MAP of BONES
ALEXANDRA AND ALEXANDER
MAY BOTH YOUR LIVES SHINE AS
BRIGHTLY AS ALL THE STARS
The precision of any fiction is a reflection of the facts presented. As such, while truth may sometimes be stranger than fiction, fiction must always have a foundation of truth. To that end, all the artwork, relics, catacombs, and treasures described in this story are real. The historical trail revealed within these pages is accurate. The science at the heart of the novel is based on current research and discoveries.
The holy relics were granted to Rainald von Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne (1159–67), following Emperor Barbarossa’s sacking of the city of Milan. Such a treasure was granted to the German Archbishop for his aid and chancellorship in service to the current Emperor. Not all were content to see such a treasure leave Italy…not without a struggle.
THE ARCHBISHOP’S men fled into the shadows of the lower valley. Behind them, atop the winter pass, horses screamed, arrow-bit and cleaved. Men shouted, cried, and roared. The clash of steel rang as silvery as a chapel’s bells.
But it was not God’s work being done here.
The rear guard must hold.
Friar Joachim clutched the reins of his horse as his mount slid on its haunches down the steep slope. The loaded wagon had reached the bottom of the valley safely. But true escape still lay another league away.
If only they could reach it…
With his hands clenched on the reins, Joachim urged his stumbling mare down to the valley’s bottom. He splashed across an icy brook and risked a glance behind him.
Though spring beckoned, winter still ruled the heights. The peaks shone brilliantly in the setting sun. Snow reflected the light, while a billow of rime-frost flagged off the peaks’ razored tips. But here in the shadowed gorges, snowmelt had turned the forest floor into a muddy bog. The horses slogged up to their fetlocks and threatened to break a bone with every step. Ahead the wagon was mired just shy of its axles.
Joachim kicked his mare to join the soldiers at the wagon.
Another team of horses had been hitched to the front. Men pushed from behind. They must reach the trail coursing along the next ridgeline.
“Ey-ya!” yelled the wagon master, snapping a whip.
The lead horse threw its head back and then heaved against the yoke. Nothing happened. Chains strained, horses chuffed white into the cold air, and men swore most foully.
Slowly, too slowly, the wagon dragged free of the mud with the sucking sound of an open chest wound. But it was moving again at last. Each delay had cost blood. The dying wailed from the pass behind them.
The rear guard must hold a little longer.
The wagon continued, climbing again. The three large stone sarcophagi in the open wagon bed slid against the ropes that lashed them in place.
If any should break…
Friar Joachim reached the foundering wagon.
His fellow brother, Franz, moved his horse closer. “The trail ahead scouts clear.”
“The relics cannot be taken back to Rome. We must reach the German border.”
Franz nodded, understanding. The relics were no longer safe upon Italian soil, not with the true pope exiled to France and the false pope residing in Rome.
The wagon climbed more quickly now, finding firmer footing with each step. Still, it trundled no faster than a man could walk. Joachim continued watching the far ridge, staring over his mount’s rump.
The sounds of battle had settled to groans and sobbing, echoing eerily across the valley. The ring of swords had died completely, signaling the defeat of the rear guard.
Joachim searched, but heavy shadows steeped the heights. The bower of black pines hid all.
Then Joachim spotted a flash of silver.
A lone figure appeared, limned in a patch of sunlight, armor glinting.
Joachim did not need to see the red dragon sigil painted on the man’s chestplate to recognize the black pope’s lieutenant. The profane Saracen had taken the Christian name Fierabras, after one of Charlemagne’s paladins. He stood a full head taller than all his men. A true giant. More Christian blood stained his hands than any other man’s. But baptized this past year, the Saracen now stood beside Cardinal Octavius, the black pope who took the name Victor IV.
Fierabras stood in the patch of sunlight, making no attempt to chase.
The Saracen knew he was too late.
The wagon crested the ridge at last and reached the rutted, dry trail atop it. They would make good speed now. German soil lay only a league from here. The Saracen’s ambush had failed.
Movement drew Joachim’s attention.
Fierabras drew a great bow from over a shoulder, black as the shadows. He slowly set arrow to string, notched it, and then leaned back and drew a full pull.
Joachim frowned. What did he hope to win with one feathered bolt?
The bow sprang, and the arrow flew, arching over the valley, lost for a moment in the sunlight above the ridgeline. Joachim searched the skies, tense. Then, as silent as a diving falcon, the arrow struck, shattering into the centermost casket.
Impossibly, the sarcophagus’s lid cracked with the sound of a thunderbolt. Ropes broke free as the crate split, scattering open. Loosed now, all three crates slid toward the open rear of the wagon.
Men ran forward, attempting to stop the stone sarcophagi from crashing to the ground. Hands reached. The wagon was halted. Still, one of the crates tilted too far. It toppled and crushed a soldier beneath, breaking leg and pelvis. The poor man’s scream christened the air.
Franz hurried, dropping from his saddle. He joined the men in attempting to lift the stone crate off the soldier…and more importantly back into the wagon.
The sarcophagus was lifted, the man dragged free, but the crate was too heavy to raise to the wagon’s height.
“Ropes!” Franz yelled. “We need ropes!”
One of the bearers slipped. The sarcophagus fell again, on its side. Its stone lid fell open.
The sound of hoofbeats rose behind them. On the trail. Coming fast. Joachim turned, knowing what he’d find. Horses, lathered and shining in the sun, bore down on them. Though a quarter league off, it was plain all the riders were dressed in black. More of the Saracen’s men. It was a second ambush.
Joachim merely sat his horse. There would be no escape.
Franz gasped — not at their predicament, but at the contents of the spilled sarcophagus. Or rather the lack thereof.
“Empty!” the young friar exclaimed. “It’s empty.”
Shock drove Franz back to his feet. He climbed atop the wagon’s bed and stared into the crate shattered by the Saracen’s arrow.
“Nothing again,” Franz said, falling to his knees. “The relics? What ruin is this?” The young friar found Joachim’s eyes and read the lack of surprise. “You knew.”
Joachim stared back at the rushing horses. Their caravan had all been a ruse, a ploy to draw off the black pope’s men. The true courier had left a day ahead, with a mule team, bearing the true relics wrapped in rough-spun cloth and hidden inside a hay bundle.
Joachim turned to stare across the vale at Fierabras. The Saracen might have his blood this day, but the black pope would never have the relics.
JULY 22, 11:46 P.M.
AS MIDNIGHT approached, Jason passed his iPod to Mandy. “Listen. It’s Godsmack’s new single. It’s not even released in the States yet. How cool is that?”
The reaction was less than Jason hoped. Mandy shrugged, expressionless, but she still took the proffered earphones. She brushed back the pink-dyed tips of her black hair and settled the phones to her ears. The movement opened her jacket enough to reveal the press of her applesized breasts against her black Pixies T-shirt.
“I don’t hear anything,” Mandy said with a tired sigh, arching an eyebrow at him.
Oh. Jason turned his attention back to his iPod and pressed Play.
He leaned back on his hands. The two were seated on a thin grass sward that framed the open pedestrian plaza, called the Domvorplatz. It surrounded the massive gothic cathedral, the Kölner Dom. Perched on Cathedral Hill, it commanded a view over the entire city.
Jason gazed up the length of the twin spires, decorated with stone figures, carved in tiers of marble reliefs that ranged from the religious to the arcane. Now, lit up at night, it held an eerie sense of something ancient risen from deep underground, something not of this world.
Listening to the music leaking from the iPod, Jason watched Mandy. Both were on summer holiday from Boston College, backpacking through Germany and Austria. They were traveling with two other friends, Brenda and Karl, but the other two were more interested in the local pubs than attending tonight’s midnight mass. Mandy, though, had been raised Roman Catholic. Midnight masses at the cathedral were limited to a few select holidays, each attended by the Archbishop of Cologne himself, like tonight’s Feast of the Three Kings. Mandy had not wanted to miss it.
And while Jason was Protestant, he had agreed to accompany her.
As they waited for the approach of midnight, Mandy’s head bopped slightly to the music. Jason liked the way her bangs swept back and forth, the way her lower lip pouted out as she concentrated on the music. Suddenly he felt a touch on his hand. Mandy had shifted her arm closer, brushing her hand atop his. Her eyes, though, remained fixed on the cathedral.
Jason held his breath.
For the past ten days, the two had found themselves thrown together more and more often. Before the trip, they had been no more than acquaintances. Mandy had been Brenda’s best friend since high school, and Karl was Jason’s roommate. Their two respective friends, new lovers, hadn’t wanted to travel alone, in case their budding relationship soured while traveling.
So Jason and Mandy often ended up sightseeing alone.
Not that Jason minded. He had been studying art history back at college. Mandy was majoring in European studies. Here their dry academic textbooks were given flesh and girth, weight and substance. Sharing a similar thrill of discovery, the two found each other easy traveling companions.
Jason kept his own eyes averted from her touch, but he did move one finger closer to hers. Had the night just gotten a tad brighter?
Unfortunately the song ended too soon. Mandy sat straighter, pulling away her hand to remove the earphones.
“We should be getting inside,” she whispered, and nodded toward the line of people flowing through the open door of the cathedral. She stood up and buttoned her jacket, a conservative black suit coat, over her flamboyant T-shirt.
Jason joined her as she smoothed her ankle-length skirt and combed the pink tips of her hair behind her ears. In a breath, she transformed from a slightly punk college student into a staid Catholic schoolgirl.
Jason gaped at the sudden transformation. In black jeans and a light jacket, he felt suddenly underdressed to attend a religious service.
“You look fine,” Mandy said, seeming to read his worry.
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
They gathered their things, threw their empty Coke cans into a nearby trashcan, and crossed the paved Domvorplatz.
“Guten Abend,” a black-frocked deacon greeted them at the door. “Willkommen.”
“Danke,”. Mandy mumbled as they climbed the stairs.
Ahead, candlelight flowed through the cathedral’s open doorway, flickering down the stone steps. It enhanced the feeling of age and ancientness. Earlier in the day, while taking a cathedral tour, Jason had learned that the cathedral’s cornerstone had been laid back in the thirteenth century. It was hard to fathom such a breadth of time.
Bathed in candlelight, Jason reached the massive carved doors and followed Mandy into the front foyer. She dabbed holy water from a basin and made the sign of the cross. Jason felt suddenly awkward, acutely aware that this was not his faith. He was an interloper, a trespasser. He feared a misstep, embarrassing himself and in turn Mandy.
“Follow me,” Mandy said. “I want to get a good seat, but not too close.”
Jason stepped after her. As he entered the church proper, awe quickly overwhelmed unease. Though he had already been inside and learned much about the history and art of the structure, he was again struck by the simple majesty of the space. The long central nave stretched four hundred feet ahead of him, bisected by a three-hundred-foot transept, forming a cross with the altar at the center.
Yet it was not the length and breadth of the cathedral that captured his attention, but its impossible height. His eyes were drawn up and up, guided by pointed archways, long columns, and the vaulted roof. A thousand candles trailed thin spirals of smoke, sailing heavenward, flickering off the walls, redolent with incense.
Mandy led him toward the altar. Ahead, the transept areas to either side of the altar had been roped off, but there were plenty of empty seats in the central nave.
“How about here?” she said, stopping midway up the aisle. She offered a small smile, half thanks, half shyness.
He nodded, struck dumb by her plain beauty, a Madonna in black.
Mandy took his hand and pulled Jason down to the end of the pew, by the wall. He settled to his seat, glad for the relative privacy.
Mandy kept her hand in his. He felt the heat of her palm.
The night certainly was brightening.
Finally, a bell sounded and a choir began to sing. The Mass was beginning. Jason took his cues from Mandy: standing, kneeling, and sitting in an elaborate ballet of faith. He followed none of it, but found himself intrigued, becoming lost in the pageantry: the robed priests swinging smoking globes of incense, the processional that accompanied the arrival of the archbishop with his tall miter hat and gold-trimmed vestments, the songs sung by both choir and parishioners, the lighting of the Feast candles.
And everywhere the art became as much a part of the ceremony as the participants. A wooden sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus, called the Milan Madonna, glowed with age and grace. And across the way, a marble statue of Saint Christopher bore a small child in his arms with a beatific smile. And overlooking all were the massive Bavarian stained-glass windows, dark now, but still resplendent with reflected candlelight, creating jewels out of ordinary glass.
But no piece of art was more spectacular than the golden sarcophagus behind the altar, locked inside glass and metal. While only the size of a large trunk and constructed in the shape of a miniature church, the reliquary was the centerpiece of the cathedral, the reason for the construction of such a massive house of worship, the focal point of faith and art. It protected the church’s most holy relics. Constructed of solid gold, the reliquary had been forged before the cathedral had even broken ground. Designed by Nicolas of Verdun in the thirteenth century, the sarcophagus was considered to be the best example of medieval goldwork in existence.
As Jason continued his study, the service wound slowly toward the end of the Mass, marked by bells and prayers. At last, it came time for Communion, the breaking of the Eucharistic bread. Parishioners slowly filed from their pews, traveling up the aisles to accept the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
When her time came, Mandy rose along with the others in her pew, slipping her hand from his. “I’ll be right back,” she whispered.
Jason watched his pew empty and the slow procession continue toward the altar. Anxious for Mandy’s return, he rose to stretch his legs. He used the moment to study the statuary that flanked a confessional booth. Now standing, he also regretted that third can of Coke he had consumed. He glanced back toward the cathedral’s vestibule. There was a public restroom outside the nave.
Glancing longingly back there, Jason was the first to spot a group of monks entering the rear of the cathedral, filing through all the back doors. Though in full-length black robes, hooded and belted at the waist, something immediately struck Jason as odd. They moved too quickly, with an assured military precision, slipping into shadows.
Was this some final bit of pageantry?
A glance around the cathedral revealed more cloaked figures at other doors, even beyond the roped transept beside the altar. While keeping their heads bowed piously down, they also seemed to be standing guard.
What was going on?
He spotted Mandy near the altar. She was just accepting her Communion. There were only a handful of parishioners behind her. Body and blood of Christ, Jason could almost lip-read.
Amen, he answered himself.
The Communion finished. The last parishioners returned to their seats, including Mandy. Jason waved her into the pew, then sat next to her.
“What’s with all the monks?” he asked, leaning forward.
She had knelt down with her head bowed. Her only answer was a shushing sound. He sat back. Most of the parishioners were also kneeling, heads bowed. Only a few like Jason, those who had not taken Communion, remained seated. Ahead, the priest finished tidying up, while the elderly archbishop sat atop his raised dais, chin to chest, half dozing.
The mystery and pageantry had died to embers in Jason’s heart. Maybe it was just the pressure of his bladder, but all he wanted to do was get out of here. He even reached to Mandy’s elbow, ready to urge her to leave.
Motion ahead stopped him. The monks on either side of the altar pulled weapons from beneath folds of cloth. Gunmetal shone with oil in the candlelight, snub-nosed Uzis, mounted with long black silencers.
A chatter of gunfire, no louder than a chain-smoker’s staccato cough, spat across the altar. Heads rose along the pews. Behind the altar, the priest, garbed in white, danced with the impacts. It appeared as if he were being pelted with paintballs — crimson paintballs. He fell atop the altar, spilling the chalice of wine along with his own blood.
After a stunned silence, cries rose from the parishioners. People sprang up. The elderly archbishop stumbled from his dais, drawing to his feet in horror. The sudden motion knocked his miter hat to the floor.
Monks swept up the aisles…from the rear and the sides. Orders were shouted and barked in German, French, and English.
Bleiben Sie in Ihren Sitzen…Ne bouge pas…
The voices were muffled, the faces beneath the hoods obscured by half-masks of black silk. But the raised weapons punctuated their orders.
Stay seated or die!
Mandy sat back with Jason. Her hand reached for his. He clutched her fingers and glanced around, unable to blink. All the doors were closed, guarded.
What was going on?
From the pack of armed monks near the main entrance, a figure appeared, dressed like the others, only taller, seeming to rise as if called forth. His cloak was more like a cape. Clearly some leader, he carried no weapon as he strode boldly down the central aisle of the nave.
He met the archbishop at the altar. A heated argument ensued. It took Jason a moment to realize they were speaking in Latin. The archbishop suddenly fell back in horror.
The leader stepped aside. Two men came forward. Guns blazed. The aim was not murder. They fired upon the faceplate that sealed the golden reliquary. Glass etched and pocked, but held. Bulletproof.
“Thieves…” Jason mumbled. This was all an elaborate robbery.
The archbishop seemed to draw strength from the stubbornness of the glass, standing taller. The leader of the monks held out his hand, speaking still in Latin. The archbishop shook his head.
“Lassen Sie dann das Blut Ihrer Schafe Ihre Hände beflecke,” the man said, speaking German now.
Let your sheep’s blood be upon your hands.
The leader waved another two monks to the front. They flanked the sealed vault and lifted large metal disks to either side of the casement. The effect was instantaneous.
The weakened bulletproof glass exploded outward as if shoved by some unseen wind. In the flickering candlelight, the sarcophagus shimmered. Jason felt a sudden pressure, an internal popping of his ears, as if the walls of the cathedral had suddenly pushed inward, squashing all. The pressure deafened his ears; his vision squeezed.
He turned to Mandy.
Her hand was still clasped tightly to his, but her neck was arched back, her mouth stretched open.
