me about Ledger and Rasouli. What was on that flash drive?”

Church told her.

Chapter Fifty-One

Kingdom of Shadows

Under the Sand

June 15, 11:29 a.m.

“Your son is dead, Father,” said Albion, the eleventh of Grigor’s sons. “My brother is dead.”

Those were the words that still burned in Grigor’s mind.

Your son is dead.

Delos. The sixth of his sons to be born without genetic flaw. The sixth to receive Dr. Hasbrouck’s genetic therapy.

Delos. Grigor’s pride. One of his most trusted warriors. One of the elite even among the Red Knights.

His son.

His son was dead.

Grigor’s rage was a terrible thing, but it was not evident. The storms that broke and howled were not physical things, they could not be felt or seen. There was no outward sign of it. Not unless someone could look into the bottomless crimson depths of his eyes.

Even though he wanted so badly to shriek out his fury, to burst listening ears with his cries, he sat in stillness.

LaRoque had made him send one of his sons to his death.

A knight.

One of the pure ones.

He sat on his throne there in the bottomless darkness and as the waves of pain washed over him, he endured them. Welcomed them. Let them feed the awful fires that burned in his heart. And there, deep down in his personal darkness, those flames grew hotter and more terrible still.

Interlude Four

On the Pilgrims’ Road

The Holy Land

November 1191 C.E.

The three monks pushed the pilgrims toward the rock wall as the riders swept down the hill toward them. The ancient fort was little more than fragments of walls and an overgrown courtyard filled with palm trees whose trunks had burst upward through cracked flagstones. It was poor cover, but it was better than standing out here on the sand, waiting for the Saracens to sweep down and slaughter them.

Most of the pilgrims ran, their prayers strangled from their throats by fear. A few of the more devout wavered, caught between their belief that God would protect them and the fear that He might not chose to do so today. One old man stood his ground and held a cross up and out toward the approaching riders as if that was a shield that could turn any sword. His white beard fluttered in the hot wind.

“Go, go! ” yelled Brother Julius, pushing his shoulder. The old man twisted away from the monk.

“No! I shall not move one inch from the path to Holy Jerusalem, and neither devils nor demons nor the swords of the infidels will-”

His words were struck to silence as a crossbow bolt buried itself to the fletching in his throat. The old pilgrim staggered backward a step, touching his fingers to the line of hot blood that ran down his chest. The sheer impossibility of his own death, of his mortality in the presence of God’s grace here on the pilgrims’ road, tethered him for a moment to life. His mouth formed the word “No.” But the only sound that issued from his throat was the wet gurgle.

The old man sagged to his knees and his head slumped forward but he did not fall over, and Brother Julius marveled at the horror and beauty of it all: the devout traveler ending his pilgrimage in a posture of supplication.

More quarrels hissed through the air and Brother Julius wheeled as the caravan horses began to scream when the steel-headed missiles tore into their flesh. One reared high and lashed out, striking a nun on the cheek and snapping her neck with a dry-stick crack.

Brother Julius ran then. The other pilgrims were clambering over the ruins of the old fort as arrows struck sparks from the broken stone. The riders-a dozen Saracens in billowing desert cloaks-rode toward them like the horsemen of Saint John. They yipped and yelled and laughed as they fired their last volley of quarrels and then they hooked their crossbows over their saddle horns and drew their swords with a rippling wave of silver.

Brother Julius tried to leap over a fallen pear tree, and the skeletal fingers of a branch snagged the hem of his robe. The cloth caught fast and Julius fell flat on his face with a whooomph! Sand puffed up, filling his nose and mouth. He rolled onto his side, gagging and coughing.

Behind him he heard shrill screams and the sound of pain-filled voices pleading to God even as sword blades cut into them. Brother Julius closed his eyes and tried to mutter a prayer between fits of coughing. Soon the screams stopped but the dull-wet sound of steel on flesh continued for almost a full minute.

Then there was silence.

Brother Julius tried to crawl away, but he heard the crunch of a foot on the sand beside his head and he looked up into the face of one of the killers. The man had dark eyes and black hair that fluttered in the breeze. He had a thin mustache and a spiked beard on the point of his chin. He was not smiling; instead a look of sadness was painted over his features. And his face… there was something terribly wrong about his face.

“Make your peace with God,” said the killer.

The clothes were Saracen, as were the armor and fittings. Even the decorations on the horse that stood nickering behind him were of Saracen make. But the man spoke in French.

“W-why… why are you doing this?” demanded the monk. “I don’t understand. For the love of God- why? ”

The killer raised his sword. “It is for the love of God that we do this. And may God have mercy on all our souls.”

The sword flashed downward and Brother Julius felt himself detaching from the heat and the sand and his own flesh. He felt himself falling into darkness, into mystery.

The swordsman placed a foot on the monk’s chest and pulled, tearing his blade free from where it had wedged deep in the bone. Then he dropped the weapon on the sand by the monk.

He turned and looked at his companions. Two of them were busy with the task of cutting off the heads of the pilgrims. They were laughing as they worked, tossing the heads like children playing with toys.

“Stop it!” growled the swordsman, and the men froze in place, their smiles disintegrating from their faces, their eyes instantly ashamed. He plucked at his robe with disgust. “Do you wear these and then forget who you are?”

Then two men glanced at each other, and then bowed deeply to the swordsman.

“Forgive foolish sinners, brother,” said one.

The other, too ashamed to speak, merely nodded.

The swordsman walked over to them and placed his hands on their shoulders. The other warriors sat on their horses, chins buried on their chests, looking troubled and sad and weary.

“My brothers,” said the swordsman, “battle is like strong wine even to the best of us. We become drunk on it, and we must guard against that. When we are done, I invite you all to join me in prayers to God in which we will ask for forgiveness of our sins and guidance for all things to come.”

The men nodded. The swordsman turned to the men on the horses. They too nodded.

“Then let us be about our task with the reverence to which it is due.”

No one spoke, but they nodded again and set to work.

Without laughter or games they collected the heads of the pilgrims and stacked them into a mound in the middle of the pilgrims’ road. Another caravan of the faithful was due along this path in less than half a day. They set the head of Brother Julius atop the pile. They placed a ring of hands around the mound, and in each hand they placed a holy cross. Then the men formed a circle around the mound and fished for the fittings of their codpieces. Without meeting each other’s eyes, they pulled out their penises and urinated on the mound, on the hands, and even on the crosses.

Last of all, the swordsman used a sharp stick to write a curse against all crusaders in the hard-packed dirt by the ruins. He concluded it with a description of how Pope Innocent III sodomized young boys and sheep. It was a filthy description, but it looked almost elegant when written in the flowing Arabic script.

The swordsman was weeping as he flung the stick away from him as if it was covered in offal. He stripped off his Saracen robes and folded them into a tight bundle before shoving them roughly into a saddle bag. He stood for a moment letting the wind dry the sweat-heavy dark brown hooded cape with a white cross embroidered on the left shoulder. The cross was not the plain outline of long post and short crosspiece, but was instead made to look like a dagger laid across a longsword, with both overlaying a red circle. The other men also shed their disguises to stand revealed. They stood in a circle around the devastation they had caused, and each of them bowed their heads in prayer.

“God forgive us,” murmured the swordsman, leading the prayer. “And God grant that the pilgrims see and understand what they must understand.”

“Amen,” said each of the gathered men, and they said it gravely and with honesty.

With that, Sir Guy LaRoque turned away and walked with a heavy heart toward his horse. The trustworthy men of the Red Order of the Knights Hospitaller followed.

It had begun.

Chapter Fifty-Two

The Warehouse

Baltimore, Maryland

June 15, 3:57 a.m. EST

The big screen above Circe’s MindReader console flashed white and then was filled by the bland face of Mr. Church. Rudy saw Circe’s posture immediately stiffen and the muscles at the corners of her jaw tightened. He wondered if Church noticed it too. And if so, did he care.

“Let’s jump right in,” said Church. “Aunt Sallie tells me that you have problems with the content of the drive. Tell me.”

“First,” interrupted Rudy, “Is Joe okay?”

“He says so,” said Church.

“Yes, but is he?”

“I haven’t had time to personally give him a physical, Dr. Sanchez.”

Rudy held his ground. “I expect a more complete answer as soon as possible.”

“Noted,” Church said with a small twitch of his mouth.

“What do we know about the nukes?” said Circe.