From the corner of his eye, he saw other parishioners fixed in the same wracked poses. Mandy’s hand began to tremble in his, vibrating like a speaker’s tweeter. Tears ran down her face, turning bloody as he watched. She did not breathe. Her body then jerked and stiffened, knocking his hand free, but not before he felt the bite of an electrical shock arc from her fingertips to his.
He stood up, too horrified to sit.
A thin trail of smoke rose from Mandy’s open mouth.
Her eyes were rolled back to white, but already they were smoldering black at the corners.
Jason, muted by terror, searched the cathedral. The same was happening everywhere. Only a few were unscathed: a pair of young children, pinned between their parents, cried and wailed. Jason recognized the unaffected. Those who had not partaken of the Communion bread.
He fell back into the shadows by the wall. His motion had gone momentarily unnoticed. His back found a door, one unguarded by the monks. Not a true door.
Jason pulled it open enough to slip inside the confessional booth.
He fell to his knees, crouching down, hugging himself.
Prayers came to his lips.
Then, just as suddenly, it ended. He felt it in his head. A pop. A release of pressure. The walls of the cathedral sighing back.
He was crying. Tears ran cold over his cheeks.
He risked peeking out a hole in the confessional door.
Jason stared, finding a clear view of the nave and the altar. The air reeked of burnt hair. Cries and wails still echoed, but now the chorus came from only a handful of throats. Those still living. One figure, from his ragged garb apparently a homeless man, stumbled out of the pew and ran down a side aisle. Before taking ten steps, he was shot in the back of the head. One shot. His body sprawled.
Oh God…oh God…
Biting back sobs, Jason kept his eyes focused toward the altar.
Four monks lifted the golden sarcophagus from its shattered case. The slain priest’s body was kicked from the altar and replaced by the reliquary. The leader slipped a large cloth sack from beneath his cloak. The monks opened the reliquary’s lid and upended the contents into the bag. Once empty, the priceless sarcophagus was toppled to the floor and abandoned with a crash.
The leader shouldered his burden and headed back down the central aisle with the stolen relics.
The archbishop called to him. Again in Latin. It sounded like a curse.
The only response was a wave of the man’s arm.
Another of the monks stepped behind the archbishop and raised a pistol to the back of the man’s head.
Jason slunk down, wanting to see no more.
He closed his eyes. Other shots rang out across the cathedral. Sporadic. Cries suddenly silenced. Death stalked the cathedral as the monks slaughtered the few remaining survivors.
Jason kept his eyes closed and prayed.
A moment before, he had spotted the coat of arms upon the leader’s surcoat. The man’s black cloak had parted as he’d lifted his arm, revealing a crimson sigil beneath: a coiled dragon, the tail wrapped around its own neck. The symbol was unknown to Jason, but it had an exotic feel to it, more Persian than European.
Beyond the confessional door, the cathedral had grown stone silent.
The tread of booted footsteps approached his hiding place.
Jason squeezed his eyes tighter, against the horror, against the impossibility, against the sacrilege.
All for a sack of bones.
And though the cathedral had been built around those bones, and countless kings had bowed before them, even this very mass was a Feast to those long-dead men — the Feast of the Three Kings — one question rose foremost in Jason’s mind.
Images of the Three Kings were found throughout the cathedral, done in stone, glass, and gold. In one panel, the Wise Men led camels across a desert, guided by the Star of Bethlehem. In another, the adoration of the Christ child was depicted, showing kneeling figures offering of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
But Jason closed his mind to all of this. All he could picture was Mandy’s last smile. Her soft touch.
The boots stopped outside his door.
He silently cried for an answer to all this bloodshed.
Why steal the bones of the Magi?
BEHIND THE EIGHT BALL
JULY 24, 4:34 A.M.
THE SABOTEUR had arrived.
Grayson Pierce edged his motorcycle between the dark buildings that made up the heart of Fort Detrick. He kept the bike idling. Its electric engine purred no louder than a refrigerator’s motor. The black gloves he wore matched the bike’s paint, a nickel-phosphorous compound called NPL Super Black. It absorbed more visible light, making ordinary black seem positively shiny. His cloth body suit and rigid helmet were equally shaded.
Hunched over the bike, he neared the end of the alley. A courtyard opened ahead, a dark chasm framed by the brick-and-mortar buildings that composed the National Cancer Institute, an adjunct to USAMRIID, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Here the country’s war on bioterrorism was waged across sixty thousand square feet of maximum-containment labs.
Gray cut the engine but stayed seated. His left knee rested against the satchel. It held the seventy thousand dollars. He remained in the alley, avoiding the open courtyard. He preferred the dark. The moon had long set, and the sun would not rise for another twenty-two minutes. Even the stars remained clouded by the shredding tail of last night’s summer storm.
Would his ruse hold?
He subvocalized into his throat mike. “Mule to Eagle, I’ve reached the rendezvous. Proceeding on foot.”
“Roger that. We’ve got you on satellite.”
Gray resisted the urge to look up and wave. He hated to be watched, scrutinized, but the deal here was too big. He did manage to gain a concession: to take the meeting alone. His contact was skittish. It had taken six months to groom this contact, brokering connections in Libya and the Sudan. It hadn’t been easy. Money did not buy much trust. Especially in this business.
He reached down to the satchel and shouldered the money bag. Wary, he walked his bike over to a shadowed alcove, parked it, and hooked a leg over the seat.
He crossed down the alley.
There were few eyes awake at this hour, and most of those were only electronic. All of his identification had passed inspection at the Old Farm Gate, the service entrance to the base. And now he had to trust that his subterfuge held out long enough to evade electronic surveillance.
He glanced to the glowing dial on his Breitling diver’s watch: 4:45. The meeting was set for fifteen minutes from now. So much depended on his success here.
Gray reached his destination. Building 470. It was deserted at this hour, due for demolition next month. Poorly secured, the building was perfect for the rendezvous, yet the choice of venue was also oddly ironic. In the sixties, spores of anthrax had been brewed inside the building, in giant vats and tanks, fermenting strains of bacterial death, until the toxic brewery had been decommissioned back in 1971. Since then, the building had been left fallow, becoming a giant storage closet for the National Cancer Institute.
But once again, the business of anthrax would be conducted under this roof. He glanced up. The windows were all dark. He was to meet the seller on the fourth floor.
Reaching the side door, he swiped the lock with an electronic keycard supplied by his contact at the base. He carried the second half of the man’s payment over his shoulder, having wired the first half a month before. Gray also bore a foot-long plastic, carbonized dagger in a concealed wrist sheath.
His only weapon.
He couldn’t risk bringing anything else through the security gate.
Gray closed the door and crossed to the stairwell on the right. The only light on the stairs came from the red EXIT sign. He reached to his motorcycle helmet and toggled on the night-vision mode. The world brightened in tones of green and silver. He mounted the stairs and climbed quickly to the fourth floor.
At the top, he pushed through the landing’s door.
He had no idea where he was supposed to meet his contact. Only that he was to await the man’s signal. He paused for a breath at the door, surveying the space before him. He didn’t like it.
The stairwell opened at the corner of the building. One corridor stretched straight ahead; the other ran to the left. Frosted glass office doors lined the inner walls; windows slitted the other. He proceeded directly ahead at a slow pace, alert for any sign of movement.
A flood of light swept through one of the windows, washing over him.
Dazzled through his night-vision, he rolled against one wall, back into darkness. Had he been spotted? The sweep of light pierced the other windows, one after the other, passing down the hall ahead of him.
Leaning out, he peered through one of the windows. It faced the wide courtyard that fronted the building. Across the way, he watched a Humvee trundle slowly down the street. Its searchlight swept through the courtyard.
Would the attention spook his contact?
Cursing silently, Gray waited for the truck to finish its round. The patrol vanished momentarily, crossing behind a hulking structure that rose from the middle of the courtyard below. It looked like some rusting spaceship, but was in fact a million-liter steel containment sphere, three stories tall, mounted on a dozen pedestal legs. Ladders and scaffolding surrounded the structure as it underwent a renovation, an attempt to return it to its former glory when it was a Cold War research facility. Even the steel catwalk that had once circumnavigated the globe’s equator had been replaced.
Gray knew the giant globe’s nickname at the base.
The Eight Ball.
A humorless smile creased his lips as he realized his unlucky position.
Trapped behind the eight ball…
The patrol finally reappeared beyond the structure, slowly crossed the front of the courtyard, and rolled away.
Satisfied, Gray continued to the end of the corridor. A set of swinging double doors blocked the passage, but their narrow windows revealed a larger room beyond. He spotted a few tall, slender metal and glass tanks. One of the old labs. Windowless and dark.
His approach must have been noted.
A new light flared inside, incandescent, bright enough to require Gray to flick off his night-vision. A flashlight. It blinked three times.
He stepped to the door and used a toe to push open one of the swinging sides. He slid through the narrow opening.
“Over here,” a voice said calmly. It was the first time Gray had heard his contact’s voice. Prior to this moment, it had always been electronically muffled, a paranoid level of anonymity.
It was a woman’s voice. The revelation piqued his wariness. He didn’t like surprises.
He followed through a maze of tables with chairs stacked on top. She sat at one of the tables. Its other chairs were still stacked atop it. Except for one. On the opposite side of the table. It shifted as she kicked one of the legs.
Gray had expected to find a nervous scientist, someone out for an extra paycheck. Treason for hire was becoming more and more commonplace among the top research facilities.
USAMRIID was no exception…only a thousandfold more deadly. Each vial for sale had the capability, if properly aerosolized in a subway or bus station, to kill thousands.
And she was selling fifteen of them.
He settled into his seat, placing the satchel of money on the table.
The woman was Asian…no, Eurasian. Her eyes were more open, her skin deeply tanned to a handsome bronze. She wore a black turtlenecked bodysuit, not unlike the one he wore, hugging a slim, lithe frame. A silver pendant dangled from her neck, bright against her suit, bearing a tiny curled-dragon charm. Gray studied her. The Dragon Lady’s features, rather than taut and wary like his own, appeared bored.
Of course, the 9mm Sig Sauer pointed at his chest and equipped with a silencer might be the source of her confidence. But it was her next words that truly iced his blood.
“Good evening, Commander Pierce.”
He was startled to hear his name.
If she knew that…
He was already moving…and already too late.
The gun fired at near-point-blank range.
The impact kicked his body backward, taking the chair with him. He landed on his back, tangled in the chair legs. Pain flattened his chest, making it impossible to breathe. He tasted blood on his tongue.
She stepped around the table and leaned over his sprawled form, gun still pointing, taking no chances. The silver dragon pendant dangled and flashed brightly. “I suspect you’re recording all this through your helmet, Commander Pierce. Perhaps even transmitting to Washington…to Sigma. You won’t mind if I borrow a little airtime, will you?”
He was in no position to object.
The woman leaned closer over him. “In the next ten minutes, the Guild will shut down all of Fort Detrick. Contaminate the entire base with anthrax. Payback for Sigma’s interference with our operation in Oman. But I owe your director, Painter Crowe, something more. Something personal. This is for my sister in the field, Cassandra Sanchez.”
The gun shifted to his faceplate.
“Blood for blood.”
She pulled the trigger.
FORTY-TWO MILES away, the satellite feed went dead.
“Where’s his backup?” Painter Crowe kept his voice firm, biting back a litany of curses. Panic would not serve them.
“Still ten minutes out.”
“Can you re-establish the link?”
The technician shook his head. “We’ve lost main feed from his helmet cam. But we still have the bird’s-eye of the base from the NRO sat.” The young man indicated another monitor. It showed a black-and-white overshot of Fort Detrick, centered on a courtyard of buildings.
Painter paced before the array of monitors. It had all been a trap, one directed at Sigma and aimed at him personally. “Alert Fort Detrick’s security.”
“Sir?” The question rose from his second-in-command, Logan Gregory.
Painter understood Logan’s hesitation. Only a handful of those in power knew of Sigma and the agents it employed: the President, the Joint Chiefs, and his immediate supervisors over at DARPA. After last year’s shake-up among the top brass, the organization was under intense scrutiny.
Mistakes would not be tolerated.
“I won’t risk an agent,” Painter said. “Call them in.”
“Yes, sir.” Logan crossed to a phone. The man appeared more a California surfer than a leading strategist: blond hair, tanned, fit but going a bit soft in the belly. Painter was his darker shadow, half Native American, black hair, blue eyes. But he had no tan. He didn’t know the last time he had seen the sun.
Painter wanted to sit down, lower his head to his knees. He had assumed control of the organization only eight months ago. And most of that time had been spent restructuring and shoring up security after the infiltration of the group by an international cartel known as the Guild. There had been no telling what information had been gleaned, sold, or spread during this time, so everything had to be purged and rebuilt from scratch. Even their central command had been pulled out of Arlington and moved to a subterranean warren here in Washington.
In fact, Painter had come in early this morning to unpack boxes in his new office when he had received the emergency call from satellite recon.
He studied the monitor from the NRO satellite.
He knew what the Guild was doing. Four weeks ago, Painter had begun to put operatives into the field again, the first in more than a year. It was a tentative test. Two teams. One over in Los Alamos investigating the loss of a nuclear database…and the other in his own backyard, over at Fort Detrick, only one hour from Washington.
The Guild’s attack sought to shake Sigma and its leader. To prove that the Guild still had knowledge to undermine Sigma. It was a feint to force Sigma to pull back again, to regroup, possibly to disband. As long as Painter’s group was out of commission, the Guild had a greater chance to operate with impunity.
That must not happen.
Painter stopped his pacing and turned to his second, the question plain on his face.
“I keep getting cut off,” Logan said, nodding to the earpiece. “They’re having intermittent communication blackouts throughout the base.”
Certainly the handiwork of the Guild too…
Frustrated, Painter leaned on the console and stared at the mission’s dossier. Imprinted atop the manila file was a single Greek letter.
In mathematics, the letter, sigma represented “the sum of all parts,”, the unification of disparate sets into a whole. It was also emblematic of the organization Painter directed: Sigma Force.
Operating under the auspices of DARPA — the Department of Defense’s research and development wing — Sigma served as the agency’s covert arm out in the world, sent forth to safeguard, acquire, or neutralize technologies vital to U.S. security. Its team members were an ultrasecret cadre of ex — Special Forces soldiers who had been handpicked and placed into rigorous fast-track doctoral programs, covering a wide range of scientific disciplines, forming a militarized team of technically trained operatives.
Or in plainer language, killer scientists.
Painter opened the dossier before him. The team leader’s file fronted the record.
Dr. and Commander Grayson Pierce.
The agent’s photograph stared up at him from the upper right corner. It was the man’s mug shot from his year of incarceration at Leavenworth. Dark hair shaved to a stubble, blue eyes still angry. His Welsh heritage was evident in the sharp cheekbones, wide eyes, and strong jaw. But his ruddy complexion was all Texan, burnt by the sun over the dry hills of Brown County.
Painter didn’t bother glancing over the inch-thick file. He knew the details. Gray Pierce had joined the Army at eighteen, the Rangers at twenty-one, and served to distinction off and on the field. Then, at twenty-three, he was court-martialed for striking a superior officer. Painter knew the details and the back history of the two in Bosnia. And considering the events, Painter might have done the same. Still, rules were codified in granite among the armed forces. The decorated soldier spent one year in Leavenworth.
But Gray Pierce was too valuable to be cast aside forever.
His training and skill could not be wasted.
Sigma had recruited him three years ago, right out of prison.
Now Gray was a pawn between the Guild and Sigma.
One about to be crushed.
“I’ve got base security!” Logan said, relief ringing in his voice.
“Get them over—”
“Sir!” The technician leapt to his feet, still tethered to his console by the headset’s cord. He glanced to Painter. “Director Crowe, I’m picking up a trace audio feed.”
“What—?” Painter stepped closer to the technician. He raised a hand to hold off Logan.
The technician turned up the feed on the speakers.
A tinny voice reached them though the video feed remained fritzed.
One word formed.
GRAY KICKED out a heel, catching the woman in the midriff. He felt a satisfying thud of flesh, but heard nothing. His ears rang from the concussion of the slug against his Kevlar helmet. The shot had spider-webbed his faceshield. His left ear burned as the electronic bay shorted with a burst of static.
He ignored it all.
Rolling to his feet, he slipped the carbonized dagger from its wrist sheath and dove under a neighboring row of tables. Another shot, sounding like a loud cough, penetrated the ring of his ears. Wood splintered from the edge of the table.
He cleared the far side and kept a wary crouch while searching the room. His kick had caused the woman to drop her flashlight, which rolled on the floor, skittering shadows everywhere. He fingered his chest. The body blow of the assassin’s first shot still burned and ached.
But no blood.
The woman called to him from the shadows. “Liquid body armor.”
Gray dropped lower, attempting to pinpoint the woman’s location. The dive under the table had jarred his helmet’s internal heads-up display. Its holographic images flickered incoherently across the inside of his faceshield, interfering with his sightlines, but he dared not abandon the helmet. It offered the best protection against the weapon still in the woman’s hand.
That and his body suit.
The assassin was right. Liquid body armor. Developed by U.S. Army Research Laboratory in 2003. The fabric of his body suit had been soaked with a shear-thickening fluid — hard microparticles of silica suspended in a polyethylene glycol solution. During normal movement, it acted like a liquid, but once a bullet struck, the material solidified into a rigid shield, preventing penetration. The suit had just saved his life.
At least for now.
The woman spoke again, coldly calm, as she slowly circled toward the door. “I rigged the building with C4 and TNT. Easy enough since the structure’s already scheduled for demolition. The Army was nice enough to have it all prewired. It just took a minor detonator modification to change the building’s implosion to one that will cause an explosive updraft.”
Gray pictured the resulting plume of smoke and debris riding high into the early morning sky. “The vials of anthrax…” he mumbled, but it was loud enough to be heard.
“It seemed fitting to use the base’s own demolition as a toxic delivery system.”
Christ, she had turned the entire building into a biological bomb.
With the strong winds, it was not only the base at risk, but the entire town of nearby Frederick.
Gray moved. She had to be stopped. But where was she?
He edged toward the door himself now, wary of her gun, but he couldn’t let that stop him. Too much was at stake. He tried flicking on his night-vision mode, but all he earned was another snap of flame by his ear. The heads-up display continued its erratic flashing, dazzling and confusing to the eye.
He thumbed the catch and yanked the helmet off.
The fresh wash of air smelled moldy and antiseptic at the same time. Staying low, he carried the helmet in one hand, the dagger in the other. He reached the back wall and hurried toward the door. He could see well enough to tell the swinging door hadn’t moved. The assassin was still in the room.
And what could he do to stop her? He squeezed the handle of his knife. Gun against dagger. Not good odds.
With his helmet off, he spotted a shift of shadows near the door. He stopped, going dead still. She was crouched three feet from the door, shielded by a table.
Watery light filtered from the hallway, glowing through the windows of the swinging doors. Dawn neared, brightening the passage beyond. The assassin would have to expose herself to make her escape. For the moment, she clung to the shadows of the windowless lab, unsure if her opponent was armed or not.
Gray had to stop playing this Dragon Lady’s game.
With a roundhouse swing, he threw his helmet toward the opposite side of the lab. It landed with a crash and tinkle of glass, shattering one of the old tanks.
He ran toward her position. He only had seconds.
She popped from her hiding place, swiveling to lay down fire in the direction of the noise. At the same time, she leaped gracefully toward the door, seeming to use the recoil from her gun to propel her.
Gray could not help but be impressed — but not enough to slow him.
With his arm already cocked, he whipped his dagger through the air. Weighted and balanced to perfection, the carbonized blade flew with unerring accuracy.
It struck the woman square in the hollow of her throat.
Gray continued his headlong rush.
Only then did he realize his mistake.
The dagger bounced harmlessly away and clattered to the floor.
Liquid body armor.
No wonder the Dragon Lady knew about his body suit. She was wearing the same.
The attack, though, threw off her leap. She landed in a half crash, plainly turning a knee. But ever the skilled assassin, she never lost sight of her target.
From a step away, she aimed the Sig Sauer at Gray’s face.
And this time, he had no helmet.
WE’VE LOST all contact again,” the technician said needlessly.
Painter had heard the loud crash a moment before, then all went deadly silent on the satellite feed.
“I still have base security,” his second said by the phone.
Painter tried to piece together the cacophony he had heard over the line. “He tossed his helmet.”
The other two men stared at him.
Painter studied the open dossier in front of him. Grayson Pierce was no fool. Besides his military expertise, the man had first come to Sigma’s attention because of his aptitude and intelligence tests. He was certainly above the norm, well above, but there were soldiers with even higher scores. What had been the final factor in the decision to recruit him had been his odd behavior while incarcerated at Leavenworth. Despite the hard labor of the camp, Grayson had taken up a rigorous regimen of study: in both advanced chemistry and Taoism. This disparity in his choice of study had intrigued Painter and Sigma’s former director, Dr. Sean McKnight.
In many ways, he proved to be a walking contradiction: a Welshman living in Texas, a student of Taoism who still carried a rosary, a soldier who studied chemistry in prison. It was this very uniqueness of his mind that had won him membership into Sigma.
But such distinctiveness came with a price.
Grayson Pierce did not play well with others. He had a profound distaste for working with a team.
Like now. Going in alone. Against protocol.
“Sir?” his second persisted.
Painter took a deep breath. “Two more minutes.”
THE FIRST shot whistled past his ear.
Gray was lucky. The assassin had shot too fast, before being properly set. Gray, still in motion from his lunge, just managed to duck out of the way. A head shot was not as easy as the movies made it seem.
He tackled the woman and pinned her gun between them. Even if she fired, he would still have a good chance of surviving.
Only it would hurt like hell.
She fired, proving this last point.
The slug slammed into his left thigh. It felt like a hammer blow, bruising to the marrow. He screamed. And why the hell not? It stung like a motherfucker. But he didn’t let go. He used his anger to slam an elbow into her throat. But her body armor stiffened, protecting her.
She pulled the trigger again. He outweighed her, outmuscled her, but she didn’t need the strength of fist and knee. She had the might of modern artillery at her disposal. The slug sucker-punched into his gut. Pounded all the way to his spine, his breath blew out of him. She was slowly maneuvering her gun upward.
The Sig Sauer had a fifteen-round magazine. How many shots had she fired? Surely she still had enough to pound him into a pulp.
He needed to end this.
He lifted his head back and slammed his forehead into her face. But she was no novice to brawling. She turned her head, taking the blow to the side of her skull. Still, it bought him enough time to kick out at a cord trailing from the nearby table. The library lamp attached to it came crashing to the floor. Its green glass shade shattered.
Bear-hugging the woman, he rolled her over the lamp. It was too much to hope that the glass would penetrate her body suit. But that wasn’t his goal.
He heard the pop of the lamp’s bulb under their combined weight.
Frogging his legs under him, Gray leaped outward. It was a gamble. He flew toward the light switch beside the swinging door.
A cough of a pistol accompanied a slam into his lower back.
His neck whiplashed. His body struck the wall. As he bounded off, his hand palmed the electrical box and flipped the switch. Lights flickered across the lab, unsteady. Bad wiring.
He fell back toward the assassin.
He couldn’t hope to electrocute his nemesis. That only happened in the movies, too. That wasn’t his goal. Instead, he hoped whoever had last used the desk had left the lamp switched on.
Keeping his feet, he pivoted around.
The Dragon Lady sat atop the broken lamp, arm outstretched toward him, gun pointing. She pulled the trigger, but her aim was off. One of the windows in the swinging door shattered.
Gray stepped around to the side, moving farther out of range. The woman could not track him. She was frozen rigidly in place, unable to move.
“Liquid body armor,” he said, repeating her earlier words. “The liquid does make for a flexible suit, but it also has a disadvantage.” He stalked up to her side and relieved her of her gun. “Propylene glycol is an alcohol, a good conductor of electricity. Even a small charge, like from a broken lightbulb, will flow over a suit in seconds. And as with any assault, the suit reacts.”
He kicked her in the shin. The suit was as hard as a rock.
“Goes rigid on you.”
Her own suit had become her prison.
He searched her rapidly as she strained to move. With effort, she could make slow progress, but no more than the rusted Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.
She gave up. Her face reddened from her strain. “You won’t find any detonator. It’s all on a timer. Set for—” Her eyes glanced down to a wristwatch. “Two minutes from now. You’ll never deactivate all the charges.”
Gray noted the number on her watch drop below 02:00.
Her life was tied to that number, too. He saw the flicker of fear in her eyes — assassin or not, she was still human, afraid of her own mortality — but the rest of her face only hardened to match her rigid suit.
“Where did you stash the vials?”
He knew she wouldn’t tell him. But he watched her eyes. For a moment, the pupils shifted slightly up, then centered on him.
It made sense. He needed no other confirmation. Anthrax—Bacillus anthracis—was sensitive to heat. If she wanted the bloom of toxic spores to spread outward from the blast, the vials would have to be up high, caught in the initial concussive blast and jettisoned skyward. She couldn’t risk the heat of the explosion incinerating the weaponized bacterium.
Before he could move, she spat at him, hitting him on the cheek.
He didn’t bother wiping it off.
He didn’t have the time.
He straightened and ran for the door.
“You’ll never make it!” she called after him. Somehow she knew he was going for the bio-bomb, not fleeing for his own life. And for some reason, that pissed him off. Like she knew him well enough to make that assumption.
He ran down the outer corridor and skidded into the stairwell. He pounded up the two flights to reach the roof door. The exit had been modified to meet OSHA standards. A panic bar gated the door, made for quick evacuation in case of a fire.
Panic pretty much defined this moment.
He struck the bar, initiating an alarm Klaxon, and pushed out into the dark gray of early dawn. The roof was tar and paper. Sand crunched underfoot. He scanned the area. There were too many places to hide the vials: air vents, exhaust pipes, satellite dishes.
He was running out of time.
"HE’S ON the roof!” the technician said, jabbing a finger at the monitor from the NRO satellite.
Painter leaned closer and spotted a tiny figure stepping into view. What was Grayson doing on the roof? Painter searched the immediate area. “Any sign of pursuit?”
“None that I can detect, sir.”
Logan spoke from the phone. “Base security reports a fire alarm going off in Building 470.”
“Must’ve tripped the exit alarm,” the tech interjected.
“Can you get us any closer?” Painter asked.
The technician nodded and toggled a switch. The image zoomed down atop Grayson Pierce. His helmet was gone. His left ear appeared stained, bloody. He continued to stand by the doorway.
“What is he doing?” the tech asked.
“Base security is responding,” Logan reported.
Painter shook his head, but a cold certainty iced through him. “Tell base security to stay away. Have them evacuate anyone near that building.”
GRAY SCANNED the roof one more time. The emergency Klaxon continued to wail. He ignored it, drawing inward. He had to think like his quarry.
He crouched low. It had rained last night. He imagined the woman had only planted the vials recently, after the downpour. He looked carefully and noted where the sand washed smooth by the rain had been disturbed. It wasn’t too difficult, as he knew she had to have passed through this door. It was the only roof access.
He trailed her steps.
They led across the roof to a hooded exhaust vent.
The exhaust flume would serve as the perfect chimney to expel the spores as the lower levels of the building imploded, creating a toxic blowgun.
Kneeling, he spotted where she had tampered with the hood, disturbing an old layer of rust. He didn’t have the time to check for booby traps. He yanked the vent off with a grunt.
The bomb rested inside the duct. The fifteen glass vials were arrayed in a starburst around a central pellet of C4, just enough to shatter the containers. He stared at the white powder filling each tube. Biting his lower lip, he reached down and carefully lifted the bomb out of the duct’s throat. A timer counted down.
Free of the ductwork, Gray straightened. He did a fast check of the bomb. It was rigged against tampering. He had no time to decipher the wires and electronics. The bomb was going to go off. He had to get it away from the building, away from the blast zone, preferably away from him.
Only one chance.
He tucked the bomb into a nylon ditty pouch over one shoulder and stalked to the front of the building. Headlights aimed toward the building, drawn by the alarm. Base security would never reach here in time.
He had no choice.
He had to get clear…no matter his own life.
Retreating several steps from roof’s edge, he took a deep breath, then sprinted back toward the front of the building. Reaching the roof’s edge, he bounded up and leaped over the brick parapet.
He sailed out over the six-story drop.
CHRIST ALMIGHTY!” Logan exclaimed as Grayson made the leap off the roof.
“He’s numb-nuts crazy,” the tech appended, jerking to his feet.
Painter simply watched the man’s suicidal ploy. “He’s doing what he must.”
GRAY KEPT his legs under him, arms out for balance. He plummeted earthward. He prayed the laws of physics, velocity, trajectory, and vector analysis didn’t betray him.
He readied for the impact.
Two stories below and twenty yards out, the spherical roof of the Eight Ball rose up to meet him. The million-liter steel containment globe glistened with morning dew.
He twisted in midair, struggling to keep his plunge feet-first.
Then time sped up. Or he did.
His booted feet hit the surface of the sphere. The liquid body armor cemented around his ankles, protecting against a break. Momentum slammed him forward, facedown, spread-eagled. But he had not reached the center of the sphere’s roof, only the curved shell closest to Building 470.
Fingers scrabbled, but there was no grip, no traction.
His body slid down the dew-slick steel, twisting slightly askew. He spread his legs, toes dragging for friction. Then he was past the point of no return, free-falling down the sheer side.
With his cheek pressed to the steel, he didn’t see the catwalk until he struck it. His left leg hit, then his body tumbled after it. He landed on hands and knees atop the metal scaffolding that had been built around the equator of the steel globe. He shoved to his feet, legs wobbling from the strain and the terror.
He couldn’t believe he was still alive.
He searched the curve of the sphere while freeing the bio-bomb from his ditty bag. The surface of the containment globe was pocked with portholes, once used by scientists to observe their biological experiments inside. In all the years of its regular use, no pathogen had ever escaped.
Gray prayed the same held true this morning.
He glanced to the bomb in his hand: 00:18.
With no time to curse, he ran along the exterior catwalk, searching for an entry hatch. He found it half a hemisphere away. A steel door with a porthole. He sprinted to it, grabbed the handle, and tugged.
It refused to budge.
PAINTER WATCHED Grayson tug at the hatch on the giant sphere. He noted the frantic strain, recognized and understood the urgency. Painter had seen the explosive device retrieved from the exhaust duct. He knew the mission objective of Grayson’s team: to lure out a suspected trafficker in weaponized pathogens.
Painter had no doubt what form of death lay inside the bomb.
Plainly, Grayson could not defuse the device and sought to safely dispose of it.
He was having no luck.
How much time did he have?
Grayson ran again. Maybe there was another hatch. He clomped around the catwalk. He felt like he was running in ski boots, his ankles still cemented in his body suit.
He circled another half a hemisphere.
Another hatch appeared ahead.
“YOU! HOLD RIGHT THERE!”
The fierceness and boom of the bullhorn almost made him obey.
He kept running. A spotlight splayed over him.
“STOP OR WE’LL FIRE!”
He had no time to negotiate.
A deafening rattle of gunfire pelted the side of the sphere, a few rounds pinging off the catwalk. None were near. Warning shots.
He reached the second hatch, grabbed the handle, twisted, and tugged.
It stuck for a breath, then popped open. A sob of relief escaped him.
He pitched the device into the hollow interior of the sphere, slammed the door secure, and leaned his back against it. He slumped to his seat.
“YOU THERE! STAY WHERE YOU ARE!”
He had no intention of going anywhere. He was happy right where he was. He felt a small jolt on his back. The sphere rang like a struck bell. The device had blown inside, safely contained.
But it was only the primer cord of greater things to come.
Like the clash of titanic gods, a series of jarring explosions rocked the ground.
Sequential, timed, engineered.
It was the wired demolitions of Building 470.
Even insulated on the far side of the sphere, Gray felt the slight suck of air, then a mighty whoosh of displacement as the building took its last deep breath and expelled it. A dense wall of dust and debris washed outward as the building collapsed. Gray glanced up in time to see a mighty plume of smoke and dust bloom upward, seeding high and spreading out with the wind.
But no death rode this breeze.
A final explosion thundered from the dying building. A rumble of brick and rock sounded, a stony avalanche. The ground bumped under him — then he heard a new sound.
The screech of metal.
Shoved by the explosion, its foundations shaken, two of the Eight Ball’s support legs popped and bent, as if the sphere were attempting to kneel. The whole structure tilted away from the building, toward the street.
More legs popped.
And once started, there was no stopping it.
The million-liter containment sphere toppled toward the line of security trucks.
With Gray directly under it.
He shoved up and scrabbled along the tilting catwalk, struggling to get clear of the impact. He ran several steps, but the way quickly grew too steep as the sphere continued its plummet. Catwalk became ladder. He dug his fingers into the metal framework, kicked his legs at the support struts of the railings. He fought to get out from beneath the shadow of the crushing weight of the globe.
He made one final desperate lunge, grabbing a handhold and digging in his toes.
The Eight Ball struck the front lawn of the courtyard and pounded into the rain-soaked loam. The impact traveled up the catwalk, slamming Gray from his perch. He flew several yards and landed on his back on the soft lawn. He had only been a few yards from the ground.
Sitting up, he leaned on one elbow.
The line of security trucks had retreated as the ball fell toward them.
But they would not stay gone. And he must not get caught.
Gray gained his feet with a groan and stumbled back into the pall of smoke from the collapsed building. Only now did he hear the alarms ringing throughout the base. He shed out of his body suit as he moved, transferring his identification tags to his civilian clothes beneath. He hurried to the far side of the courtyard, to the next building, to where he had left his motorcycle.
He found it intact.
Throwing a leg over the seat, he keyed the ignition. The engine purred happily to life. He reached for the throttle, then paused. Something had been hooked around his handlebar. He freed it, stared at it for a moment, then shoved it in a pocket.
He throttled up and edged his bike to a neighboring alleyway. The path appeared clear for the moment. He hunched down, gunned the engine, and shot between the dark buildings. Reaching Porter Street, he made a sharp left turn, coming around fast, leaning out his left knee for balance. Only a couple cars shared the street. None of them appeared to be MP vehicles.
He zigzagged around them and sped off toward the more rural section of the base that surrounded Nallin Pond, a parkland region of gently rolling hills and patches of hardwood forest.
He would wait out the worst of the commotion, then slip away. For now, he was safe. Still, he felt the weight of the object in his pocket, left as decoration on his bike.
A silver chain…with a dangling dragon pendant.
PAINTER STEPPED back from the satellite console. The technician had caught Grayson’s escape by motorcycle as he appeared out of the cloud of smoke and dust. Logan was still on the phone, passing information down a series of covert channels, sounding the all-clear. Whitewashed from on high, the trouble at the base would be blamed on miscommunication, faulty wiring, decomposing munitions.