Church smiled faintly. “Based on the photos Rasouli provided, they appear to be Teller-Ulams. We’re running extensive searches through intelligence agencies in thirty countries to see if we can get a line on who might have built them.”

“Can’t a person simply go online and download instructions for making them?” asked Rudy.

“You watch too many movies, Doctor. These are sophisticated and complex machines, and it takes a great deal of skill, the proper equipment, and genuine experts to do it right. From the photos it’s clear that the casings are commercially manufactured, or rather were during the Cold War. These casings are late 1980s, and less than five hundred of this design were made.”

“Five hundred?” echoed Rudy.

“A conservative estimate places the number of active nukes in the world at eight thousand,” said Circe.

“That estimate is very conservative,” said Church. “We know who bought this model openly or through standard military appropriations. We have decades of intelligence and, in some cases, mutual sharing of information. My guess is that we will find that most or all of those devices will be accounted for: still active, mothballed, or dismantled and the parts tracked. The problem is complicated by the fact that fifty-six of these devices were in the Republic of Kazakhstan, and after it became separated from Russia, we have not been able to verify the location or disposition of a third of those devices. This has become a typical, though increasingly frightening, state of affairs since the end of the Cold War.”

“There’s a second problem,” added Circe. “Most of the superpowers have many more devices than have ever appeared on inventories, because they do not want them counted. Nuclear arms limitations agreements, as well intentioned as they are, have driven some countries into policies of secrecy that are truly frightening.”

“So what does that mean for us?” asked Rudy. “In this case, I mean?”

“It should give us a few leads but we can’t count on it taking us directly to a source,” replied Circe. “Or to a buyer, if these things are black market items.”

“Exactly.” Church selected a Nilla wafer but did not take a bite. “This might-and I do mean might — help us eventually find the source of the bombs, but I’m not optimistic about that leading us to where all of the bombs currently are. We still only have probable locations on the first four. That kind of ferret work is time-consuming, and I doubt we have that kind of time. In the short term I am positioning our teams to move in and attempt to seize control of them and de-arm them.”

The word “attempt” hung in the air like a bad smell.

“And if we can’t?” asked Rudy.

“I have a number of experts working on developing various practical scenarios for how this could play out, including, unfortunately, a worst-case scenario.”

“Worst-case meaning what?” asked Rudy. “Tell me that your concern is the human population of the region and not the oil fields.”

Church said nothing, and his eyes were invisible behind his tinted glasses, but Rudy felt the impact of his stare.

“ Lo siento,” Rudy said, and placed his hand over his heart and half bowed.

Church shook his head to erase the gaffe from the conversation. He turned to focus on Circe. “How are you coming along with a list of potential instigators?”

She sighed and shook her head. “We simply don’t have enough information to go on. We need to know more than we do or we’re shooting in the dark.”

“I agree,” said Church, nodding. “Now give me what you have.”

Circe told him about the concerns she and Bug had with the “damage” to the flash drive.

“I think we can all agree that Rasouli doctored it,” Church said with a cold little smile. “What else?”

“The Book of Shadows and the Saladin Codex, ” said Rudy. “We’ve made some progress there.” They told him about the Voynich manuscript.

“Yes,” Church said, nodding. “I’ve heard of it. Have you been able to determine what it is, though? Voynich or the Book of Shadows?”

“Not so far,” admitted Circe. “I’ve been going through the research done at Yale, at U of P, and elsewhere, but it’s all theories. No one has cracked it yet.”

“And those two extra pages?”

Circe shrugged. “Dead end, so far.”

“What about the other book, the Saladin Codex? It’s my understanding that it’s an annotation and attempted refutation of Al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-gabr wa’l-muqabala. Does that suggest anything?”

Circe nodded, translating the name slowly, tasting the words. “‘The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing.’ Completion and balancing. Interesting.”

“I thought so, too,” said Church.

Rudy did not see the connection. “What does that suggest?”

“In terms of symbolism, it suggests a number of things,” said Circe. “The desire for a return to order. Or, in different terms, to the ‘correct’ and precise way things should be. In the current Middle East situation, there are several clashing interpretations for the ‘way things should be.’ The Jews say the Holy Land is theirs, and they can make a good argument for it, from their perspective based on the length of time during which they occupied those lands, the whole ‘chosen people’ thing. Then there’s the Christians who believe that the Holy Lands rightfully passed to them with the birth and, more significantly, the trial, execution, and resurrection of Jesus. Some groups actively believe that the Jews forfeited any rights to those lands when they brought Jesus to Pilate for trial.” She took a breath. “And Islam, though a comparatively younger religion, believes that God specifically handed over the lease for those lands to them through Mohammed. Since there have been Arab peoples there for thousands of years, they, too, can make a good claim for possession.”

“Not to mention the tensions ignited when the nation of Israel was founded,” said Church. “And the deepening crisis when oil was discovered under the sands.”

“Which brings in Europe and America,” said Rudy.

“And Asia. China and Japan are major clients of OPEC.”

“Balance,” mused Rudy sourly. “What about completion?”

“In this context,” said Church, “I find the word deeply troubling. It suggests an end to things. An endgame, perhaps.”

“Nukes would accomplish that,” said Circe.

“How?” asked Rudy. “Beyond simply blowing things up.”

“You know the saying ‘fire purifies’?” asked Circe. “If the oil fields were destroyed and the land laid waste by radiation, there could be no further conflict over there.”

“What are we discussing here?” asked Rudy with a crooked smile. “A doomsday cult?”

Circe wasn’t smiling.

“ Madre de Dios,” breathed Rudy.

Chapter Fifty-Three

CIA Safe House #11

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 12:29 p.m.

Once we were past the markets, the streets became empty and quiet. No human or car traffic. No sign of Violin, no sign of the Red Knight, but I didn’t like the vibe. The atmosphere was supercharged with tension. I knew that a lot of it was nerves. This whole thing was freaking me out. Truly and deeply.

Haven lay right up the street, though, and I was already starting to breathe easier.

The best safe houses were run by the CIA. They’d been at this longer and they spent a lot of time developing teams to run and oversee the locations. The one Ghost and I headed to was at the fringe of a garment district, with an open lot on one side and a hardware store that was closed on the other. A “For Sale” sign was hung in the window of the store, and I suspected the Company owned that as well.

The safe house was occupied by husband and wife agents. They were a real married couple recruited years ago. Taraneh and Arastoo Mouradipour. Midthirties. His cover was a textile salesman, and she was floor manager for a small factory that made children’s clothes.

Ghost and I walked past the house twice, once from across the street heading west, then on the same side as the house going east. Everything looked normal and quiet. A ten-year-old blue Paykan was parked outside, its paint job faded by sand and heat, several rust spots coated with primer. The only other vehicles in the area were a pair of white vans parked in the lot of a telephone installation company a few blocks away.

We walked all the way around the block and then cut down the alley that led to the open lot. I walked along the side of the house. Back door and side windows were intact. Everything looked calm, which is exactly what I wanted to see. Calm sounded pretty good to me. I needed a bath, food, a first aid kit and a chance to make a private call to Church. There was so much I needed to tell him.

When we reached the front of the house I went to the door and knocked.

Ghost, who was still sluggish, flopped down on the step and looked like he was about to go to sleep. I was getting worried about him. There was no way to tell how much damage the Taser had done, but Ghost was definitely not himself; his senses were clearly dulled and his energy almost bottomed out.

There was no immediate answer. I knocked again.

The protocol was to knock no more than three times. After that you walk away and try another safe house. I didn’t want to walk into another house filled with blood and death, so I was willing to split if this didn’t play out. The next closest was a convenience store half a mile from here. However, I doubted Ghost had that much energy in him. I could sympathize. That goon in the hotel had really rung my chimes and now that the adrenaline was wearing off I could feel it.

I was about to knock a final time when I heard the lock click. The door opened a half inch and I saw a woman’s eye peer at me through the crack.

“Yes?” she asked.

“May I speak with Mr. Pourali?”

That was the current code, and it changed every few days.

“Who is calling?” she asked, right on cue.

“Mr. Hosseini.”

“Please come in,” she said, stepping back and pulling open the door.

I clicked my tongue for Ghost, who jerked awake and scrambled to his feet. He followed me inside.

“Thank you,” I said to the woman as she closed the door.

Ghost froze in place and let out a single sharp bark of warning, which was two seconds too late.