Sigma Force would never be mentioned.
The satellite tech held his earpiece in place. “Sir, I have a telephone call from the director of DARPA.” “Switch it over here.” Painter plucked up another receiver. He listened as the scrambled communication was routed.
The tech nodded to him as the dead air over the line seemed to breathe to life. Though no one spoke, Painter could almost sense his mentor and commander. “Director McKnight?” he said, suspecting the man was calling to get a mission debrief.
His suspicion proved wrong.
He heard the stress in the other’s voice. “Painter, I just received some intel out of Germany. Strange deaths at a cathedral. We need a team on the ground there by nightfall.”
“Details will follow within the quarter hour. But we’re going to need your best agent to head this team.”
Painter stared over at the satellite monitor. He watched the motorcycle skim through the hills, flickering through the sparse canopy of trees.
“I may have just the man. But may I ask what the urgency is?”
“A call came in early this morning, requesting Sigma to investigate the matter in Germany. Your group has been specifically summoned.”
“Summoned? By whom?”
To have Dr. McKnight this rattled, it had to be someone as high up as the President. But once again, Painter’s supposition proved wrong.
The director explained, “By the Vatican.”
THE ETERNAL CITY
JULY 24, NOON
SO MUCH for making her lunch date.
Lieutenant Rachel Verona climbed down the narrow stairs that led deep under the Basilica of San Clemente. The excavation below the church had been under way for two months, overseen by a small team of archaeologists from the University of Naples.
“Lasciate ogni speranza…”Rachel muttered.
Her guide, Professor Lena Giovanna, the project leader, glanced back at her. She was a tall woman, mid-fifties, but the permanent crook in her back made her seem older and shorter. She offered Rachel a tired smile. “So you know your Dante Alighieri. And in the original Latin no less. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate! Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Rachel felt a twinge of embarrassment. According to Dante, those words were written on the gates of Hell. She had not meant her words to be heard, but the acoustics here left little privacy. “No offense intended, Professore.”
A chuckle answered her. “None taken, Lieutenant. I was just surprised to find someone in the military police with such fluency in Latin. Even someone working for the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale.”
Rachel understood the misconception. It was fairly typical to paint all the Carabinieri Corps with the same brush. Most civilians only saw the uniformed men and women guarding streets and buildings, armed with rifles. But she had entered the Corps not as a military soldier, but with a graduate degree in psychology and art history. She had been recruited into the Carabinieri Corps right out of the university, spending an additional two years at the officers’ training college studying international law. She had been handpicked by General Rende, who ran the special unit involved with the investigation of art and antiquity thefts, the Tutela Patrimonio Culturale.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Rachel stepped into a pool of dank water. The storm of the past few days had flooded the subterranean level. She glanced down sourly. At least it was only ankle-deep.
She wore a borrowed set of rubber boots that were too large, meant for a man. She carried her new Ferragamo pumps in her left hand, a birthday gift from her mother. She dared not leave them on the stairs. Thieves were always about. If she lost her shoes or got them soiled, she’d never hear the end of it from her mother.
Professor Giovanna, on the other hand, wore a utilitarian coverall, an attire more fitting for exploring waterlogged ruins than Rachel’s navy slacks and silk flowered blouse. But when Rachel’s pager had gone off a quarter hour ago, she had been heading over to a lunch date with her mother and sister. She’d had no time to return to her apartment and change into her carabiniere uniform. Not if she was going to have any chance of still making that lunch.
So she had come directly here, meeting up with a pair of local carabinieri. Rachel had left the military policemen up in the basilica while she performed the initial investigation into the theft.
In some regards, Rachel was glad for the temporary reprieve. She had put off for too long letting her mother know that she and Gino had broken up. In fact, her ex-boyfriend had moved out more than a month ago. Rachel could already picture the knowing disappointment in her mother’s eyes, accompanied by the usual noises that implied I told you so without coming out and actually saying it aloud. And her older sister, three years married, would be pointedly twisting that diamond wedding band on her finger and nodding her head sagely.
Neither had been pleased with Rachel’s choice of profession.
“How are you to keep a husband, you crazy girl?” her mother had intoned, throwing her arms toward heaven. “You cut your beautiful hair so short. You sleep with a gun. No man can compete with that.”
As a consequence, Rachel rarely left Rome to visit her family in rural Castel Gandolfo, where their family had settled after World War II, in the shadow of the pope’s summer residence. Only her grandmother understood her. The two had shared a love of antiquities and firearms. While growing up, Rachel had listened avidly to her stories of the war: gruesome tales laced with graveyard humor. Her nonna even kept a Nazi P-08 Luger in her bedside table, oiled and polished, a relic stolen from a border guard during her family’s flight. There was no knitting booties for that old woman.
“It’s just up ahead,” the professor said. She splashed forward toward a glowing doorway. “My students are keeping watch on the site.”
Rachel proceeded after her guide, reached the low doorway, and ducked through. She straightened into a cavelike room. Illuminated by carbide lanterns and flashlights, the vault of the roof arched overhead, constructed of hewn blocks of volcanic tufa sealed crudely with plaster. A man-made grotto. Plainly a Roman temple.
As Rachel waded into the room, she was all too conscious of the weight of the basilica overhead. Dedicated to Saint Clement in the twelfth century, the church had been built over an earlier basilica, one constructed back in the fourth century. But even this ancient church hid a deeper mystery: the ruins of a first-century courtyard of Roman buildings, including this pagan temple. Such overbuilding was not uncommon, one religion burying another, a stratification of Roman history.
Rachel felt a familiar thrill course through her, sensing the press of time as solidly as the weight of stone. Though one century buried another, it was still here. Mankind’s earliest history preserved in stone and silence. Here was a cathedral as rich as the one above.
“These are my two students from the university,” the professor said. “Tia and Roberto.”
In the semidarkness, Rachel followed the professor’s gaze and looked down, discovering the crouching forms of the young man and woman, both dark haired and similarly attired in soiled coveralls. They had been tagging bits of broken pottery and now rose to greet them. Still grasping her shoes in one hand, Rachel shook their hands. While of university age, the two appeared no older than fifteen. Then again, maybe it was because she’d just celebrated her thirtieth birthday, and everyone seemed to be growing younger except her.
“Over here,” the professor said, and led Rachel to an alcove in the far wall. “The thieves must have struck during last night’s storm.”
Professor Giovanna pointed her flashlight at a marble figure standing in a far niche. It stood a meter tall — or would have if the head weren’t missing. All that remained was a torso, legs, and a protruding stone phallus. A Roman fertility god.
The professor shook her head. “A tragedy. It was the only piece of intact statuary discovered here.”
Rachel understood the woman’s frustration. Reaching out, she ran her free hand over the stump of the statue’s neck. Her fingers felt a familiar roughness. “Hacksaw,” she mumbled.
It was the tool of the modern-day graverobber, easy to conceal and wield. With just such a simple instrument, thieves had stolen, damaged, and vandalized artwork across Rome. It took only moments for the theft to occur, done many times in plain sight, often while a curator’s back was turned. And the reward was well worth the risk. Trafficking in stolen antiquities had proved a lucrative business, surpassed only by narcotics, money laundering, and arms dealing. As such, the military had formed the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, the Cultural Heritage Police, back in 1992. Working alongside Interpol, they sought to stem this tide.
Rachel crouched before the statue and felt a familiar burn in the pit of her stomach. By bits and pieces, Roman history was being erased. It was a crime against time itself.
“Ars longa, vita brevis,” she whispered, a quote from Hippocrates. One of her favorites. Life is short, art eternal.
“Indeed,” the professor said in a pained voice. “It was a magnificent find. The chisel work, the fine detail, the work of a master artisan. To mar it so savagely…”
“Why didn’t the bastards just steal the whole statue?” asked Tia. “At least it would’ve been preserved intact.”
Rachel tapped the statue’s phallic protuberance with one of her shoes. “Despite the convenient handle here, the artifact is too large. The thief must already have an international buyer. The bust alone would be easier to smuggle across the border.”
“Is there any hope of recovery?” Professor Giovanna asked.
Rachel did not offer any false promises. Of the six thousand pieces of antiquity stolen last year, only a handful had been recovered. “I’ll need photographs of the intact statue to post with Interpol, preferably concentrating on the bust.”
“We have a digital database,” Professor Giovanna said. “I can forward pictures by e-mail.”
Rachel nodded and kept her focus on the beheaded statue. “Or Roberto over there could just tell us what he did with the head.”
The professor’s eyes darted to the young man.
Roberto took a step back. “Wh-what?” His gaze traveled around the room, settling again on his teacher. “Professore…truly, I know nothing. This is crazy.”
Rachel kept staring at the beheaded statue — and at the one clue available to her. She had weighed the odds of playing her hand now or back at the station. But that would’ve meant interviewing everyone, taking statements, a mountain of paperwork. She closed her eyes, thinking of the lunch to which she was already late. Besides, if she had any hope of recovering the piece, speed could prove essential.
Opening her eyes, she spoke to the statue. “Did you know that sixty-four percent of archaeological thefts are abetted by workers at the site?” She turned to the trio.
Professor Giovanna frowned. “Truly you don’t think Roberto—”
“When did you discover the statue?” Rachel asked.
“T-two days ago. But I posted our discovery on the University of Naples website. Many people knew.”
“But how many people knew the site would be unguarded during last night’s storm?” Rachel kept her focus on one person. “Roberto, do you have anything to say?”
His face was a frozen mask of disbelief. “I…no…I had nothing to do with this.”
Rachel unsnapped her radio from her belt. “Then you won’t mind if we search your garret. Perhaps to turn up a hacksaw, something with enough trace marble in its teeth to match the statue here.”
A familiar wild look entered his eyes. “I…I…”
“The minimum penalty is five years in prison,” she pressed. “Obbligatorio.”
In the lamplight, he visibly paled.
“That is, unless you cooperate. Leniency can be arranged.”
He shook his head, but it was unclear what he was denying.
“You had your chance.” She raised her radio to her lips. The squawk of static echoed loudly in the arched space as she pressed the button.
“No!” Roberto raised his hand, stopping her as she suspected he would. His gaze dropped to the floor.
A long silence stretched. Rachel did not break it. She let the weight build.
Roberto finally let out a soft sob. “I…had debts…gambling debts. I had no choice.”
“Dio mio,” the professor swore, raising a hand to her forehead. “Oh Roberto, how could you?”
The student had no answer.
Rachel knew the pressure placed on the boy. It was not unusual. He was only a tiny tendril in a much larger organization, so widely spread and embedded that it could never be fully rooted out. The best Rachel could hope was to keep picking at the weeds.
She lifted the radio to her lips. “Carabiniere Gerard, I’m heading up with someone who has additional information.”
She clicked the radio off. Roberto stood with his hands over his face, his career ruined.
“How did you know?” the professor asked.
Rachel did not bother explaining that it was not uncommon for members of organized crime to ply, petition, or coerce cooperation among site workers. Such corruption was rampant, catching up the unsuspecting, the naive.
She turned away from Roberto. It was often only a matter of discerning who in the research team was the weak spot. With the young man, she had made an educated guess, then applied pressure to see if she was correct. It had been a risk playing her hand too soon. What if it had been Tia instead? By the time Rachel was done chasing the wrong lead, Tia could have passed a warning on to her buyers. Or what if it had been Professor Giovanna, padding her university salary by selling her own discovery? There were so many ways it could’ve all gone sour. But Rachel had learned it took risk to win reward.
Professor Giovanna continued staring at her, the same question in her eyes. How had she known to accuse Roberto?
Rachel glanced to the statue’s stone phallus. It had taken only one clue — but a prominent one at that. “It’s not only the top head that sells well on the black market. There’s a huge demand for ancient art of the erotic nature. It outsells more conservative pieces almost fourfold. I suspect neither of you two women would’ve had any problem sawing off that prominent appendage, but for some reason, men are reluctant. They take it so personally.”
Rachel shook her head and crossed to the stairs leading up to the basilica. “They won’t even neuter their own dogs.”
STILL SO very, very late…
Checking her watch, Rachel hurried across the stone piazza in front of the San Clemente Basilica. She stumbled on a loose cobble, bobbled a few steps, but managed to keep her feet. She glanced back at the stone, as if it were at fault — then down to her toes.
A wide scuff marred the outer edge of her shoe.
Rolling her eyes heavenward, she wondered which saint she had offended. By now, they must be lining up to take a number.
She continued across the plaza, avoiding a covey of bicyclists that scattered around her like frightened pigeons. She moved more cautiously, reminding herself of the wise words of Emperor Augustus.
Festina lente. Make haste slowly.
Then again, Emperor Augustus didn’t have a mother who could nag the hide off a horse.
She finally reached her Mini Cooper parked at the edge of the plaza. The midday sun cast it in blinding silver. A smile formed, the first of the day. The car was another birthday present. One to herself. You only turned thirty once in your life. It was a bit extravagant, especially upgrading to leather and opting for the S-convertible model.
But it was the joy of her life.
That might be one of the reasons Gino left her a month ago. The car inspired her far more than the man sharing her bed. It had been a good trade. The car was more emotionally available.
And then again…it was a convertible. She was a woman who appreciated flexibility — if she couldn’t get it from her man, she’d get it from her car.
Though today it was too hot to go topless.
She unlocked the door, but before she climbed inside, her cell phone chimed at her belt.
It was probably Carabiniere Gerard, into whose care she had just left Roberto. The student was on his way to be interrogated at Parioli Station. She squinted at the incoming phone number. She recognized the international telephone prefix—39–06—but not the number.
Why was someone from the Vatican calling her?
Rachel flipped her cell phone to her ear. “Lieutenant Verona here.”
A familiar voice answered. “How is my favorite niece doing today…besides aggravating her mother?”
“Uncle Vigor?” A smile formed. Her uncle, better known as Monsignor Vigor Verona, headed the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology. But he was not calling from his university office.
“I called your mother, thinking you were with her. But it seems a carabiniere’s work follows no clock. A fact, I think, that your dear mother does not appreciate.”
“I’m on my way to the restaurant right now.”
“Or you would be…if not for my call.”
Rachel leaned a hand against her car. “Uncle Vigor, what are you—”
“I’ve already passed on your regrets to your mother. She and your sister will see you for an early dinner instead. At Il Matriciano. You’ll be paying, of course, due to the inconvenience.”
No doubt Rachel would pay — and in more ways than just in euros. “What’s this all about, Uncle?”
“I need you to join me here at the Vatican. Immediately. I’ll have a pass waiting for you at the St. Anne’s Gate.”
She checked her watch. She would have to cross half of Rome. “I’m supposed to meet with General Rende back at my station to follow up on an open investigation.”
“I’ve already spoken with your commander. He’s approved your excursion here. In fact, I have you for a full week.”
“Or more. I’ll explain all when you get here.” He gave her directions to where he wanted to meet. Her brow crinkled, but before she could ask more, her uncle signed off.
“Ciao, my bambina.”
Shaking her head, she climbed into her car.
A week or more?
It seemed when the Vatican spoke, even the military listened. Then again, General Rende was a family friend, going back two generations. He and Uncle Vigor were as close as brothers. It wasn’t pure chance that Rachel had been brought to the general’s attention and recruited from the University of Rome. Her uncle had been watching over her since her father had died in a bus accident fifteen years before.
Under his tutelage, she had spent many summers exploring Rome’s museums, staying with the nuns of Saint Brigida, not far from the Gregorian University, better known as il Greg, where Uncle Vigor had studied and still taught. And while her uncle might have preferred she had entered the convent and followed in his footsteps, he had recognized she was too much of a hellion for such a pious profession and encouraged her to pursue her passion. He had also instilled in her one other gift during those long summers: the respect and love of history and art, where the greatest expressions of mankind were cemented in marble and granite, oil and canvas, glass and bronze.
And now it seemed her uncle was not done with her yet.
Slipping on a pair of blue-tinted Revo sunglasses, she pulled out onto Via Labicano and headed toward the massive Coliseum. Traffic congested around the landmark, but she crisscrossed through some backstreets, narrow and lined with crookedly parked vehicles. She zipped, slipping between the gears with the skill of a Grand Prix racer. She downshifted as she approached the entrance to a roundabout where five streets converged into a mad circle. Visitors considered Roman drivers ill-tempered, short of patience, and heavy of foot. Rachel found them sluggish.
She lunged between an overloaded flatbed and a boxy Mercedes G500 utility vehicle. Her Mini Cooper appeared to be no more than a sparrow flitting between two elephants. She flicked around the Mercedes, filled the tiny space in front of it, earned the blare of a car horn, but she was already gone. She whisked off the roundabout and onto the main thoroughfare that headed toward the Tiber River.
As she raced down the wide street, she kept an eye fixed to the flow of traffic on all sides. To move safely through Roman streets required not so much caution as it did strategic planning. As a result of such particular attention, Rachel noted her tail.
The black BMW sedan swung into position, five cars back.
Who was following her — and why?
FIFTEEN MINUTES later, Rachel pulled into the entrance of an underground parking garage just outside the walls of the Vatican. As she descended, she searched the street behind her. The black BMW had vanished shortly after she had crossed the Tiber River. There was still no sign of it.
“Thank you,” she said into her cell phone. “The car is gone.”
“Are you secure?” It was the warrant officer from her station house. She had called in the tail and kept the line open.