The woman produced a small black automatic from under her robes and pointed it at my face.

Chapter Fifty-Four

CIA Safe House #11

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 12:35 p.m.

“Inside or I’ll kill you where you stand,” she snapped, and she said it in English. Not good English, but good enough.

Ghost was trembling, caught between the impulses of his instincts and his training. I was pack leader and I hadn’t given the command to hit.

“January,” I said. It was today’s clarification code word. If this was all a big mistake then the code word would dial everything back to normal.

She said, “Shut up.”

Not the code reply I was hoping for.

I heard a floorboard creak behind me, and Ghost growled in time to warn me… but not in time to protect himself. As I whirled two men rushed at me through the doorway to the living room. They were not Red Knights, but that was the only consolation. The first threw a handful of powder in my face, blinding and gagging me; the other hurled a weighted metal-mesh net over Ghost. On another day, Ghost would have dodged the net and torn the man’s throat out, but the Taser had blunted all of his edge. Ghost cringed, caught in fear and indecision, and the net slapped down around him. He howled in anger, thrashing and twisting to get away from it, but his struggles only wrapped the thing around him. He tripped over it and crashed to the floor.

I saw this through a haze of powder.

I tried to paw the stuff out of my eyes. It was cloying and thick, but it didn’t seem like poison and it didn’t actually hurt. Then the guy who threw it stepped in and planted a mother of a punch into my solar plexus. The sucker punch slammed all of the air out of my lungs and dropped me to my knees. I honked and wheezed and gasped like a salmon on a river bank. The pain was enormous but the lack of air was ten times worse. I could not breathe.

“Shoot him!” barked one of the men, and I felt the cold barrel of the gun jab me in the back of the neck.

“Say the word, Victor…” growled the woman. She had a low, nasty voice. She wanted to pull that trigger.

“No!” cried the other man-who I assumed was Victor-and there was the sharp sound of flesh on flesh as he slapped the woman’s hand away. “We have to be sure.”

They weren’t speaking Persian. They spoke broken English and it sounded like each of them had a different native accent, but I was in no condition to analyze it.

Ghost whined and barked, but he couldn’t come to my rescue. Between the net and the Taser, he was done. I was on my hands and knees, blinking and gagging, my whole body heaving with silent convulsions.

The first man bent close to me. “You can see it, Victor! Look how he reacts. The powder is already doing its work.”

As I fought to control my traumatized diaphragm I struggled to process what they were saying.

The stuff they threw in my face definitely wasn’t poison or some kind of knockout drug. From the smell I think it was garlic. Regular, fine-grain, powdered garlic. Not exactly the kind of thing the bad guys usually throw. What was their follow-up? Tomato sauce and a bay leaf?

I managed to suck in a tiny bit of air with a sound like a deflating bagpipe.

“Let me kill him, Victor,” begged the woman. “For God, for the cause…”

“No! And point that damn gun somewhere else before you shoot one of us.”

Fingers knotted in my hair and then my head was jerked backward. The motion, violent as it was, helped open my airway and I gasped in a huge gulp of air like a swimmer coming up after staying underwater a minute too long.

The man named Victor-obviously the leader-touched the tip of something sharp and heavy under my chin and shifted around so that he could study my face. All I could see was a bleary version of his face. Heavy Slavic features and a thick moustache.

“I… don’t know… who you are…” I wheezed, “but you got the… wrong guy.”

“Shut up,” he snapped. I could see beads of sweat popping out on his brow and running down his cheeks. It wasn’t hot in the room-he was scared. Of me? Or of who he thought I was? He said to his companions, “Nadja, cover him. Be careful with that gun, but if he moves… blow his head off.”

The woman, Nadja, shifted around and pointed the pistol at me in a two-hand grip.

“Inigo, be ready with the hammer.”

Hammer? Christ, that scared me more than the gun. A gun would at least be quick.

Victor squatted down and leaned so close to me I could smell his breath. It reeked of garlic and tobacco. I wanted to make a joke, something about being mugged by a cooking class, but somehow I didn’t think I had the audience for it. I held my tongue and tried to regulate my breathing.

“He doesn’t look like one of them. His eyes are blue.”

“Then he’s wearing contact lenses,” Nadja fired back. “Peel them off, you’ll see.”

The second man, Inigo, still held my hair, so I was unable to move away as Victor placed his rough fingertips on my face. Thumb below my left eye, two fingers on my eyebrow, and then he slowly spread them apart, widening my eye. His other hand held the weapon against the soft underside of my chin. I did not know what they intended to do-blind me, stab me, shoot me, or pummel me with a hammer, but they were poised and tense and ready. And I was still recovering from the body blow. I was in deep shit and I could feel sweat greasing my own face.

Victor leaned even closer, and now I could feel the heat of his breath on my cheek and my eye.

“No,” he said slowly, dragging the word out in apparent surprise. “No, he is not wearing contacts.”

“Oh, you’re a blind fool, Victor,” snarled the woman. “Let me do it-”

“Hush!” Victor growled and the woman faltered.

Inigo kicked me in the hip. “Cut an eye out and take a closer look. He’s one of them.”

“Hush!” ordered Victor. He repeated the eye-widening procedure with my right eye, frowning as he did so. “See? He is not a knight.”

Ah, I thought, and I realized what he was looking for. My guardian angel sniper called the killer at the hotel a knight, and that goon with the fangs had worn weird contact lenses. As soon as I thought that I realized that it was wrong. The knight would have been wearing the horror-show contact lenses over his real eyes. Victor and the others were checking my eyes to see if my normal eyes were color contacts over…

My mind stalled at that.

Over what? Did they think that the knights really had blazing red eyes with slitted pupils? Or… was that really true of the knights?

If so…

I will rip your throat out and drink your life.

Holy shit. What the hell was I into here?

Church had warned me that I got off lucky when I fought the knight.

“Please,” I said, my voice strained because they had my head pulled back so far, “I’m not who you think I am.”

Victor’s frown turned into an ugly scowl. “Oh yes? And what do we think you are?”

“I have no idea… but whatever it is, you’re wrong. Why don’t we talk about this?”

“Victor, don’t listen to him,” warned Nadja. “He will try to control your mind.”

I expected Victor to rebuke her for the silliness of that comment, but instead I saw doubt and fear insinuate their way onto his features. He pulled his hand back and forked the sign of the evil eye at me and fired off a fragment of prayer, “O Lord, protect with Your right hand those who trust in Your name. Deliver them from the evil one, and grant them everlasting joy.”

Then he used his thumb to peel back my upper lip so he could examine my teeth. The others bent to look as well. Inigo grunted.

“No,” stated Victor, “he’s human enough.”

Human?

“Absolutely,” I agreed, though with his fingers in my mouth it came out as “Ahzoluly.”

Then Victor turned his head and looked at Ghost, who lay helpless and panting in the net. “And see-he comes with a fetch dog.”

Inigo’s grip on my hair eased a bit. “I don’t understand this. They said that he was a knight.”

“I know,” said Victor, licking his thick lips. “But when have you ever seen a knight in the presence of a fetch dog? I mean… how could that even happen?”

The others said nothing.

Victor straightened. “Krystos will be here any minute. He’ll know what’s happening. He’ll get to the truth.”

I really didn’t like the way Victor said that. I doubt I was supposed to like it; and it seemed to me that the bad situation I was in was about to get a whole hell of a lot worse.

Whoever this Krystos was, I didn’t want to meet him on my knees.

I had Inigo to my right side holding my hair-though not as tightly as before. Nadja was behind him, aiming past his shoulder at my temple. Victor squatted in front of me, one hand still on my lip and the other holding some kind of spike under my chin. And Krystos and who knew how many others were on their way.

None of the odds were in my favor, and Lady Sniper was nowhere to be seen. I was outnumbered and outgunned; I had no weapons. Why should today be any different?

It was die-or go for it.

I went for it.

Chapter Fifty-Five

CIA Safe House #11

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 12:39 p.m.

I wasn’t nice about it, either.

With a bellow of pure rage, I kicked back with all my strength and caught Inigo in the crotch. He flew backward, arms whipping wide, and his left forearm smashed Nadja across the nose and mouth. She screamed and her finger jerked the trigger, firing a bullet that punched a hole in the wall a foot from Victor’s head. Nadja and Inigo fell together in a screeching tangle of arms and legs. The moment Inigo’s hand released my hair, I darted my mouth forward and bit down hard on Victor’s fingers. Bones crunched and he howled in agony. As he jerked his hand away, the spike cut me laterally across the underside of the chin, but then it clattered from his hand.