“It appears to be.”
“Do you want a patrol sent out?”
“No need. There are carabinieri on guard on the Square. I’ll be fine from here. Ciao.”
She felt no embarrassment for calling in the false alarm. She would earn no ridicule. The Carabinieri Corps fostered a certain level of healthy paranoia among its men and women.
She found a parking space, climbed out, and locked her car. Still, she kept her cell phone in hand. She would’ve preferred her 9mm.
At the top of the ramp, she stepped out of the car park and crossed toward St. Peter’s Square. Though she approached one of the architectural masterpieces of the world, she kept a watch on the nearby streets and alleys.
There continued to be no sign of the BMW.
The car’s occupants had probably just been tourists, surveying the city’s landmarks in air-conditioned luxury rather than on foot in the blaze of the midday heat. Summer was high season, and all visitors eventually headed to the Vatican. It was most likely the very reason she thought she was being followed. Was it not said that all roads lead to Rome?
Or at least in this case, all traffic.
Satisfied, she pocketed her cell phone and crossed St. Peter’s Square, heading toward the far side.
As usual, her eyes were drawn down the length of the piazza. Across the travertine square rose St. Peter’s Basilica, built over the tomb of the martyred saint. Its dome, designed by Michelangelo, was the highest point in all of Rome. To either side, Bernini’s double colonnade swept out in two wide arcs, framing the keyhole-shaped plaza between. According to Bernini, the colonnade was supposed to represent the arms of Saint Peter reaching out to embrace the faithful into the fold. Atop these arms, one hundred and forty stone saints perched and stared down upon the spectacle below.
And a spectacle it was.
What had once been Nero’s circus continued to be a circus.
All around, voices babbled in French, Arabic, Polish, Hebrew, Dutch, Chinese. Tour groups congregated in islands around guides; sightseers stood with arms around shoulders, wearing false grins as photographs were taken; a few pious stood in the sun, Bibles open in hands, heads bowed in prayers. A tiny cluster of Korean supplicants knelt on the stones, all dressed in yellow. Throughout the square, vendors worked the crowd, selling papal coins, scented rosaries, and blessed crucifixes.
She gratefully reached the far side of the square and approached one of the five entrances to the main complex. Porta Sant’Anna. The gate nearest to her destination.
She stepped to one of the Swiss Guards. As was traditional for this gate, he was dressed in a uniform of dark blue with a white collar, topped by a black beret. He took her name, checked her identification, and glanced up and down her slender frame as if disbelieving she was a Carabinieri lieutenant. Once satisfied, he perfunctorily directed her off to the side, to one of the Vigilanza, the Vatican Police, where a laminated pass was handed to her.
“Keep it with you at all times,” the policeman warned.
Armed with her pass, she followed the line of visitors through the gate and down Via del Pellegrino.
Most of the city-state was off-limits. The only public spaces were St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Gardens. The rest of the hundred acres were restricted without special permission.
But one section was truly forbidden territory to all but a few.
The Apostolic Palace, the home of the pope.
Rachel marched between the yellow-brick barracks of the Swiss Guard and the gray cliffs of St. Anne Church. Here was none of the majesty of the holiest of the holy states, just a crowded sidewalk and a congested line of cars, a gridlock inside Vatican City. Passing the papal printing office and post office, she crossed toward the entrance to the Apostolic Palace.
As she approached, she studied the gray-brick structure. It appeared more a utilitarian government building than the seat of the Holy See. But its looks were deceptive. Even the roof. It appeared drab and flat, unremarkable. But she knew atop the Apostolic Palace lay a hidden garden, with fountains, trellis-lined paths, and neatly manicured shrubs. All was masked behind a false roof, sheltering His Holiness from the casual eye below and from any assassin’s high-powered scope out in the city.
To her, it represented the Vatican at large: mysterious, secret, even slightly paranoid, but at its heart, a place of simple beauty and piety.
And perhaps the same could be said of her. While she was mostly a lapsed Catholic, only attending mass on holidays, she still had a core of faith that remained true.
Reaching the security station before the palace, Rachel showed her pass three more times to the Swiss Guards. As she did, she wondered if this was some nod back to Peter’s thrice denial of Christ before the cock crowed.
At last, she gained admission to the palace proper. A guide awaited her, an American seminary student named Jacob. He was a wiry man in his mid-twenties, his blond hair already balding, dressed in black linen slacks and a white shirt, buttoned to the top.
“If you’ll follow me, I’ve been directed to take you to Monsignor Verona.” He did a comical double take at her visitor’s pass and stuttered with surprise. “Lieutenant Verona? Are…are you related to the monsignor?”
“He’s my uncle.”
A rapid nod as he collected himself. “I’m sorry. I was only told to expect a Carabinieri officer.” He waved her to follow him. “I am a student and aide for Monsignor Verona at the Greg.”
She nodded. Most of her uncle’s students revered the man. He was deeply devoted to the Church but still maintained a strong scientific outlook. He even had a placard on the door to his university office, bearing the same inscription that once graced Plato’s door: Let no one enter who does not know geometry.
Rachel was led through the entrance to the palace. She quickly lost her way. She had only been here once before, when her uncle was being promoted to the head of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology. She had attended the private papal audience. But the place was gigantic, with fifteen hundred rooms, a thousand staircases, and twenty courtyards. Even now, rather than heading up toward the pope’s residence on the top floor, they were headed down.
She did not understand why her uncle asked her to meet him here, rather than at his university office. Had there been a theft? If so, why not tell her on the phone? Then again, she was well aware of the Vatican’s strict Code of Silence. It was written into canon law. The Holy See knew how to keep its secrets.
At last they reached a small, nondescript door.
Jacob opened it for her.
Rachel stepped through into an odd Kafkaesque chamber. Sterilely lit, the chamber was long and narrow, but its ceilings were high. Against the walls, gray steel filing cabinets and drawers climbed from floor to ceiling. A tall library ladder leaned against one wall, necessary to reach the highest drawers. Though spotlessly clean, the space smelled dusty and old.
“Rachel!” her uncle called from a corner. He stood with a priest at a desk in a corner. She was waved over. “You made good time, my dear. Then again, I’ve driven with you before. Any casualties?”
She smiled at him and crossed to the desk. She noted that her uncle was not wearing his usual outfit of jeans, T-shirt, and cardigan, but was dressed more formally, suiting his station, in a black cassock with purple piping and buttons. He’d even oiled the curls of his salt-and-pepper hair and trimmed his goatee tight to his face.
“This is Father Torres,” her uncle introduced. “Official keeper of the bones.”
The elderly man stood. He was short and stocky, dressed all in black with a Roman collar. A hint of smile ghosted his face. “I prefer the title ‘rector of the reliquiae.’”
Rachel studied the towering wall of file cabinets. She had heard of this place, the Vatican’s relic depository, but she had never been here before. She fought back a chill of revulsion. Catalogued and stored in all the drawers and shelves were bits and pieces of saints and martyrs: finger bones, snips of hair, vials of ash, scraps of garments, mummified skin, nail clippings, blood. Few people know that, by canon law, each and every Catholic altar must contain a holy relic. And with new churches or chapels being erected worldwide regularly, this priest’s job was to box and FedEx bits of bone or other earthly remains of various saints.
Rachel had never understood the Church’s obsession with relics. It simply gave her the creeps. But Rome was chock-full of them. Some of the most spectacular and unusual were found here: Mary Magdalene’s foot, the vocal cords of Saint Anthony, the tongue of Saint John Nepomucene, the gallstones of Saint Clare. Even the entire body of Pope Saint Pius X lay up in St. Peter’s, encased in bronze. The most disturbing, though, was a relic preserved in a shrine in Calcata: the supposed foreskin of Jesus Christ.
She found her voice. “Was…was something stolen here?”
Uncle Vigor lifted an arm to his student. “Jacob, perhaps you could fetch us some cappuccinos.”
Uncle Vigor waited until Jacob left, closing the door. His eyes then settled to Rachel. “Have you heard of the massacre in Cologne?”
Rachel was taken off guard by his question. She had been running all day long and had had little chance to watch the news, but there had been no way to avoid hearing about the midnight murders up in Germany last night. The details remained sketchy.
“Only what’s been reported on the radio,” she answered.
He nodded. “The Curia here has been receiving intelligence in advance of what’s being broadcasted. Eighty-four people were killed, including the Archbishop of Cologne. But it is the manner of their deaths that is being kept from the public for the moment.”
“What do you mean?”
“A handful were shot, but the greater majority seemed to have been electrocuted.”
“That is the tentative analysis. Autopsy reports are still pending. Some of the bodies were still smoking when authorities arrived.”
“Dear God. How…?”
“That answer may have to wait. The cathedral is swarming with investigators of every ilk: criminologists, detectives, forensic scientists, even electricians. There are teams with the German BKA, terrorist experts from Interpol, and agents with Europol. But as the crime took place in a Roman Catholic cathedral, sanctified territory, the Vatican has invoked its Omerta.”
“Its Code of Silence.”
He grunted the affirmative. “The Church is cooperating with German authorities, but it is also limiting access, trying to keep the scene from becoming a circus.”
Rachel shook her head. “But what does all this have to do with you calling me here?”
“From the initial investigation, there seems to be only one motive. The golden reliquary at the cathedral was broken into.”
“They stole the reliquary.”
“No, that’s just it. They left behind the solid gold box. A priceless artifact. They only stole its contents. Its relics.”
Father Torres interjected, “And not just any relics, but the bones of the biblical Magi.”
“Magi…as in the Three Wise Men from the Bible?” Rachel couldn’t keep the incredulity out of her voice. “They steal the bones, but leave the gold box. Surely the reliquary would fetch a better price on the black market than the bones.”
Uncle Vigor sighed. “At the secretary of state’s request, I came down here to evaluate the provenance of those relics. They have an illustrious past. The bones came to Europe through the relic-collecting verve of Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. As the first Christian emperor, Constantine had sent his mother on pilgrimages to collect holy relics. The most famous being, of course, the True Cross of Christ.”
Rachel had visited the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, out on Lateran Hill. In a back room, behind glass, were the most famous relics collected by Saint Helena: a beam of the True Cross, a nail used to crucify Christ, and two thorns from his painful crown. There persisted much controversy as to the authenticity of these relics. Most believed Saint Helena had been duped.
Her uncle continued, “But it is not as well known that Queen Helena traveled further than Jerusalem, returning under mysterious circumstances with a large stone sarcophagus, claiming to have recovered the bodies of the Three Kings. The relics were kept in a church in Constantinople, but following the death of Constantine, they were transferred to Milan and interred in a basilica.”
“But I thought you said Germany—”
Uncle Vigor held up a hand. “In the twelfth century, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany plundered Milan and stole the relics. The circumstances surrounding this are clouded with a mix of rumors. But all stories end with the relics in Cologne.”
“Until last night,” Rachel added.
Uncle Vigor nodded.
Rachel closed her eyes. No one spoke, leaving her to think. She heard the door open to the depository. She kept her eyes closed, not wanting to lose her train of thought.
“And the murders?” she said. “Why not steal the bones when the church was empty? The act must have been meant also as a direct attack upon the Church. The violence against the congregation suggests a secondary motive of revenge — not just thievery.”
“Very good.” A new voice spoke from the doorway.
Startled, Rachel opened her eyes. She immediately recognized the robes worn by the newcomer: the black cassock with shoulder cape, the wide sash worn high around the hips, scarlet to match the skullcap. She also recognized the man inside the clothes. “Cardinal Spera,” she said, offering a bow of her head.
He waved her up, his gold ring flashing. The ring marked him as a cardinal, but he also wore a second ring, a twin of the first, on his other hand, representative of his station as the Vatican’s secretary of state. He was Sicilian, dark haired and complexioned. He was also young for such an esteemed position, not yet fifty years old.
He offered a warm smile. “I see, Monsignor Verona, that you were not wrong about your niece.”
“It would’ve been improper of me to lie to a cardinal, especially one who happens to be the pope’s right-hand man.” Her uncle crossed over, and rather than chastely kissing either of the man’s two rings, he gave him a firm hug. “How is His Holiness handling the news?”
The cardinal’s face tightened with a shake of his head. “After we met this morning, I contacted His Eminence in St. Petersburg. He will be flying back tomorrow morning.”
After we met…Rachel now understood her uncle’s formal attire. Hehad been in consultation with the secretary of state.
Cardinal Spera continued, “I’ll be arranging for his official papal response with the Synod of Bishops and the College of Cardinals. Then I have to prepare for tomorrow’s memorial service. It’s to be held at sundown.”
Rachel felt overwhelmed. While the pope was the head of the Vatican, its absolute monarch, the true power of the state rested with this one man, its official prime minister. She noted the weary glaze to his eyes, the way he held his shoulders too tightly. He was plainly exhausted.
“And has your research turned up anything here?” the cardinal asked.
“It has,” Uncle Vigor said dourly. “The thieves don’t possess all the bones.”
Rachel stirred. “There are more?”
Her uncle turned to her. “That’s what we came down here to ascertain. It seems the city of Milan, after the bones were plundered by Barbarossa, spent the past centuries clamoring for their return. To finally settle the matter, a few of the Magi bones were sent back to Milan in 1906, back to the Basilica of Saint Eustorgio.”
“Thank the Lord,” Cardinal Spera said. “So they aren’t entirely lost.”
Father Torres spoke up. “We should arrange for them to be sent here immediately. Safeguarded at the depository.”
“Until that can be arranged, I’ll have security tightened at the basilica,” the cardinal said. He motioned to Uncle Vigor. “On your return trip from Cologne, I’ll have you stop off and collect the bones in Milan.”
Uncle Vigor nodded.
“Oh, I was also able to arrange an earlier flight,” the cardinal continued. “The helicopter will take you both to the airfield in three hours.”
“All the better.” Uncle Vigor turned to Rachel. “It looks like we must disappoint your mother once again. No family dinner, it seems.”
“I’m…we’re going to Cologne?”
“As Vatican nuncios,” her uncle said.
Rachel tried to keep pace in her head. Nuncios were the Vatican’s ambassadors abroad.
“Emergency nuncios,” Cardinal Spera corrected. “Temporary, covering this particular tragedy. You are being presented as passive observers, to represent Vatican interests and report back. I need keen eyes out there. Someone familiar with thefts of antiquities.” A nod to Rachel. “And someone with a vast knowledge of those antiquities.”
“That is our cover, anyway,” Uncle Vigor said.
Cardinal Spera frowned, a warning tone entering his voice. “Vigor…”
Her uncle turned to the secretary of state. “She has a right to know. I thought that had already been decided.”
The two men stared each other down. Finally, Cardinal Spera sighed with a wave of an arm, relenting.
Uncle Vigor turned back to Rachel. “The nuncio assignation is just a smoke screen.”
“Then what are we—?”
He told her.
STILL STUNNED, Rachel waited for her uncle to finish a few private words with Cardinal Spera outside the doorway. Off to the side, Father Torres busied himself with shelving various volumes that had been piled on his desk.
Finally, her uncle returned. “I had hoped to grab a brioche with you, but with the timetable accelerated, we must both get ready. You should grab an overnight bag, your passport, and whatever else you might need for a day or two abroad.”
Rachel stood her ground. “Vatican spies? We’re going in as Vatican spies?”
Uncle Vigor lifted his brows. “Are you really that surprised? The Vatican, a sovereign country, has always had an intelligence service, with full-time employees and operatives. They’ve been used to infiltrate hate groups, secret societies, hostile countries, wherever the concerns of the Vatican are threatened. Walter Ciszek, a priest operating under the alias Vladimir Lipinski, played a cat-and-mouse game with the KGB for years, before being captured and spending over two decades in a Soviet prison.”
“And we’ve just been recruited into this service?”
“You’ve been recruited. I’ve worked with the intelligence service for over fifteen years.”
“What?” Rachel almost choked on the word.
“What better cover for an operative than as a well-respected and knowledgeable archaeologist in humble service to the Vatican?” Her uncle waved her out the door. “Come. Let’s see about getting everything in order.”
Rachel stumbled after her uncle, trying to see him with new eyes.
“We’ll be meeting up with a party of American scientists. Like us, they’ll be investigating the attack in secret, concentrating more on the deaths, leaving us to handle the theft of the relics.”
“I don’t understand.” That was a vast understatement. “Why all this subterfuge?”
Her uncle stopped and pulled her into a small side chapel. It was no larger than a closet, the air stagnant with old incense.
“Only a handful of people know this,” he said. “But there was a survivor to the attack. A boy. He is still in shock, but slowly recovering. He is at a hospital in Cologne, under guard.”
“He witnessed the attack?”
A nod answered her. “What he described sounded like madness, but it could not be ignored. All the deaths — or rather those that succumbed to the electrocution — occurred in a single moment. The dying collapsed where they sat or knelt. The boy had no explanation for how it occurred, but he was adamant about the who.”
“Who killed the parishioners?”
“No, who succumbed, which members of the congregation died so horribly.”
Rachel waited for an answer.
“The ones who were electrocuted, for lack of a better word, were only those who took the Holy Eucharist during the Communion service.”
“It was the Communion host that killed them.”
A chill passed through her. If word spread that the Communion wafers were somehow to blame, it could have repercussions around the world. The entire holy sacrament could be in jeopardy. “Were the wafers poisoned, tainted somehow?”
“That’s still unknown. But the Vatican wants answers immediately. And the Holy See wants them first. And without the resources necessary for this level of clandestine investigation, especially on foreign soil, I’ve called in a chit owed to me by a friend deep within U.S. military intelligence, someone I trust fully. He will have a team on site by tonight.”
Rachel could only nod, struck dumb by the last hour’s revelations.
“I think you were right, Rachel,” Uncle Vigor said. “The murders in Cologne were a direct attack against the Church. But I believe this is just an opening gambit in a much larger game. But what game is being played?”
Rachel nodded. “And what do the bones of the Magi have to do with any of this?”
“Exactly. While you collect your things, I’m going off to the libraries and archives. I already have a team of scholars sifting through all references to the Three Kings. By the time the helicopter lifts off, I’ll have a full dossier on the Magi.” Uncle Vigor reached to her, hugged her tight, and whispered in her ear. “You can still refuse. I would think no less of you.”
Rachel shook her head, pulling back. “As the saying goes, fortes fortuna adiuvat.”
“Fortune does indeed favor the brave.” He kissed her gently on her cheek. “If I had a daughter like you—”
“You’d be excommunicated.” She kissed his other cheek. “Now let’s go.”
Her uncle led her out of the Apostolic Palace, then they parted ways, he toward the Libraries, she toward St. Anne’s Gate.
Before long and with barely any note of the passage of time, Rachel reached her parked car and climbed into the Mini Cooper. She sped out of the underground car park and squealed around a tight corner into traffic. She ticked off all she would need, while trying to keep any speculation to a minimum.
She raced over the Tiber River and headed toward the center of town. With her mind on autopilot, she failed to note when she had regained her tail. Only that it was back there again.
Her heartbeat quickened.
The black BMW kept five car lengths behind her, matching her every move around slower cars and even-slower pedestrians. She made a couple of fast turns, not enough to alert her tail that he had been spotted, just her usual controlled recklessness. She needed to know for sure.
The BMW kept pace.
Now she knew.
She fought her way into the narrower byways and alleys. The roads were congested. It became a slow-motion car chase.
She pulled up on a sidewalk to squeeze past a stall of traffic. Edging to the next cross street, a pedestrian alley, she turned into it. Startled strollers leaped out of her way. Shopping carts spilled. Obscenities flew. A loaf of bread hit her back window, thrown by a particularly irate matron.
At the next thoroughfare, she punched into second and sped a block, then made another turn, then another. This section of Rome was a maze of alleyways. There was no way for her tail to keep up with her.
Streaming out Via Aldrovandi, she raced around the edge of the Giardino Zoological Park. She kept a watch on her rearview mirrors. She had escaped her pursuit…at least for now.
Able to free up a hand, she snatched her cell phone. She hit the speed dial for Parioli Station. She needed backup.
As the connection dialed through, she left the main thoroughfare and ducked into the backstreets again, not taking any chances. Who had she pissed off? As a member of the Cultural Heritage Police, she had a number of enemies among the organized-crime families who trafficked in stolen antiquities.
The phone line clicked, buzzed, then all she heard was dead air. She checked the phone’s screen. She had hit a patch of poor reception. The seven hills of Rome and its marble-and-brick canyons wreaked havoc on signal strength.
She hit the Redial button.
As she prayed to the patron saint of cell reception, she used the time to debate returning home and decided against it.
She would be safer at the Vatican until she left for Germany.
Merging onto Via Salaria, the old Salt Road, a main artery through Rome, she finally heard the line connect.
Before she could respond, Rachel spotted a blur of black.
The BMW whipped up alongside her Mini Cooper.
A second car appeared on her other side.
Identical, except this one was white.
She’d had not the one tail…but two. Fixed on the conspicuous black car, she had failed to spot the white one. A fatal mistake.
The two cars slammed into her, pinning her between them with a screech of metal and paint. Their back windows were already lowered. The blunt noses of submachine guns poked out.
She slammed on her brakes, metal screamed, but she was wedged tight. There was no escape.
JULY 24, 10:25 A.M.
HE HAD to get out of here.
In the gym locker room, Grayson Pierce pulled on a pair of black biker’s shorts, then slipped a loose-fitting nylon soccer jersey over his head. He sat on the bench and tied on a pair of sneakers.
Behind him, the locker room door swung open. He glanced back as Monk Kokkalis entered, a basketball under one arm and a baseball cap on backward. Standing only three inches over five feet, Monk looked like a pit bull wearing sweats. Still, he proved to be a fierce and agile ballplayer. Most people underestimated him, but he had an uncanny talent to read an opponent, to outfox any guard, and few of his layups ever missed.
Monk tossed the basketball into the equipment bin — again making a perfect shot — then crossed to his locker. He stripped off his sweatshirt, balled it up, and shoved it inside.
He eyeballed Gray. “That’s what you’re wearing to meet Commander Crowe?”
Gray stood. “I’m heading over to my folks’.”
“I thought the ops manager told us to stick to campus?”
Monk raised an eyebrow. The bushy brows were the only hair on his shaved head. He preferred to stick to the look drilled into him by the Green Berets. The man carried other physical attributes from his former military life: puckered bullet wound scars, three of them, shoulder, upper leg, and chest. He had been the only one of his team to survive an ambush in Afghanistan. During his recovery Stateside, Sigma had recruited him because of his genius-level IQ and retrained him through a doctoral program in forensic medicine.
“Have you already been cleared by medical?” Monk asked.
“Just contusions and a couple bruised ribs.” Along with a wounded ego, he added silently, fingering the tender spot below his seventh rib.
Gray had already given his videotaped debriefing. He had secured the bomb but not the Dragon Lady. The one lead into a major pipeline of bioweapons trafficking had escaped. He had sent her dragon-charm pendant down to forensics for any trace or fingerprint evidence. He didn’t expect anything to be found.
He grabbed his backpack from the bench. “I’ll have my beeper with me. I’m only fifteen minutes away by Metro.”
“And you’re going to leave the director waiting?”
Gray shrugged. He’d had enough: the postmission debriefing, the in depth medical exam, and now this mysterious summons by Director Crowe. He knew he was due for a dressing-down. He shouldn’t have gone in alone to Fort Detrick. It had been a bad call. He knew it.
But still riding the adrenaline surge from this morning’s near disaster, Gray couldn’t sit idle and simply wait. Director Crowe had gone off to a meeting over at DARPA headquarters in Arlington. There was no telling when he’d be back. In the meantime, Gray needed to move, to let off some steam.
He pulled on his small riding backpack.
“Have you heard who else has been summoned to the meeting with the director?” Monk asked.
Captain Kathryn Bryant had entered Sigma only ten months ago, but she had already completed a fast-track program in geology. There were rumors that she was also completing an engineering discipline. She would be only the second operative with a dual degree. Grayson was the first.
“Then it can’t be a mission assignation,” Gray said. “They wouldn’t send someone so green out into the field.”
“None of us is that green.” Monk grabbed a towel and headed for the showers. “She did come out of the intelligence branch of the Navy. Black ops, they say.”
“They say a lot of things,” Gray mumbled and crossed to the exit.
Despite the number of high IQs, Sigma was no less a rumor mill than any corporation. Even this morning’s summons had followed a flurry of memos and a recall of operatives. Of course, some of this activity was the direct result of Gray’s mission. The Guild had attacked one of their members. Speculation abounded. Was there a new leak, or had the ambush been planned based on old intel, prior to Sigma’s move to Washington from DARPA’s headquarters in Arlington and the purging of its operations there?
Either way, another rumor persisted in the halls of Sigma: a new mission was being planned, one commanded high up the chain, one of vital national interest. But nothing else was known.
Gray refused to play the rumor game. He would wait to hear from the commander himself. Besides, it’s not like he would be going anywhere soon. He’d be warming the bench for some time.
So he might as well meet his other obligations.
Crossing out of the gym, Gray strode through the labyrinth of hallways toward the elevator bay. The space still smelled of fresh paint and old cement.
The subterranean stronghold of Sigma central command was once an underground bunker and a fallout shelter. It had been a place to secure an important think tank during World War II, but it had long been abandoned and closed off. Few knew of its existence, buried beneath the mecca of Washington’s scientific community: the campus of museums and laboratories that made up the Smithsonian Institution.
Now the underground warren had new tenants. To the world at large, it was just another think tank. Many of its members worked at laboratories throughout the Smithsonian, doing research and utilizing the resources at hand. The new site for Sigma had been chosen because of its proximity to all the research labs, covering a wide range of disciplines. It would have been too expensive to duplicate all the varied facilities. So Sigma had been buried at the heart of Washington’s scientific community. The Smithsonian Institution became both a resource and a cover.
Gray pressed his hand on the elevator door’s security pad. A blue line scanned his palm print. The doors whooshed open. He climbed inside and pressed the top button, marked LOBBY. The cage rose silently, climbing up from the fourth level.
He sensed more than felt the scan over his body, a proprietary search for hidden electronic data. It helped aid in the prevention of information being stolen out of the command center. It had its drawbacks. During the first week here, Monk had set off a system-wide alert after absentmindedly carrying in an unauthorized MP3 digital player after an afternoon run.
The doors opened into an ordinary-looking reception area, manned by two armed guards and a female receptionist. It could pass as a bank lobby. But the amount of surveillance and state-of-the-art countermeasures rivaled those at Fort Knox. A second entrance to the bunker, a large service access, equally guarded, lay hidden in a private garage complex, half a mile away. His motorcycle was over there, being repaired. So he was hoofing it to the Metro station where he had a mountain bike stored for emergencies.
“Good morning, Dr. Pierce,” the receptionist said.
The young woman was unaware of what truly lay below, believing the fabricated story of the think tank, also named Sigma. Only the guards knew the truth. They nodded to Gray.
“Are you leaving for the day?” Melody asked.
“Only for an hour or so.” He slid his holographic ID card into the reader by the desk, then pressed his thumb on the screen, signing out of the command center. He had always thought the security countermeasures here were overkill. Not any longer.
The outer door’s lock unhitched.
One of the guards opened the door, stepped out, and held it open for Gray. “Good day, sir,” the guard said as Gray exited.
Good hardly described his day so far.
A long paneled corridor stretched ahead, followed by a single flight of stairs that led up into the public regions of the building. Entering a large hall, he passed a touring group of Japanese visitors led by a translator and guide. No one gave him a second glance.
Talk about hiding in plain sight.
As he crossed the tiled floor, he heard the tour leader’s speech, spoken in rote, given a thousand times. “The Smithsonian Castle was completed in 1855, with the cornerstone being laid by President James Polk. It is the largest and oldest of the Institution’s structures and once housed the original science museum and research laboratories, but now it serves as the administrative office and Information Center for the Institution’s fifteen museums, the National Zoo, and many research sites and galleries. If you’ll follow me, next…”
Gray reached the outer doors, a side exit to the Smithsonian Castle, and pushed to freedom. He squinted at the bright sun, shielding his eyes. As he lifted his arm, he felt a twinge of protest from his ribs. The Tylenol with codeine must be wearing off.
Reaching the edge of the manicured gardens, he glanced back to the Castle. Nicknamed for its red-brick parapets, turrets, spires, and towers, it was considered one of the finest Gothic Revival structures in the United States and formed the heart of the Smithsonian Institution. The bunker had been tunneled out beneath it, built when the southwest tower had burned to the ground in 1866, requiring it to be rebuilt from the ground up. The secret labyrinth had been incorporated in the renovation, eventually becoming the subterranean fallout shelter, meant to protect the brightest minds of its generation…or at least those in Washington, D.C.
Now it hid Sigma’s central command.
With a final glance at the U.S. flag flying over the highest tower, Gray headed across the Mall, aiming for the Metro station.
He had other responsibilities besides keeping America safe.
Something he had neglected for too long.
THE TWO BMWs continued to pin the Mini Cooper. No matter how Rachel struggled, she could not pull free.
The guns in the back seats swung forward.
Before the assailants could open fire, Rachel shoved the car into park and yanked her emergency brake. The car jolted with a scream of tearing metal. Her rearview mirror shattered. The effort threw off the gunmen’s aim, but it was not enough to free her trapped car.
The BMWs continued to drag her car forward.
With her Mini Cooper now dead weight, Rachel dove for the car’s floor well, gouging her left side on the gearshift knob. A spate of gunfire shattered through the driver’s-side window, passing through where she had been sitting.
She wouldn’t be so lucky a second time.
As their speed slowed, Rachel hit the controls to her convertible roof. The windows began to lower and the cloth roof folded back. Wind whistled inside.
She prayed the momentary distraction would buy her the time she needed. Bunching her legs under her, she leaped off the center console and used the lip of the passenger door to hurdle herself through the half-open roof. The white sedan was still crammed against the passenger side. She landed atop its roof and rolled into a half crouch.
By now, their speed had slowed to less than thirty kilometers per hour.
Bullets blasted from below.
She threw herself off the roof and flew toward a line of cars parked at the edge of the road. She struck the long roof of a Jaguar and slid belly-first off its edge and landed in a teeth-jarring tumble on the far side.
Dazed, she lay still. The bulk of parked cars shielded her from the open road. Half a block away, unable to brake fast enough, the BMWs suddenly roared and, with a squeal of tires, sped off.
In the distance, Rachel heard the wha-wha of police sirens.
Rolling onto her back, she searched her belt for her cell phone. The holster was empty. She had been making a call when the attackers swiped into her.
She struggled up. She had no fear that the assassins would return. Already multiple cars were stopping, blocked by her Mini Cooper stalled in the road.
Rachel had a larger concern. Unlike the first time, she had caught a glimpse of the black BMW’s license plate.
She didn’t need a registration search to know where the car had originated. The special plates were only issued by one agency.
SCV stood for Stato della Città del Vaticano.
Rachel struggled up, head aching. She tasted blood from a split lip. It didn’t matter. If she was attacked by someone with connections to the Vatican…
She gained her feet with her heart pounding. A driving fear fueled her strength. Another target was surely in danger.
TAKOMA PARK, MARYLAND
GRAY! IS that you?”
Grayson Pierce hitched his bike over one shoulder and climbed the steps of the porch of his parents’ home, a bungalow with a wooden porch and a wide overhanging gable.
He called through the open screen door. “Yeah, Mom!”
He leaned the bike against the porch railing, earning a protest from his ribs. He had phoned the house from the Metro station, giving his mother fair warning of his arrival. He kept a Trek mountain bike locked up at the local station here for times like this.
“I have lunch almost ready.”
“What? You’re cooking?” He swung open the screen door with a pained cry of its spring hinges. It snapped closed behind him. “Will wonders never cease?”
“Don’t give me any of your lip, young man. I’m fully capable of making sandwiches. Ham and cheese.”
He crossed through the living room with its oak Craftsman furniture, a tasteful mix of modern and antique. He did not fail to note the fine coating of dust. His mother had never been much of a homemaker, spending most of her time teaching, first at a Jesuit high school back in Texas and now as an associate dean of biological sciences at George Washington University. His parents had moved out here three years ago, into the quiet historical district of Takoma Park, with its quaint Victorian homes and older shingle cottages. Gray had an apartment a couple of miles away, on Piney Branch Road. He had wanted to be close to his parents, to help out where he could.
“Where’s Dad?” he asked as he entered the kitchen, seeing his father was not present.
His mother closed the refrigerator door, a gallon of milk in hand. “Out in the garage. Working on another birdhouse.”
“Not another one?”
She frowned at him. “He likes it. Keeps him out of trouble. His therapist says it’s good for him to have a hobby.” She crossed with two plates of sandwiches.
His mother had come straight from her university office. She still wore her blue blazer over a white blouse, her blond-gray hair pulled back and bobby-pinned. Neat, professorial. But Gray noted the haggard edge to her eyes. She looked more drawn, thinner.
Gray took the plates. “Dad’s woodworking may help him, but does it always have to be birdhouses? There are only so many birds in Maryland.”
She smiled. “Eat your sandwiches. Do you want any pickles?”
“No.” It was the way they always were. Small talk to avoid the larger matters. But some things couldn’t be put off forever. “Where did they find him?”
“Over by the 7-Eleven on Cedar. He got confused. Ended up heading the wrong way. He had enough presence of mind to call John and Suz.”
The neighbors must have then telephoned Gray’s mother, and she in turn had called Gray, worried, half-panicked. But five minutes later, she had called again. His father was home and fine. Still, Gray knew he had better stop by for a short visit.
“Is he still taking his Aricept?” he asked.
“Of course. I make sure he does every morning.”
His father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the very early stages, shortly after his parents had moved out here. It had started with small bouts of forgetfulness: where he had placed his keys, telephone numbers, the names of neighbors. The doctors said the move from Texas might have brought forth symptoms that had been latent. His mind had a difficult time cataloging all the new information after the cross-country move. But stubborn and determined, he had refused to go back. Eventually along with the forgetfulness came spats of frustrated anger. Not that such a line was ever hard for his father to cross.
“Why don’t you take his plate out to him?” his mother asked. “I have to call in to the office.”
Gray reached and took the sandwiches, letting his hand rest atop hers for a moment. “Maybe we need to talk about that live-in nurse.”
She shook her head — not denying the need so much as simply refusing to discuss it. She pulled her hand from his. Gray had hit this wall before. His father would not allow it, and his mother felt it was her responsibility to care for him. But it was wearing on the household, on his mother, on their entire family.
“When was the last time Kenny came by?” he asked. His younger brother ran a computer start-up just across the border in Virginia, following in his father’s footsteps as an engineer — electrical, though, not petroleum.