All of this took place inside one hot second.

I launched myself off the floor at Victor, but my foot slid in the coating of garlic powder they’d thrown at me. My reaching hands missed him by an inch as he backpedaled toward the entrance to the living room.

“ Monstrul! ” he bellowed as he scrabbled inside his coat. I thought he was going for a gun, but he produced a second spike and a second item, a rubber-headed mallet. And a detached part of my brain realized that it wasn’t an ordinary spike. It was a piece of polished hardwood that had been lathed down to a deadly point. He raised both items as he dropped into a crouch to meet my charge.

The son of a bitch was going to fight me with a hammer and wooden stake.

This would have been a great time for a flag on the play so we could all sit down and take a moment to find the thread of sanity we’d obviously lost. I mean, seriously-a fucking stake?

“ Monstrul! ” he cried again. “ Monstrul! ”

It was a Romanian word. It means pretty much what you think it means.

He chopped at my chest with the stake while raising the hammer high for a big downward strike.

I slap-parried the hand holding the stake and smashed his nose with a straight jab; the blow knocked his head back, chin high, to expose his throat. I sidestepped and smashed him hard across the Adam’s apple with the edge of my wrist. I could feel the cartilage collapse into rubble. Victor’s shouts imploded into a whistling wheeze as he tried to find breath that would never be his again.

As he sagged to his knees I tore the stake out of his hand. Now I had a weapon.

Inigo and Nadja were still disentangling themselves from each other in the cramped hallway. But suddenly I heard voices yelling from outside.

The kitchen door banged open and I heard the yelling of the names of my dancing partners.

The cavalry had arrived. Theirs, not mine.

Two men crowded into the doorway. One man-a big bruiser with a handlebar mustache-had another hammer and stake in his hairy fists; the other was an Irish-looking guy with no jacket and a shoulder holster over a black T-shirt. He was reaching for his nine millimeter.

I was out of time.

Screw this. If I was going to go down, then I was going down hard.

I still had the stake, so I kicked Mustache Pete in the nuts and drove the stake into Irish Bob’s chest. It punched through his pectorals but jammed to a stop on the ribs, so I hammered it deep with the flat of my palm. I wasn’t aiming for the heart-partly because that’s protected by the sternum and partly because I wasn’t as batshit crazy as these sons of bitches-but the spike sank to half its length in his left lung.

I let go of the stake and elbow-smashed him across the mouth which sent him sprawling into Mustache Pete, who seemed to be shaking off my kick too damn fast.

Incredibly the Irish guy wasn’t dead. He snaked out a desperate hand and grabbed my sleeve as he fell and that jerked me forward off balance so that we slammed into Mustache Pete and the three of us fell together in a twisted, spinning comedy of flailing limbs.

My body was under the pile, with Irish Bob on top of me. The impact crushed us together and drove the stake all the way into him. He died on impact, his body going immediately slack with a terminal exhalation. Unfortunately, his sudden dead weight pinned me to the floor with Mustache Pete half on top of us both. The combined weight of both men drove half the air out of my lungs. Irish Bob’s holstered pistol was pinned between us, with my right hand twisted into the press at a painful angle. To make it worse, Mustache Pete was trying to stab me with the stake. He had no clear angle, but he kept chopping at me, mostly hitting his dead friend. His face was a mask of confusion, insanity, and horror, and as he chopped he continually whimpered a word I didn’t know.

“Upier… Upier…”

I heard Inigo’s voice as he and Nadja tried to make sense of the melee on the floor.

“Mihai,” shouted Nadja. “Move… move! Let me get a shot.”

Mihai must have been Mustache Pete-and he ignored Nadja and kept stabbing at me with manic energy. It was a terrifying thing, and I had only one free hand to fend him off, but at the same time his body blocked Nadja’s aim.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Inigo moving in at an angle. He bent and grabbed one of Irish Bob’s ankles and started pulling him off of me. My legs were the only part of me that was free, so I kicked Inigo in the kneecap. It wasn’t the best angle, but, on the other hand, at most angles the knee is a pretty good target-strong as hell when it’s bent and locked, fragile as a breadstick when it’s straight. I caught him flat on the kneecap and his leg snapped with a gunshot crack.

His scream was ear-splitting-and then he collapsed right onto my other leg, and lay there twisting and screaming.

Shit.

Mihai rolled off of me and decided on a new plan. He crouched and sprang at me, holding the stake in both hands and plunging it downward with all his strength. There was nowhere I could go, no way I could avoid that deadly attack.

But Nadja chose that exact second to try to shoot me in the face. The timing was absolutely perfect. For me. Totally sucked for Mihai. I think he realized it, but by then he was already in the air and there was nothing he could do about it. Nadja’s first bullet blew his jaw off, splashing my face and throat with hot blood.

Nadja screamed in panic, and, as many people inexperienced with guns often do, she kept pulling the trigger. Bullet after bullet chopped into Mihai and dug holes in the floor right next to my head. The impact warped the arc of Mihai’s lunge, and he twisted as he went down, his shoulders and ruined face hitting the floor a foot from my cheek, his body flopping over so that he landed in a heap and did not move.

Nadja was still screaming when the slide locked back on the small automatic.

“Reload! Reload!” yelled Inigo between shrieks of pain.

I heard a car screech to a stop in back. More people.

Inigo shouted toward the sounds. “Krystos!”

Goddamn it.

Nadja fished in her clothes for a new magazine, dropped it, picked it up with trembling fingers. All the time she babbled to herself. “Oh merciful God… oh sweet savior…”

Inigo was crawling toward me, or so I thought. Then I saw that Mihai’s hammer and stake were right there. I squirmed and fought to get the dead weight off of me. Something hard jabbed me in the ribs and I realized that Irish Bob’s pistol was there, caught between us.

As Nadja slapped the magazine into the pistol I gave a great heave and tore the nine millimeter from the clamshell holster. It was a hammerless Glock 17.

Beautiful.

I couldn’t clear the body, though, so I buried the barrel against Irish Bob’s love handle and fired. The bullet met no appreciable resistance as it punched a hole through the dead man and caught Nadja in the stomach. It stopped her as surely as if she’d hit a wall, but there were footsteps in the kitchen. I fired twice more, hitting her in the sternum and then in the chin as she sagged to her knees.

Inigo actually stopped trying to stab me and stared with uncomprehending horror at Nadja.

With a growl I kicked my way out from under the bodies and put two rounds into him. Then I rolled onto my stomach as three figures rushed down the hall toward me. Two of them had guns in their hands, but they were pointing chest high, expecting a stand-up fight. From my prone position I emptied the rest of the magazine into them. The Glock carried seventeen rounds. I’d used three on Nadja and two on Inigo. That gave me twelve bullets to cut these cocksuckers down.

They all went down.

One of them-the guy in front-died right there.

The other two took multiple hits. Arms and legs. I was dazed and hurt and my aim was screwed up, so they lived through it.

That was not going to be a lucky break for them.

Chapter Fifty-Six

CIA Safe House #11

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 12:41 p.m.

I scrambled to my feet and rushed the men in the hall. They were in a groaning heap and covered with blood. One of them tried to bring up his pistol, but I threw my own empty weapon at him, catching him in the face. While he was screaming, I broke his wrist and took the pistol from him. That jacked his screams up another notch. I wasn’t in the mood for it, so I kicked him in the face until he stopped screaming, and then I dragged him by the hair into the living room.

The second survivor wasn’t screaming, but he was conscious. Barely. He tried to crawl away, but his attempt was feeble. Once I disarmed him, I grabbed his ankle and pulled him out and dropped him next to his friend.

I had no cuffs and no rope. On the living room table was a big leather valise of the kind doctors used to carry. I fished in it and found various tools, more hammers and stakes, and a roll of duct tape. Nice. A thousand and one household uses.

I used a lot of it on the wrists and ankles of my two prisoners.

One of them-the guy who hadn’t screamed-had a pretty bad wound high on his thigh. He tried to use his taped hands to staunch the blood flow, so I tore the headscarf off of the dead woman and made a compress of it, then bound it tightly with the tape. Not a great job, but good enough for now. He watched my eyes as I worked, and from his expression of despair I knew that he knew that this wasn’t an act of kindness.

Patting the men down produced wallets with local driver’s licenses. Even though I was never a cop in Iran I could tell that the IDs were phony. Even so, the name on the conscious guy’s license was Krystos Gallikos. The other survivor was Constantin Enescu. A Greek and a Romanian. Add in the Russian broad, the Spanish Inigo, Irish Bob, and whatever the hell Victor and Mihai were and we had a real League of Nations here.

“You speak English?” I asked Krystos.

He stared at me without apparent comprehension.

I simplified things. I put the barrel of his pistol against his forehead, then bent and whispered in his ear. “Don’t fucking move.”

He grasped the subtleties of my request and gave me an enthusiastic nod.

Constantin lay in a fetal ball, apparently unconscious.

Out in the hallway Ghost barked weakly. I shoved the gun into my waistband and hurried out to him. He was a mess, totally entangled in the flexible wire net. It took me a couple of minutes to extricate him, and his panicked flailing did not help. I soothed him and spoke quietly, but Ghost had been pushed past his limits. When he was free he crawled toward me and buried his head on my thighs. He let loose a stream of urine that pooled around him.

I bent and kissed his head and told him that he was a good, brave boy. He gave my face a few nervous licks and his body trembled as badly as if he were in an icebox.

In the enclosed hallway the mingled smells of urine, blood, and garlic made a strange, cloying miasma that was completely unpleasant. It felt like horror and defeat. I tried to coax Ghost to follow me, but he wouldn’t; so I left him where he was for now.

Back in the living room I squatted in front of Krystos. His face was running with greasy sweat.

“I’ll ask this again,” I said, and I was mildly alarmed at how reasonable and calm my voice sounded. Given all that had just happened, this was not necessarily a good thing. “Do you understand English?”

He gave a stubborn shake of his head that allowed me to decide if he was saying no or telling me to go piss off. Behind me I heard a groan and whirled around. It was frigging Inigo, still alive with two bullets in his chest cavity. Tough son of a bitch. He was crawling like a slug toward a pistol that lay on the floor a yard away. I went over and kicked the pistol under the couch.

Inigo turned his head and glared up at me with total hatred. I stepped over and straddled his body, staring down at him from my full height. I looked from him to Krystos and back again.

“Who tipped you off about this place?” I asked him.

“Fuck you!” Inigo growled and tried to spit at me.

“Wrong answer,” I said and shot him in the head.

I made sure I was looking into Krystos’s eyes when I did it. Sometimes you need to use visual aids to really make your point.

Krystos screamed and tried to crawl backward into the wallpaper. There is a difference between seeing death in combat and seeing an execution of someone you know. I lowered the pistol and walked back to Krystos and hunkered down in front of him.

“Okay,” I said into an ugly silence. “Let’s try this again. Do you understand English?”

Krystos whimpered and forked the sign of the evil eye at me with his bloody hands. I rang the barrel of the pistol off the top of his head. Not too hard, but hard enough.

“Last try,” I suggested. “English?”

All at once the fight drained out of him. Maybe he finally grasped the fact that he was totally helpless and I owned his life. He kept staring at what was left of Inigo’s head. Without looking at me, he spoke in a tiny voice. “Y-yes. Some. A little.”

“Good, now we’re getting somewhere,” I said with an approving smile. “Are there any more of you fucktards around here? Anyone else in the house?”

His eyes roved around to take stock of all the dead. He shook his head.

I placed the hot barrel against the knee of his undamaged leg. “Be real sure.”

He whimpered as he cut a quick look toward the stairs and back. “No. My people… are all down here.”

I didn’t like the way he leaned on “my people” and knew that I was going to have to go upstairs. I sure as hell did not want to.

“Who sent you?”

“W-what?”

I said it slower. “Who. Sent. You?”

Now Krystos looked at me, and the expression that washed over his face was one of complete puzzlement. He said, “God.”

His tone of voice suggested that he was surprised I didn’t already know that.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“God,” he said again, shaking his head.

“You’re saying that God sent you to kill me?”

He nodded.

“Do you even know who I am?”

He shook his head. “It does not matter. You are one of them. Upier!”

“Which is what, exactly?”

He shook his head in exasperation, apparently perplexed that I did not know what he was talking about.

“We’ll come back to that,” I said. “Why does ‘God’ want me dead?”

Krystos licked his lips and winced at the taste of his own blood. “To… stop.”

“Stop what? Or who?”

“Evil. Big evil.”

I was getting tired of this and it must have shown on my face because he immediately recoiled from me. “No! Please, no!”

“You’re jerking me around, friend, and I’m not digging it. You can’t be this stupid, so tell me what I want to know or we can up the ante on this game. Who are you people?”

“We are Sabbatarians. We are Sat… Sat…” and again he fished for the English version of a word but this time he came up with it. “The… Saturday People. Our… cell… was alerted. About you,” he said, picking each word with care. “They said… you were working with… the Ordo Ruber. Against God. To… kill us all.”

I sat back on my heels. “What in the wide blue fuck are you talking about? What are ‘Saturday People’?”

Krystos touched his chest then nodded to the dead scattered around the room. “Saturday. All Saturday.” He was trying to tell me something but he was clearly playing the wrong song for the wrong audience. His face twisted in fear and frustration. “They said… I mean… we believed… that there were no more… like you… no more Upierczi left. We thought you were all gone. Years ago. A hundred years. More.”

“What do you mean ‘like me’?”

He looked away, not wanting to say the word. I used the barrel of the pistol to make him face me again. I repeated my question. He thought about it and finally came up with a word that I did understand.

“ Vampir!” he whispered.

Oh boy.

It was all so absurd that I almost smiled. Or, maybe I did. I felt my mouth do something ugly and twisted.

“Let me see if I have this straight. You jackasses think I’m a vampire?”

He cringed away from me, but he also nodded.

“Does that mean you think the Red Knights are vampires?”

Another nod.

I will rip your throat out and drink your life.

“Well, that’s just fucking peachy, isn’t it?” I said with a sigh.

There was a sound and we both turned to see Ghost, weak and trembling, standing in the doorway to the entrance hall. He started to come into the room, but I stopped him with a click of my tongue. Ghost sat down and studied Krystos with savage dog eyes.

A strange expression came over Krystos’s face. He looked at me, confused. “Are you… Stregoni benefici?”

I tried to sort out the translation. “Beneficial witch?”

He gave his head a violent shake. “ Vampir,” he insisted. “Church vampir. Vampir for God.”

“Do I look like a fucking vampire, Einstein?” I snapped. Then I sat back on my heels and blew out my cheeks. “And… I can’t believe I just asked that question.”

Krystos continued to stare at me, but now there was a splinter of doubt in his eyes.

“Okay,” I said, “here’s the game plan. You are going to sit here and not move while I go check the rest of the house. My dog is going to watch you. You do anything to my dog, you even look at him crooked, and you’re going to find that I’m a lot scarier than a vampire. Are we communicating here?”

Krystos cringed back and tried to melt into the wall. “No…!” he gasped. “No hurt. Never hurt white dog… fetch dog… fetch! ”

I was getting more confused by the minute. “You want to play fetch with my dog? Really, you want to make a joke now? ’Cause I have to tell you, pal, it’s not a great time to jerk my chain.”

“No,” he insisted, “ fetch dog. Fetch!”

He searched my face for understanding and obviously found none because I had none to give. He turned his face toward the wall and began muttering prayers.

“You’re less than useless,” I told him as I got to my feet. “Stay there and shut up. Don’t even think about trying to escape. You wouldn’t get far and I’ll kill you for trying.”

He shook his head. Tears ran down his cheeks and dripped onto his shirt. A small part of me wanted to feel sorry for him, hurt and scared as he was, but the rest of me told that part to shut the fuck up.

The house was quiet. I checked the rest of the bodies. They were all dead.

I collected the weapons from the fearless vampire hunters. A couple of guns, some knives, and the hammers and stakes. I looked at those for a moment, still amazed that they were any part of my version of the real world. The stakes were eighteen inches long and lacquered to a high gloss. They hadn’t been whittled, either; each one had been turned on a lathe by someone who understood woodworking. There was a long prayer carved into each one. The writing was tiny and I had to squint to read it, turning the stake in a circle to read the Latin that rolled around and around. Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio; contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium. Imperet illi Deus; supplices deprecamur: tuque, Princeps militiae Caelestis, Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos, qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo, divina virtute in infernum detrude. Amen.