“You know Kenny…” his mother said. “Let me get you a pickle for your father.”
Gray shook his head. Lately Kenny had been talking of moving to Cupertino, California. He had excuses for why the move was necessary, but beneath it all, Gray knew the truth. His brother merely wanted to escape, to get away. At least Gray understood that sentiment. He had done that himself, joining the Army. It must be a Pierce family trait.
His mother passed him the pickle jar to open. “How is everything at the lab?”
“Going fine,” he said. He cracked the lid, fished out a dill, and placed it on the plate.
“I was reading about a bunch of budget cuts over at DARPA.”
“My job’s not at risk,” he assured her. Neither of his folks knew of his role with Sigma. They thought he simply did low-level research for the military. They did not have the security clearance for the truth.
With the plate in hand, Gray headed for the back door.
His mother watched him. “He’ll be glad to see you.”
If only I could say the same….
Gray headed for the garage out back. He heard the twangs of a country music station flowing from the open door. It brought back memories of line dancing at Muleshoes. And other less pleasant recollections.
He stood at the entrance of the garage. His father crouched over a vise-gripped piece of wood, hand-planing an edge.
“Pop,” he said.
His dad straightened and turned. He was as tall as Grayson, but built stocky, wider shoulders, broader back. He had worked the oil fields while putting himself through college, earning a good practical degree in petroleum engineering. He had done well until an industrial accident at a well sheared away his left leg at the knee. The settlement and disability allowed him to retire at forty-seven.
That had been fifteen years ago.
Half of Grayson’s life. The bad half.
His father turned toward him. “Gray?” He wiped the sweat from his brow, smearing sawdust. A scowl formed. “There was no need to come all the way out here.”
“How else would these sandwiches get to you?” He lifted the plate.
“Your mother made those?”
“You know Mom. She tried her best.”
“Then I’d better eat them. Can’t discourage the habit.”
He pushed away from the workbench and hobbled stiff-legged on his prosthesis to a small fridge in the back. “Beer?”
“I have to go back to work in a bit.”
“One beer won’t kill you. I’ve some of that Sam Adams swill you like.”
His father was more of a Budweiser-and-Coors man. But the fact that he stocked his fridge with Sam Adams was about the equivalent of a pat on the back. Maybe even a hug.
He couldn’t refuse.
Gray took the bottle and used the opener built into the edge of the worktable to pop it open. His father sidled over and leaned a hip on a stool. He lifted his own bottle, a Budweiser, in salute. “It sucks to get old…but there’s always beer.”
“So true.” Gray drank deeply. He wasn’t sure he should be mixing codeine and alcohol — then again, it had been a long, long morning.
His father stared at him. The silence threatened to become quickly awkward.
“So,” Gray said, “can’t find your way home any longer.”
“Fuck you,” he responded with false anger, weakened by a grin and a shake of his head. His father appreciated honest talk. Straight shooting, as he used to say. “At least I was no goddamn felon.”
“You can’t let go of my stint in Leavenworth. That you keep remembering!”
His father tipped his beer bottle at Gray. “I will as long as I damn can.”
Their eyes met. He saw something glint behind his father’s banter, something he had seldom seen before. Fear.
The two had never had an easy relationship. His father had taken to heavy drinking after the accident, accompanied by severe bouts of depression. It was hard for a Texas oilman to suddenly become a housewife, raising two boys while his spouse went to work. To compensate, he had run the household like a boot camp. And Gray had always pushed the envelope, a born rebel.
Until at last, at eighteen, Gray had simply packed his bags and joined the Army, leaving in the middle of the night.
Afterward the two did not speak for a full two years.
Slowly his mother had brought them back together. Still, it had remained an uncomfortable détente. She had once said, “You two are more alike than you are different.” Grayson had not heard scarier words.
“This goddamn sucks…” his father said softly, breaking the silence.
“Budweiser certainly does.” Grayson lifted his beer bottle. “That’s why I only drink Sam Adams.”
His father grinned. “You’re an asshole.”
“You raised me.”
“And I suppose it takes one to know one.”
“I never said that.”
His father rolled his eyes. “Why do you even bother coming over?”
Because I don’t know how long you’ll remember me, he thought, but dared not say it aloud. There remained a tight spot behind his sternum, an old resentment that he could not completely let go. There were words he wanted to say, wanted to hear…and a part of him knew he was running out of time.
“Where did you get these sandwiches?” his father asked, taking a bite and speaking around the mouthful. “They’re pretty good.”
Gray kept his face passive. “Mom made ’em.”
A flicker of confusion followed. “Oh…yeah.”
Their eyes met again. Fear flared brighter in his father’s gaze…and shame. He had lost a part of his manhood fifteen years ago and now he faced losing his humanity.
“Drink your beer.” He heard an edge of familiar anger, and Gray reflexively shied from it.
He drank his beer, sitting silently, neither able to speak. Maybe his mother was right. They were too much alike.
His beeper finally went off at his waist. Gray grabbed it too quickly. He saw the Sigma number.
“That’s the office,” Gray mumbled. “I…I have an afternoon meeting.”
His father nodded. “I should get back to this damn birdhouse.”
They shook hands, two uneasy adversaries conceding no contest.
Gray returned to the house, said his good-byes to his mother, and collected up his bike. He mounted it and quickly pedaled toward the Metro station. The phone number on his beeper had been followed by an alphanumeric code.
THE SEARCH for the truth behind the Three Magi had turned into a painstaking archaeological dig — but instead of hauling dirt and rock, Monsignor Vigor Verona and his crew of archivists were digging through crumbling books and parchments. The crew of scrittori had done the initial spadework in the main Vatican Library; now Vigor sifted for clues about the Magi in one of the most guarded areas of the Holy See: the Archivio Segretto Vaticano, the infamous Secret Archives of the Vatican.
Vigor strode down the long subterranean hall. Each lamp clicked on as he approached and switched off as he left it behind, maintaining a pool of illumination around him and his young student, Jacob. They crossed the length of the main Manuscript Depository, nicknamed the carbonile, or bunker. Built in 1980, the concrete hall rose two stories high, each level separated by a mesh metal floor, connected by steep stairs. On one side, miles of steel shelves contained various archival regestra: bound reams of parchments and papers. On the opposite wall stood the same metal shelves, only sealed and locked behind wire doors, protecting more-sensitive material.
There was a saying about the Holy See: the Vatican had too many secrets…and not enough. Vigor doubted the latter as he strode through the vast depository. It kept too many secrets, even from itself.
Jacob carried a laptop, maintaining a database on their subject. “So there were not just three Magi?” he said as they headed toward the exit to the bunker.
They had come down here to digitize a photograph of a vase currently residing at the Kircher Museum. It had depicted not three kings, but eight. But even that number varied. A painting in the cemetery of Saint Peter showed two, and one at a crypt in Domitilla illustrated four.
“The Gospels were never specific on the number of Magi,” Vigor said, feeling the exhaustion of the long day setting in. He found it useful to talk through much of his thoughts, a firm believer in the Socratic method. “Only the Gospel of Matthew directly refers to them, and even then only vaguely. The common assumption of three comes from the number of gifts borne by the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In fact, they might not even have been kings. The word magi comes from the Greek word magoi, or ‘magician.’”
“They were magicians?”
“Not as we might think. The connotation of magoi does not imply sorcery, but rather practitioners of hidden wisdom. Hence the ‘wise men’ reference. Most biblical scholars now believe they were Zoroastrian astrologers out of Persia or Babylon. They interpreted the stars and foresaw the coming of a king to the west, portended by a single celestial rising.”
“The Star of Bethlehem.”
He nodded. “Despite all the paintings, the star was not a particularly dramatic event. According to the Bible, no one in Jerusalem even noted it. Not until the Magi came to King Herod and brought it to his attention. The Magi had figured a newborn king, as heralded by the stars, must be born to royalty. But King Herod was shocked to hear of this news and asked them when they saw the star rise. He then used Hebrew holy books of prophecy to point out where this king might’ve been born. He directed the Magi to Bethlehem.”
“So Herod told them where to go.”
“He did, sending them as spies. Only on the way to Bethlehem, according to Matthew, the star reappeared and guided the Magi to the child. Afterward, warned by an angel, they left without telling Herod who or where the child was. Thence began the slaughter of the innocents.”
Jacob hurried to keep pace. “But Mary, Joseph, and the newborn child had already fled to Egypt, warned by an angel as well. So what became of the Magi?”
“What indeed?” Vigor had spent most of the last hour chasing down Gnostic and Apocryphal texts with references to the Magi, from the Protevangelium of James to the Book of Seth. If the bones were stolen, was there motivation beyond pure profit? Knowledge could prove their best weapon in that case.
Vigor checked his watch. He was running out of time, but the Prefect of the Archives would continue the search, building the database with Jacob, who would forward their findings via e-mail.
“What about the historical names of the Magi?” Jacob said. “Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar?”
“Supposition only. The names first appeared in Excerpta Latina Barbari in the sixth century. Further references follow that one, but I think they’re more fairy tales than factual accounts; still, they may be worth following. I’ll leave that for you and the Preffeto Alberto to research.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Vigor frowned. It was a daunting task. Then again, did any of this really matter? Why steal the Magi bones?
The answer eluded him. And Vigor was unsure if the truth would be found among the thirty miles of shelves that made up the Secret Archives. But one consensus had begun to form from all the clues. Factual or not, the stories of the Magi hinted at some vast wealth of hidden knowledge, known only to a certain sect of magi.
But who were they really?
Magicians, astrologers, or priests?
Vigor passed the Parchment Room, catching a fresh whiff of insecticide and fungicide. The caretakers must have just sprayed. Vigor knew that some of the rare documents in the Parchment Room were turning purple, succumbing to a resistant violet fungus and leaving them in grave danger of being lost forever.
So much else here was also threatened…and not just from fire, fungus, or neglect, but from sheer volume. Only half of the material stored here had ever been indexed. And more was added each year, flooding in from Vatican ambassadors, metropolitan sees, and individual parishes.
It was impossible to keep up.
The Secret Archives themselves had spread like a malignant cancer, metastasizing out from its original rooms into old attics, underground crypts, and empty tower cells. Vigor had spent half a year researching the files of past Vatican spies, those who came before him, agents placed in government positions around the world, many written in code, reporting on political intrigue spanning a thousand years.
Vigor knew that the Vatican was as much a political entity as a spiritual one. And enemies of both sought to undermine the Holy See. Even today. It was priests like Vigor who stood between the Vatican and the world. Warriors in secret, holding the line. And while Vigor might not agree with everything done in the past or even the present, his faith remained solid…like the Vatican itself.
He was proud of his service to the papacy.
Empires might rise and fall. Philosophies might come and go. But in the end, the Vatican persisted, abided, remained stolid and steadfast. It was history, time, and faith all preserved in stone.
Even here, many of the greatest treasures of the world were protected in the Archive’s locked vaults, safes, closets, and dark wooden cabinets called armadi. In one drawer was a letter from Mary Stuart on the day before she was beheaded; in another, the love letters between King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. There were documents pertaining to the Inquisition, to witch trials, to the Crusades, to letters from a khan of Persia and a Ming empress.
But what Vigor sought now was not so guarded.
It required only a long climb.
He had one more clue he wanted to investigate before he left for Germany with Rachel.
Vigor reached the small elevator to the upper rooms of the Archives, called the piani nobli, or the noble floors. He held the door for Jacob, closed it, and punched the button. With a shudder and bounce, the small cage rose.
“Where are we headed now?” Jacob asked.
“To the Torre dei Venti.”
“The Tower of the Winds? Why?”
“There is an ancient document kept up there. A copy of the Description of the World from the sixteenth century.”
“Marco Polo’s book?”
He nodded as the elevator shuddered to a stop. They exited down a long corridor.
Jacob hurried to keep up. “What do Marco Polo’s adventures have to do with the Magi?”
“In that book, he relates myths out of ancient Persia, concerning the Magi and what became of them. It all centers on a gift given to them by the Christ child. A stone of great power. Upon that stone, the Magi supposedly founded a mystical fraternity of arcane wisdom. I’d like to trace that myth.”
The corridor ended at the Tower of the Winds. The empty rooms of this tower had become incorporated into the Secret Archives. Unfortunately, the room Vigor sought was at its very top. He cursed the lack of elevator and entered the dark stair.
He abandoned further lecturing, saving his breath for the long climb. The spiral stair wound round and round. They continued in silence until at last the stairs emptied into one of the Vatican’s most unique and historic chambers.
The Meridian Room.
Jacob craned at the frescoes adorning the circular walls and ceilings, depicting scenes from the Bible with cherubs and clouds above. A single spear of light, admitted through a quarter-sized hole in the wall, pierced the dusty air and spiked down atop the room’s marble slab floor, which was carved with the signs of the zodiac. A line marking the meridian cut across the floor. The room was the sixteenth-century solar observatory used to establish the Gregorian calendar and where Galileo had attempted to prove his case that the Earth revolved around the sun.
Unfortunately he had failed — certainly a low point between the Catholic Church and the scientific community. Ever since, the Church had been trying to make up for its shortsightedness.
Vigor took a moment to slow his breathing after the long climb. He wiped sweat from his brow and directed Jacob to a neighboring chamber off the Meridian Room. A massive bookshelf covered its back wall, crammed with books and bound regestra.
“According to the master index, the book we seek should be on the third shelf.”
Jacob stepped through, tripping the wire that ran across the threshold.
Vigor heard the twang. No time for warning.
The incendiary device exploded, blowing Jacob’s body out the doorway and into Vigor.
They fell backward as a wall of flames roared outward, rolling over them, like the brimstone breath of a dragon.
DUST TO DUST
JULY 24, 12:14 P.M.
THE MISSION had been assigned crimson priority, black assignation, and silver security protocols. Director Painter Crowe shook his head at the color-coding. Some bureaucrat had visited a Sherwin-Williams store one too many times.
All the designations boiled down to one bottom line: Do not fail. When matters of national security were involved, there was no second place, no silver medal, no runner-up.
Painter sat at his desk and reviewed his ops manager’s report. All seemed in order. Credentials established, safe-house codes updated, equipment checks completed, satellite schedules coordinated, and a thousand other details arranged. Painter ran a finger down the projected cost analysis. He had a budget meeting next week with the Joint Chiefs.
He rubbed his eyes. This had become his life: paperwork, spreadsheets, and stress. It had been a grueling day. First the Guild ambush, now an international operation to launch. Still, a part of him thrilled at the new challenges and responsibilities. He had inherited Sigma from its founder, Sean McKnight, now director of all of DARPA. Painter refused to disappoint his mentor. All morning, the two had discussed the ambush at Fort Detrick and the upcoming mission, strategizing like old times. Sean had been surprised by Painter’s choice of team leader, but it was ultimately his decision.
So the mission was a go.
All that was left was to brief the operatives. Flight time was set for 0200. There was not much time. A private jet was already being fueled and loaded at Dulles, courtesy of Kensington Oil, a perfect cover. Painter had arranged this last himself, calling on a favor from Lady Kara Kensington. She had been amused to be helping Sigma again. “Can’t you Americans do anything by yourselves?” she had chided him.
The intercom buzzed on his desk.
He hit the button. “Go ahead.”
“Director Crowe, I have Drs. Kokkalis and Bryant here.”
“Send them in.”
A chime sounded at the door as the lock released. Monk Kokkalis pushed in first, but he held the door for Kathryn Bryant. The woman stood a head taller than the stocky former Green Beret. She moved with a leonine grace of constrained power. Her auburn hair, straight to the shoulder, was braided and as conservative as her attire: navy blue suit, white blouse, leather pumps. Her only flash of color was a jeweled pin on her lapel, a tiny frog. Gold enameled in emerald. A match to the flash of her green eyes.
Painter knew why she wore the golden pin. The frog had been a gift from an amphibious team she had once joined during a marine recon operation for naval intelligence. She had saved two men, proving her prowess with a dagger. But one teammate never came back. She wore the pin in his memory. Painter believed there was more to the story, but her files did not elaborate further.
“Please take a seat,” Painter said, acknowledging them both with a nod. “Where’s Commander Pierce?”
Monk shifted in his seat. “Gray…Commander Pierce had a family emergency. He just arrived back. He’ll be up in a moment.”
Covering for him, Painter thought. Good. It was one of the reasons he had chosen Monk Kokkalis for this mission, pairing him up with Grayson Pierce. They complemented each other’s skills — but more importantly, they suited each other’s personalities. Monk could be a tad staid, by-the-book, while Grayson was more reactionary. Still, Grayson listened to Monk, more so than any other member of Sigma. He tempered the steel in Gray. Monk had a way of joking and humoring that proved as convincing as any well-debated argument. They made a good pair.
On the other hand…
Painter noted how stiffly Kat Bryant sat, still at attention. She was not nervous, more wary with an edge of excitement. She exuded confidence. Maybe too much. He had decided to include her on this mission due to her intelligence background, more than her current study of engineering. She was experienced with protocols in the EU, especially around the Mediterranean. She knew microelectronic surveillance and counterintelligence. But more importantly, she had dealings with one of the Vatican operatives who would be jointly overseeing this investigation, Monsignor Verona. The two had worked together on an international art theft ring.
“We might as well get the paperwork out of the way while we await Commander Pierce.” Painter passed out two thick dossiers in black file jackets, one each to Bryant and Kokkalis. A third waited for Pierce.