My Latin is only passable, but I could make out some of it: “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle…” As far as I could make out it was a prayer against evil. It seemed to fit the agenda for Krystos and his crew, but it explained nothing.

“Joe, old son,” I said aloud to myself, “you need to go the hell back to Baltimore. You need to take in an Orioles game, get drunk. Maybe get laid. Either way, you need to get your ass out of this freak show of a country.”

How do you process something like this? I mean… these guys were actual vampire hunters. Or, to rephrase that, these total whack jobs were taking their shared delusion to an impressive level.

I found a second leather valise in the dining room. It was crammed with more stakes, pouches of garlic powder, jars of pure garlic oil, and bottles of water marked with a black cross. I opened the lid and sniffed. Far as I could tell it was only water. I looked at the cross again and then back to the babbling guy on the floor.

Holy water? I wondered. Well, why not? What the hell else would it be on a day like this? These jokers had the whole official vampire hunter kit.

Okay, I thought, lots of fruitcakes in the world. People’s beliefs are their own, yada yada.

But why did they think I was a vampire?

Because they think you’re a Red Knight, muttered my inner Cop. I thought about the knight. The eyes, the incredible speed and strength. The fangs.

I will rip your throat out and drink your life.

I’ll buy a lot of weird shit. I mean, my job kind of depends on a belief in weird, but I’ll only walk out onto that ledge as far as science will stretch. I’ll do mad scientists and radical gene therapy. Been there, done that.

But… vampires?

“No fucking way,” I said aloud. The echo of my words came back to sting me.

I didn’t even know where to go with that speculation. I’m hunting rogue nukes in Iran. These guys are European vampire hunters. There’s no couch for both of those things to sit side-by-side on.

“Shut up and check the house,” I told myself.

The kitchen was empty, and I saw only two cars parked outside. No guards with them, but then I hadn’t expected any. I’d check those later. There was no basement. When I came back into the living room I saw the guy with the leg wound slumped over and for a moment I thought he was dead, but I found a pulse in his throat. He’d simply passed out. Whether from blood loss, shock, or fear I couldn’t tell and didn’t much care.

At the foot of the stairs I stopped and cocked my head to listen. I was pretty sure that there was no one else here, but “pretty sure” is a damn poor excuse for certain knowledge. So I left Ghost in the hall, pulled the gun, and ran the stairs.

I found Taraneh and Arastoo Mouradipour in the bedroom.

Or, rather, I found what was left of them.

Interlude Five

Krak des Chevaliers

Headquarters of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller Syria

May 30, 1192 C.E.

“Come in,” said the priest without turning. “You must be cold.”

Sir Guy removed his cloak and drew near to the massive fire that blazed in the stone hearth. The priest’s private study was deep within the bowels of the Krak des Chevaliers, and it was always winter down here.

“Draw near to my fire, my son.”

Nicodemus always said it that way-“my fire”-and it always mildly unnerved Sir Guy, as if the priest ascribed some special meaning to those words that no one but he appreciated.

Nicodemus picked a poker and began jabbing at the burning logs, repositioning them. Each thrust of the metal rod sent up showers of glowing sparks and dropped the ghosts of ashes onto the stones. “Tell me, my friend, what news do you bring from the agreement?”

“I met with Ibrahim as you directed, Father,” said Sir Guy, holding his hands out to the blaze to thaw his fingers. “He is ill, but still strong enough to work. We are nearly finished coding the books. I have four monks working now on the Book of Shadows, but Ibrahim does not seem to trust anyone else with what he is calling the Saladin Codex.”

“He is very secretive,” said Nicodemus, though his tone suggested admiration for that quality.

“However I fear for him,” said Sir Guy. “His health fails and I believe that it is the work itself that assails him. It seems to be draining the life from him with every page.”

“And what sickness do you suppose he has contracted from doing God’s work?” asked the priest with asperity.

Sir Guy chose his words carefully. “Ibrahim and all of his Tariqa are very religious.”

Nicodemus paused to cut him a quick look, then continued to poke at the fire. “Can that not be said of all of us, my son? Did not the two of you conceive this as an expression of your faith and concern for the future of our respective churches?”

“Yes, Father, but when I have doubts and fears about the spiritual cost of this, I have you to turn to. You are the church to me. Ibrahim has no such guide or refuge.”

“Islam has Istighfar,” countered Nicodemus. “It is one of the five pillars of that faith. The Tariqa confess their sins directly to God-not through man. Have you not heard your friend say ‘ astaghfirullah ’? ‘I seek forgiveness from Allah?’”

“I understand that, Father, but when the Saracens pray for forgiveness they often cite specific sins that were made and the passages of their bible which speak of forgiveness of those sins. His struggle comes from the fact that we have essentially written new pages into the Koran and the Bible.”

“Ah,” said Nicodemus. “I see. Tell me then, what sins can he not find forgiveness for?”

“Murder of others of his own faith-”

“‘Sacrifices,’” corrected the old man. “Murder is an act of hate. We do not hate those we kill. We love them, and in loving them we sacrifice them for the preservation of the church and the glory of God.”

Sir Guy took a breath. “Of course, Father. Ibrahim is troubled by having to sacrifice those of great faith. Clerics. Their imams. His heart likewise rebels at the desecration of mosques.”

“And yet, my son, this is the heart of our Agreement. We will each tend to our own flock and sacrifice our own lambs at the altars of God.”

“Yes,” said Sir Guy with passion, “and have you not seen how this also hurts our own people? I mean no insult by this, Father, but you do not go into the field with us. You do not see the wounds we open in the flesh of true believers. You do not hear their voices as they cry out to God for protection against monsters; and you do not hear the weeping of our knights in the night, in the dark. Many of our stoutest knights weep like children for the countless lives they’ve taken. Ibrahim is not the only one who fears for his sanity and his soul.”

Nicodemus gave the fire a final jab and then turned, still holding the poker whose tip now glowed dark red. The blaze in his eyes was hotter still. “Is that what you’ve come here to tell me? Has everyone on both sides lost their nerve, then? I thought our knights were true soldiers of God. Are we to fold our tents so quickly, leaving so much sacred work unfinished?”

“No, Father. I proposed a solution to him that I believe will work to strengthen everyone’s resolve.”

Nicodemus narrowed his eyes. “What solution?”

“What we are doing now is all about, as you so rightly put it, sacrifice, and we have agreed that many sacrifices need to be made in order to inspire the people and remind them of their spiritual duty. We call it the Agreement, and we label each death as a sacrifice because we do not make war on each other. But what if it were otherwise? What I proposed to Ibrahim is a second Agreement that would permit a brand new kind of war. One that has never been fought upon the earth. One which would allow each side to feel the strength of holy purpose in their arm every time they draw a sword.” He stepped closer to the fire and the old priest. “Father, I am saying that we turn our swords against the enemies of God.”

“You are talking a holy war,” growled Nicodemus, “and again I say that we already have that.”

“We have an open war that is doing no one any lasting good. The Crusades have become a business venture to see who possesses the most land and the best trade routes, and for every enemy killed in the name of God there are a hundred slaughtered in the name of profit. I propose a limited war. A quiet war. A war fought in the shadows.”

“Wars escalate. What would prevent this ‘shadow war’ from escalating into random killing, or killing for profit as we have now?”

“We would impose limits and restrictions. This would have to be managed carefully and regularly. Representatives from each side would have to meet regularly to agree on how many deaths would be allowed, how many castles or churches or mosques destroyed, and so on. And we would have to agree on the value of each death. Just as we now select our sacrifices for their importance to the masses, we would share that information with the other side, thereby transforming the process from self-sacrifice to mutually created martyrs.”

Nicodemus pursed his lips and turned away, walking slowly and thoughtfully across the room to the shadowy wall and back again, passing Sir Guy and crossing to the opposite wall. Sir Guy stood in silence, watching the old priest as he paced. Five long minutes passed as Father Nicodemus thought it through, and his seamed face was etched with firelight and shadows. The priest stopped a few feet from the hearth and stared into it for another moment, and then nodded to himself.

“A war of shadows,” he murmured as fire danced like devils in his eyes. “Yes. But your knights, skilled killers that they are, are too clumsy for the kind of killing you propose. This war would require stealth. Spies, who could steal into the strongholds of an enemy and kill them in their beds. That would strike fear into the hearts of the faithless and that would drive them back to God.”

Sir Guy nodded. “Ibrahim said that he could make a deal with the fida’i, those Sufi killers who cause so much trouble for the Templars. The cult of assassins run by Hassan ibn Sabbah. Ibn Sabbah is a great friend of Ibrahim’s. Would that we had their like in Europe. We will have to invent what we need. We will have to find a way to train candidates to become a new breed of warrior. Not knights but assassins like Ibn Sabbah’s fida’i. ”

Nicodemus suddenly straightened and walked a few steps away. He stood staring into the shadows a long time and his body was so rigid with tension that Sir Guy dared not interrupt.

Finally, Nicodemus turned, but his face was in shadow.

“Do not be afraid, my son,” murmured the priest. “God Himself speaks through me and He has whispered a word to me. The answer to what we need to wage our shadow war.”

As Nicodemus stepped forward into the firelight Sir Guy gasped and took an involuntary step backward, for once again a strange and inexplicable change had come over the priest. His brown eyes swirled with colors-leprous yellows and greens, mushroom white, and the mottled brown of toad skin. Sir Guy touched the heavy silver cross that hung around his neck.

“What word?” asked Sir Guy with a dry throat.

The priest smiled, revealing crooked yellow teeth.

“Upierczi,” he whispered.

Part Three

The Blood of Angels

Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life…

— Deuteronomy 12:23

Chapter Fifty-Seven

CIA Safe House #11

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 12:53 p.m.

I sagged against the door frame.

“Ah… Christ…”

The Mouradipours had been stripped naked and tied to wooden chairs. On a nearby table were pliers, a hammer, matches, wire cutters, and other tools. Everything in the room was covered with blood and wrongness. They were both dead. I didn’t need to search for pulses to figure that out. It would be nice to believe that they had died quickly and with some shred of dignity left, but that would be an absurd self-delusion. The team downstairs had torn information from them and then continued on to tear away their humanity. And the bastards had used burning matches to sear crosses over their hearts.

The Mouradipours were Muslim, so if it hadn’t been for the stakes and garlic and all that vampire hunter bullshit I would have figured this for some kind of anti-Islamic statement.

And why kill the Mouradipours and then try to take me captive? Or, was capturing me a prelude to a trip up here to this makeshift torture chamber?

Probably.

Even so, why set up this hit at all? Just to get the flash drive? Or to keep its information out of someone else’s hands? Hours had passed, surely they had to know that I would have passed along that information by now. What was the point of targeting me now?

And how many teams was I facing here?

The Red Knights were one faction, and they were top of the line. I would like to think that I would have won the fight in the hotel without Violin’s help, but I’m not sure I can say that with conviction. I can say without fear of contradiction that I have never faced anyone as fierce or capable as that knight.

On the other hand, the fearless vampire hunters-though clearly organized and violent-were Triple-A ball compared to the knight’s major league status. Sure, the team downstairs was brutal, but they were absurdly clumsy. I’m pretty good in a fight, but I was unarmed when I stepped into the house, and I won this one too easily. They were not exactly amateurs, but they sure as hell weren’t very high up on the professional food chain. If they hunted the Red Knights I wonder what the win-loss ratio was. If this was Vegas I’d bet the farm on the knights for a shutout.

Now, my friend the rat-bastard Rasouli was a third team.

Violin and whoever she worked for were a fourth.

Could I make an argument for any of them being the same team? Hard to say, because I had no idea who was lying to me and who was telling me the truth.

The knight clearly wanted the flash drive and had no love for Rasouli. That seemed obvious. Violin was willing to work with Rasouli to set up the meet this morning, but she said that she considered him to be a spitty place on the sidewalk. She knew about the knights. The knight knew about Arklight, and so did Violin, and she tried to scare the bejesus out of me by saying that my even knowing that name could be fatal. She also warned me away from the knights. The bastards downstairs knew about the knights but so far they hadn’t mentioned anything about Rasouli, the flash drive, Arklight, the Book of Shadows, the Saladin Codex, or the nukes.

And on top of all that, were any of these teams the ones who planted the nukes?

If the nukes were even real.

My head was starting to spin. What would help me fill in the blanks?

I thought about Krystos and the Romanian guy. I looked at the dead bodies and the tools that had been used on them and some very ugly thoughts began forming in my head. The Civilized Man in my head cried out in protest. We didn’t do that kind of thing. The Warrior was grinning and sharpening his knife. He was all for it. I looked to the Cop for the voice of reason, but he kept looking out of my eyes at the innocent couple who had been torn apart.

There was a clean sheet on the bed, and I pulled it off and covered the murdered couple. I don’t know why: it wouldn’t matter to them; it wouldn’t make any of it better. I tried to tell myself that it was out of courtesy and respect, or a token act to afford them some measure of dignity even after this kind of death.

That sounded nice, but it was bullshit.

I couldn’t bear to look at them. If I turned away I knew I’d still see them that way in my mind. If I covered them, then that would be my last memory of them. Or so I hoped. Any lingering regrets I might have had for shooting Inigo drained away and left no trace.

I turned away and searched the upstairs for weapons and found nothing that provided any answers. So I stole one of Mr. Mouradipour’s clean shirts from a hall closet. In the bathroom I washed the blood off my face and throat, ran fingers through my hair, and took a moment to look at the blue eyes in the mirror. They were filled with doubts and questions.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked the man in the mirror. He had no answers at all, so I went back downstairs.

I found Ghost standing in the living room staring at Krystos, who stared back as if mesmerized. I clicked my tongue and Ghost looked at me with a strange expression in his brown eyes. He was not trembling as much as before, and there was more wolf than shepherd in the look he gave me. Maybe it was the smell of fresh blood or the sight of wounded prey. Or maybe the stress had pushed him into a different head space.

“Ghost,” I said, and for a moment he did nothing except stare.

I took a step toward him. It’s a pack leader move, challenging and demanding. He would either back down or go for me.

“Down!” I ordered.

And, with only the slightest hesitation, he lay down. He didn’t roll. I wasn’t asking that of him. But he obeyed my order.

I squatted between Ghost and Krystos. I don’t know if the Greek had participated in the horrors upstairs, or if he even knew about it, but he was part of this team. Apparently the leader of the team, and that put the whole thing on him as far as I was concerned. He could read those thoughts from my expression. He read other things too.

He began to cry.

Chapter Fifty-Eight

CIA Safe House #11

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 12:59 p.m.

I stared at Krystos for a long time without speaking. Twenty, thirty seconds. It always feels longer when you’re holding the low cards. He may have been a tough guy when he had a gun and a crew, but when it came to toughing it out with me, he was holding four low cards and a joker.

Silence and patience were my cards while I waited for him to break.

“P-please…” he said in a hoarse whisper. “For the love of God.”

“Is that what you are, Krystos? A man of God? A true believer?”

“Yes.”

“Your friends, too?”

He glanced around at the dead. “Yes.”

“What’s that mean exactly, being a ‘man of God.’ To you, I mean.”

The word was a tough one for him but he came up with him. “Ordained.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You’re a minister?”

He shook his head. “Priest.”

“Bullshit. What about going to hell for torture and murder?”

Krystos raised his bound wrists and nodded toward his left arm. “Sleeve,” he said.

I pushed his sleeve up and there was tattoo of a cross with Latin words written in an arch above and below it. Above was

AD EXTIRPANDA

Below the cross

EXURGE D ET JUDICA CAUSAM TUAM

“What’s that?”

“Permission,” he said.

When I did not respond, he said something that I pretty much never expected to hear anywhere outside of a Dan Brown novel or an old episode of Monty Python.

“The Holy Inquisition.”

Interlude Six

Fortress of Alamut

Alborz Mountains, Northern Iran.

June 1192 C.E.

Hassan ibn Sabbah sat on a couch that was draped in rich fabrics. Pillows littered the stairs of the dais on which the couch sat. Two warriors stood at the foot of the dais, naked swords laid across their naked arms, their faces as hard and unmoving as stone. The scent of hashish wafted through the chamber and out onto the breeze where it was whipped away high above the mountains.

A carpet lolled out like a great tongue, rippling down the stairs and stretching across the long reception chamber. Sewn into the fabric with delicate skill were fantastical battles. Eagles attacked dragons and tore them to pieces; desert djinn ripped the hearts from crusaders. It had been a gift from Ibn Sabbah’s much missed old friend, the mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam. How Ibn Sabbah wished that his friend had lived to see this day. To see what Ibn Sabbah had accomplished.

He accepted a cup of juice from a servant who then bowed himself away from the dais, and as he sipped Ibn Sabbah studied the fifty men who stood in silent rows on either side of the runner carpet.

His fida’i.

His assassins.

His sacred killers. Guardians of the secret shared with him by his cousin, Ibrahim al-Asiri. Guardians, too, of the faith. Men who would be used to spill the blood of the infidel in the cleverest plan Sabbah had ever heard. Preserving the word of God through the spilling of blood.

A door at the far end of the chamber opened and Ibn Sabbah’s chief advisor entered, followed by six bare-chested guards. Between each guard staggered a man in shackles. The prisoners were freshly washed and wore simple but clean clothes. Ibn Sabbah did not allow prisoners to be mistreated, and he absolutely forbade any unwashed person to enter this room or draw near to that precious carpet. The rows of assassins watched dispassionately as the prisoners were brought to the cleared space to the right of the dais and well away from the carpet. Ibn Sabbah nodded to his advisor who produced a key and unlocked the shackles.

Ibn Sabbah studied the three men. Two of them stared at the floor, terrified, confused, and lost. The third stared up at Ibn Sabbah with the defiance sometimes seen in the eyes of a man who is doomed but who wants to spit in death’s eye. A brave man, which was doubly impressive because this man had seen other prisoners taken from the cells, day after day, and probably heard their screams. This man knew that none of those prisoners ever returned to the dungeons. This one has heart, Ibn Sabbah mused.

The advisor nodded to the guards who trotted over and laid their swords at the feet of the prisoners.

“Pick them up,” ordered Ibn Sabbah.

Only the brave man raised his eyes to Ibn Sabbah. The man was a Sunni with a full beard and gray eyes. “Why? So you can snigger as fifty men cut us to pieces? I spit on such cowardice.”

He made as if to do so, but Ibn Sabbah’s voice stopped him.

“You have a chance to live,” he said. “Do not squander it on an insult that you cannot take back.”

Ibn Sabbah snapped his fingers and a single fida’i assassin stepped out of the line and padded silently to stand facing the prisoners. He carried no sword and had only a small curved dagger in his sash. The brave prisoner stood with lips pursed, but he did not spit. He eyed the assassin and then looked again at Ibn Sabbah.

“This is not a trick,” said Ibn Sabbah. “I make you an offer. Take up those swords and face my man. If you kill or incapacitate him, then you may go free. I will give you each a camel and a pouch of gold coins. Before Allah I swear that I tell the truth.”

The three Sunni prisoners shifted uneasily. The brave one continued to glare at Ibn Sabbah, though now there was doubt in his eyes.

“And if we fail to kill him?”

“Then he will assuredly kill you.”

The brave Sunni nodded. “Which one of us fights him first?”

Ibn Sabbah smiled. “All three of you will fight him. Three men, three swords against my man and his knife. Surely even men such as you-thieves and pirates of the desert-could not call those unfair odds.”

“Your word before Allah?” demanded the brave Sunni.

“May His wrath wither the flesh on my bones and make dust of my household.”

The brave man grinned and fast as lightning he hooked his toe under the blade of the nearest sword and kicked it into the air, caught it like a magician, whirled and charged at the fida’i. The other men, even cowed as they were, bent and snatched up the weapons and joined in, knowing that God had granted them mercy when they believed their lives were over. The three of them charged toward the assassin, closing the few yards in a heartbeat, swords glittering as they struck.

And then the fida’i moved.

His body seemed to vanish like smoke as he dodged in and to one side with incredible speed. The dagger vanished from his sash as he ducked under the sword of the left-handed prisoner, a fat man with bullish shoulders. The assassin danced past him and turned. As he did blood erupted from the fat man’s throat. Like a handful of rubies tossed into the wind, the drops of blood flew into the air and then spattered against the face and chest of the second prisoner, a tall man with the heavy forearms of a miller. The assassin pivoted and dropped low as the second man hacked at him with the sword.

“No!” cried the brave man, but it was too late. The miller was committed to the swing, and the assassin darted in and up; his blade opened a vertical line from crotch to breastbone. He stepped aside as the miller’s entrails erupted from the wound and flopped wetly onto the floor. The miller gagged out a shocked denial as he sagged to his knees and toppled forward.

And now it was the fida’i and the last Sunni.

The Sunni was not a rash man. He had just witnessed two men fall in two seconds, men he had seen kill in desert raids. The sword in his hand felt heavy but its solidity was reassuring. And yet…

The fida’i did not rush him, but instead began circling, stalking with catlike silence. The Sunni suddenly lunged, cutting upward at an angle that almost always caught an opponent off guard. It was nearly impossible to evade the cut at that distance, and the Sunni was not slow. But the assassin fell backward onto the floor, and as the blade passed, he arched his body and flipped to his feet again like an acrobat. When the Sunni checked his swing and cut backward to take the man across the thighs, the assassin leapt into the air, spry as a monkey, and the blade missed his bare feet by an inch.

The assassin landed on the balls of his feet, balanced and ready. The Sunni pivoted and cut again and again and again, alternating long and short slashes; stabbing and chopping. He stamped forward and darted left and right, whipping the sword at the assassin at angles impossible to evade. But the blade never once touched him.

“Stand still you devil!” cried the Sunni as his frustration disintegrated into doubt. With each passing second he began to fear that he was indeed fighting a demon, some desert ghost who could not be harmed by human weapons.

Then behind him, the Sunni heard Ibn Sabbah speak.

“Stop toying with him.”

For a fractured moment the Sunni thought that Ibn Sabbah had directed the comment at him; but then he saw the body language of the fida’i change. It was a subtle thing, a shift from acrobatic evasion to the attack posture of a hawk. With another blur of movement the assassin darted in under the Sunni’s next swing, slipping past the blade with a hair’s breadth to spare.

The Sunni felt the world freeze into a pinpoint of ice. He tried to speak, to ask what had happened, but his jaw would not move. There was a strange pressure under his chin, in his throat, and his brain felt wrong in ways the man could no longer identify. He heard a distant metallic sound and as an afterthought realized that he was no longer holding the sword. He saw the fida’i step back away from him, his hands equally empty. The Sunni reached up to touch his own throat and found the hard, cold edge of a blade there. That made no sense. How could a blade be in such an absurd place?

The room tilted as his knees gave way, and then the Sunni was falling, falling into the void with his jaws pinned shut so that he could not even speak the name of God.

The fida’i stood over him, his naked chest barely heaving to betray the effort he had just spent in the killing of these three men. On the floor, the Sunni lay with the hilt of the dagger pressed up against his soft pallet and the very tip of the blade standing an inch above the top of the man’s skull. The assassin glanced up at Ibn Sabbah, who nodded; then the assassin knelt and pulled his knife blade free.

Ibn Sabbah smiled down at the fida’i and waved him back to his place in line.

Yes, he thought, Ibrahim will be so very pleased.

Chapter Fifty-Nine

CIA Safe House #11

Tehran, Iran

June 15, 1:04 p.m.

I stared at Krystos. He would not meet my eyes.

My phone rang and I looked at the screen display. NO ID. I punched the button.

“Hello, Violin.”

“Joseph, are you all right?”

“Now’s not a good time.”

“I-”

But I ended the call. I was confused enough and didn’t need another cryptic conversation.

On the other hand, in a weird way some of this was starting to make sense, but the sense it made was badly warped, and I knew I was out of my depth. I told Ghost to watch the prisoners; then I walked into the kitchen to make a call. Church answered on the first ring.

I said, “Look, Boss, I know you’re busy-I’m busier.”

“Are you at the safe house?”

“Yes and no. I’m here, but it’s no longer a safe house.”

A slight pause, then he said, “I’m in video conference with Dr. Sanchez and Circe. I’ll cycle you in. Okay, you’re on speaker.”

“Cowboy!” Rudy exclaimed. “How are-?”

“Not a social call, Rude. I’m going to give this to you fast.”

They listened while I told him what had just happened. I heard Rudy curse and Circe gasp when I repeated the word “Upier.” Everyone started asking questions before I even finished. I had to yell to get them to shut the hell up. “Hey, guys-I’m in a compromised safe house with dead bodies and two wounded prisoners. I’m calling for field support, not a panel discussion.”

“Tell us what you need, Captain,” barked Church.