Monk glanced at the silver? emblazoned on the folder.
“That’ll fill in all the finer details for this op.” Painter tapped the touch screen built into his desktop. The three Sony flat-panel screens — one behind his shoulder, one to the left, and one to the right — changed from panoramic views of mountain landscapes rendered in high definition to the same silver?. “I’ll be doing the mission briefing myself, rather than the usual ops manager.”
“Compartmentalizing the intel,” Kat said softly, her Southern accent softening the edges of her consonants. Painter knew she could make all trace of her accent disappear when she needed too. “Due to the ambush.”
Painter nodded. “Information is being restricted in advance of a system-wide check of our security protocols.”
“Yet we’re still going ahead with a new mission?” Monk asked.
“We have no choice. Word from—”
The buzz of the intercom interrupted. Painter hit the button.
“Director Crowe,” his secretary announced, “Dr. Pierce has arrived.”
“Send him in.”
The door chimed open, and Grayson Pierce strode inside. He wore black Levi’s dressed up with black leather shoes and a starched white shirt. His hair was slicked down, still wet from a shower.
“Sorry,” Grayson said, stopping between the two other agents. A certain hardness in his eyes belied any real sorrow. He kept a stiff posture, ready for reprimand.
And he deserved it. After the security breach, now was not the time to be thumbing his nose at command. However, a certain modicum of insubordination had always been tolerated at Sigma command. These men and women were the best of the best. You couldn’t ask them to act independently out in the field, then expect them to bend to totalitarian authority here. It required a deft hand to balance the two.
Painter stared at Grayson. With the increased security, Painter was well aware the man had received an urgent call from his mother and had checked out of the command center. Behind the stolid stare of the other, Painter noted a glassy-eyed fatigue. Was it from the ambush or his home situation? Was he even fit for this new assignment?
Grayson did not break eye contact. He simply waited.
The meeting had a purpose beyond just a briefing. It was also a test.
Painter waved to a seat. “Family is important,” he said, releasing the man. “Just don’t let your tardiness become a habit.”
“No, sir.” Grayson crossed and sat, but his eyes flicked from the emblazoned flat-screen monitors to the dossiers on his fellow agents’ laps. A crease formed between his brows. The lack of reprimand had unsettled him. Good.
Painter slid the third folder toward Grayson. “We were just starting the mission briefing.”
He took the folder. A look of wary bewilderment narrowed his eyes, but he kept silent.
Painter leaned back and tapped the screen on his desk. A Gothic cathedral appeared on the left screen, an exterior shot. An interior view appeared on the right. Bodies lay sprawled everywhere. Behind his shoulder, he knew a picture of a chalked outline marked off an altar, still bloodstained, outlining the sprawl of a murdered priest. Father Georg Breitman.
Painter watched the agents’ gazes travel over the images.
“The massacre in Cologne,” Kat Bryant said.
Painter nodded. “It occurred near the end of a midnight mass celebrating the feast day of the biblical Wise Men. Eighty-five people were killed. The motive appears to be simple robbery. The cathedral’s priceless reliquary was broken into.” Painter flicked through additional images of the golden sarcophagus and the shattered remains of its security cage. “The only items stolen were the shrine’s contents. The supposed bones of the biblical Magi.”
“Bones?” Monk asked. “They leave behind a crate of solid gold and take a bunch of bones? Who would do that?”
“That remains unknown. There was only one survivor of the massacre.” Painter brought up an image of a young man being carried out in a stretcher, another of the same man in a hospital bed, eyes open but glazed with shock. “Jason Pendleton. American. Age twenty-one. He was found hiding in a confessional booth. He was barely coherent when first discovered, but after a regimen of sedatives, he was able to give a tentative report. The party involved were robed and cloaked as monks. No faces were ID’d. They stormed the cathedral. Armed with rifles. Several people were shot, including the priest and archbishop.”
More pictures flashed across the screens: bullet wounds, more chalked outlines, a web of red yarns marking the trajectory of shots. It looked like a typical crime scene, just with an unusual backdrop.
“And how does this involve Sigma?” Kat asked.
“There were other deaths. Inexplicable deaths. To break into the security vault, the assailants employed some device that not only shattered the metal and bulletproof cage, but also, at least according to the survivor, triggered a wave of death across the cathedral.”
Painter reached out and hit a key. Across all three screens, views of various corpses appeared. The agents’ expressions remained passive. They had all seen their share of death. The bodies were contorted, heads thrown back. One image was a close-up of one of the faces. Eyes were open, corneas gone opaque, while black trails of bloody tears leached from the corners. Lips were stretched back, frozen in a rictus of agony, teeth bared, gums bleeding. The tongue was swollen, cracked, blackened at the edges.
Monk, with his medical and forensic training, shifted straighter, eyes pinched. He might play the absentminded clown, but he was a keen observer, his strongest suit.
“Full autopsy reports are in your folders,” Painter said. “The initial conclusion from the coroners is that the deaths were due to some manifestation of an epileptiform seizure. An extreme convulsive event coupled with severe hyperthermia, spiking core temperature and resulting in the complete liquefaction of the outer surfaces of the brain. All died with their hearts in a contracted state, so intensely squeezed that no blood could be found in the chambers. One man’s pacemaker had exploded in his chest. A woman with a metal pin in a femur was found with her leg still on fire, hours later, smoldering from the inside out.”
The agents kept their faces stoic, but Monk narrowed one eye and Kat’s complexion seemed to have blanched to a pale white. Even Grayson stared a bit too fixedly at the images, unblinking.
But Gray was the first to speak. “And we’re sure the deaths are connected to the device employed by the thieves.”
“As sure as we can be. The survivor reported feeling an intense pressure in his head as the device was turned on. He described it like descending in an airplane. Felt in the ears. The deaths occurred at this time.”
“But Jason lived,” Kat said, taking a deep breath.
“Some others did, too. But the unaffected were subsequently shot by the perpetrators. Slaughtered in cold blood.”
Monk stirred. “So some people succumbed, others did not. Why? Was there any commonality between the victims of the seizures?”
“Only one. A fact even noted by Jason Pendleton. The only ones to suffer the seizures appear to be those who had partaken of the Communion service.”
“It is for this reason that the Vatican made contact with U.S. authorities. And the chain of command dropped this into our laps.”
“The Vatican,” Kat said.
Painter read the understanding in her eyes. She now understood why she had been handpicked for this mission, interrupting her doctoral program in engineering.
Painter continued, “The Vatican fears repercussions if it becomes widely known that some group may be targeting the Communion service. Possibly poisoning its wafers. They want answers as soon as possible, even if it means bending international law. Your team will be working with two intelligence agents in association with the Holy See. They’ll be targeting why all this death seemed aimed to cover the theft of the bones of the Magi. Was it purely a symbolic gesture? Or was there more to the theft?”
“And our end goal?” Kat asked.
“To find out who perpetrated the crime and what device they employed. If it could kill in such a specific and targeted manner, we need to know what we’re dealing with and who controls it.”
Grayson had remained quiet, staring at the gruesome images with more of a clinical stare. “Binary poison,” he finally mumbled.
Painter glanced to the man. Their eyes matched, mirroring each other, both a stormy blue.
“What was that?” Monk asked.
“The deaths,” Grayson said, turning to him. “They were not triggered by a single event. The cause had to be twofold, requiring an intrinsic and extrinsic factor. The device — the extrinsic factor — triggered the mass seizure. But only those who had participated in the Communion service responded. So there must be an intrinsic factor as yet unknown.”
Grayson turned back to Painter. “Was any wine passed out during the service?”
“Only to a handful of the parishioners. But they also consumed the Communion bread.” Painter waited, watching the strange gears shift in the man’s head, seeing him come to a conclusion that had taken experts even longer to reach. There was a reason beyond brawn and reflex for why Grayson had caught Painter’s eye.
“The Communion bread must have been poisoned,” Grayson said. “There is no other explanation. Something was intrinsically seeded into the victims through the consumption of the hosts. Once contaminated, they were susceptible to whatever force was generated by the device.” Grayson’s eyes met Painter’s again. “Were the host wafers examined for any contamination?”
“There was not enough left in the victims’ stomach contents to analyze properly, but there were wafers left over from the service. They were sent to labs throughout the EU.”
By now, the glassy fatigue had vanished from the man’s eyes, replaced by a laser-focused attention. He was plainly still competent for duty. But the test was not over.
“Nothing was found,” Painter continued. “All analyses showed nothing but wheat flour, water, and the usual bakery ingredients for making unleavened bread wafers.”
The crease deepened between Grayson’s brows. “That’s impossible.”
Painter heard the stubborn edge to his voice, almost belligerent. The man remained firmly confident in his assessment.
“There must be something,” Grayson pressed.
“Labs at DARPA were also consulted. Their results were the same.”
“They were wrong.”
Monk reached out a restraining arm.
Kat crossed her arms, settled on the matter. “Then there must be another explanation for—”
“Bullshit,” Grayson said, cutting her off. “The labs were all wrong.”
Painter restrained a smile. Here was the leader waiting to come out in the man: sharp of mind, doggedly confident, willing to listen but not easily swayed once his mind was set.
“You’re right,” Painter finally said.
While Monk’s and Kat’s eyes widened in surprise, Grayson merely leaned back in his seat.
“Our labs here did find something.”
“They carbonized the sample down to its component parts and separated out all the organic components. They then removed each trace element as the mass spectrometer measured it. But after everything was stripped away, they still had a quarter of the dry weight of the host remaining on their scales. A dry whitish powder.”
“I don’t understand,” Monk said.
Grayson explained. “The remaining powder couldn’t be detected by the analyzing equipment.”
“It was sitting on the scales, but the machines were telling the technicians nothing was there.”
“That’s impossible,” Monk said. “We have the best equipment in the world here.”
“But still they couldn’t detect it.”
“The powdery substance must be totally inert,” Grayson said.
Painter nodded. “So the lab boys here tested it further. They heated it to its melting point, 1,160 degrees. It melted and formed a clear liquid that, when the temperature dropped, hardened to form a clear amber glass. If you ground the glass in a mortar and pestle, it again formed the white powder. But in every stage it remained inert, undetectable by modern equipment.”
“What can do that?” Kat asked.
“Something we all know, but in a state that was only discovered in the last couple decades.” Painter flicked to the next picture. It showed a carbon electrode in an inert gas chamber. “One of the technicians worked at Cornell University, where this test was developed. They performed a fractional vaporization of the powder coupled with emission spectroscopy. Using an electroplating technique, they were able to get the powder to anneal back to its more common state.”
He tapped up the last picture. It was a close-up of the black electrode, only it was no longer black. “They were able to get the converted substance to adhere to the carbon rod.”
The black electrode, plated now, shone under the lamp, brilliant and unmistakable.
Grayson leaned forward in his seat. “Gold.”
THE CAR’S siren wailed in Rachel’s ears. She sat in the passenger seat of the Carabinieri patrol, bruised, aching, head throbbing. But all she could feel was an icy certainty that Uncle Vigor was dead. Fear threatened to strangle her, shortening her breath and narrowing her vision.
Rachel half-heard the patrolman speaking into his radio. His vehicle had been the first on the scene of her ambush on the streets. She had refused medical care and used her authority as a lieutenant to order the man to take her to the Vatican.
The car reached the bridge spanning the Tiber River. Rachel continued to stare toward her destination. Across the channel, the shining dome of St. Peter’s appeared, rising above all else. The setting sun cast it in hues of silver and gold. But what she saw rising behind the basilica lifted her from her seat. Her hands grabbed the edge of the dashboard.
A sooty column of black smoke coiled into the indigo sky.
Rachel heard the sounds of additional sirens echoing up the river. Fire engines and other emergency vehicles.
She grabbed the patrolman’s arm. She itched to shove the man out of the way and drive herself. But she was still shaken up. “Can you go any faster?”
Carabiniere Norre nodded. He was young, new to the force. He wore the black uniform with the red stripe down the legs and silver sash across his chest. He twisted the wheel and rode up onto a sidewalk to clear past a knot of traffic. The closer they got to the Vatican, the worse the congestion became. The convergence of emergency vehicles had snarled all traffic in the area.
“Aim for St. Anne’s Gate,” she ordered.
He wheeled around and managed to cut down an alley to get them within three blocks of Porta Sant’ Anna. Directly ahead, the source of the fire became clear. Beyond the walls of Vatican City, the Tower of the Winds was the second-highest point of all of Vatican City. Its top floors blazed with flames, becoming a stone torch.
The tower housed a part of the Vatican Archives. She knew her uncle had been searching the libraries of the Holy See. After her attack, the fire couldn’t be a mere accident.
The car suddenly braked sharply, throwing Rachel forward in her seat restraints. Her eyes were torn away from the blazing tower.
All traffic forward was blocked.
Rachel could not wait any longer. She yanked on the door handle and began to roll out.
Fingers gripped her shoulder, restraining her. “Tenente Verona,” Carabiniere Norre said. “Here. You may need this.”
Rachel stared down at the black pistol, a Beretta 92, the man’s service weapon. She took it with a nod of thanks. “Alert the station. Let General Rende of the TPC know that I’ve returned to the Vatican. He can reach me through the Secretariat’s Office.”
He nodded. “Be careful, Tenente.”
With sirens wailing from every direction, Rachel set off on foot. She shoved the pistol into the waistband of her belt and tugged her blouse free so it hung over and hid the Beretta. Out of uniform, it would not be good to be seen running toward an emergency situation with an exposed weapon.
Crowds filled the sidewalks. Rachel took to shimmying between the cars stalled in the streets, and even slid across the hood of one to continue forward. Ahead she spotted a red municipal fire engine edging through St. Anne’s Gate. It was a narrow fit. A contingent of Swiss Guards formed a barricade to either side, on high alert. No ceremonial halberds here. Each man had an assault rifle in hand.
Rachel pushed toward the guard line.
“Lieutenant Verona with the Carabinieri Corps!” she yelled, arms up, ID in hand. “I must reach Cardinal Spera!”
Expressions remained hard, unbending. Clearly they had been ordered to block all entrance to the Holy See, closing it off to all but emergency personnel. A Carabinieri lieutenant had no authority over the Swiss Guards.
But from the back of the line, a single guard pushed forward, dressed in midnight blue. Rachel recognized him as the same guard to whom she had spoken earlier. He shoved through the line and met her.
“Lieutenant Verona,” he said. “I’ve been ordered to escort you inside. Come with me.”
He turned on a heel and led her away.
She hurried to keep up as they crossed through the gate. “My uncle…Monsignor Verona…”
“I know nothing except to escort you to the eliport.” He directed her to an electric groundskeeper’s cart parked just past the gate. “Orders from Cardinal Spera.”
Rachel climbed inside. The lumbering fire engine rolled ahead of them and entered the wide yard that fronted the Vatican Museums. It joined the other emergency vehicles, including a pair of military vehicles mounted with submachine guns.
With clearance now, the guardsman turned their cart to the right, skirting the emergency traffic jam in front of the museums. Overhead, the tower continued to blaze. From somewhere on the far side, a jet of water exploded upward, trying to reach the fiery top levels. Flames lapped from windows of the top three floors. Clouds of black smoke billowed and churned. The tower was a tinderbox, stoked with masses of books, parchments, and scrolls.
It was a disaster of vast scale. What fire didn’t destroy, water and smoke would ruin. Centuries of archives, mapping Western history, gone.
Still, Rachel found all her fears centered on one concern.
The cart zipped past the city’s garage and continued down a paved road. It paralleled the Leonine Wall, the stone-and-mortar cliff that enclosed Vatican City. They circled the museum complex and reached the vast gardens covering the back half of the city-state. Fountains danced in the distance. The world was painted in shades of green. It seemed too pastoral for the hellish landscape behind them of smoke, fire, and siren wails.
They continued in silence to the very back of the grounds.
Their destination appeared ahead. Tucked into a walled alcove was the Vatican heliport. Converted from old tennis courts, the airfield was little more than a vast acre of concrete and some outbuildings.
On the tarmac, a single helicopter rested on its skids, isolated from the tumult. Its blades were slowly beginning to spin, gaining speed. The engine whined. Rachel knew the solid white aircraft. It was the pope’s private helicopter, nicknamed the “Holycopter.”
She also recognized the black robe and red sash of Cardinal Spera. He stood at the open door to the passenger compartment, ducked slightly from the spinning blades. One hand held his scarlet skullcap in place.
He turned, drawn by the motion of the cart, and lifted an arm in greeting. The motor cart braked a short distance away. Rachel hardly waited for it to stop and leapt out. She hurried toward the cardinal.
If anyone knew the fate of her uncle, it would be the cardinal.
Or one other…
From the back of the helicopter, a figure stepped out and hurried toward her. She rushed to meet him and hugged him tight under the whirling blades of the helicopter.
“Uncle Vigor…” Tears ran down her face, hot, melting through the ice around her heart.
He pulled back. “You’re late, child.”
“I was distracted,” she answered.
“So I heard. General Rende passed on word of your attack.”
Rachel glanced back to the flaming tower. She smelled the smoke in his hair. His eyebrows were singed. “It seems I wasn’t the only one attacked. Thank God you’re okay.”
Her uncle’s face darkened, his voice tightened. “Unfortunately, not all were so blessed.”
She met his eyes.
“Jacob was killed in the blast. His body shielded mine, saved me.” She heard the anguish in his words, even over the roar of the helicopter. “Come, we must get away.”
He directed her to the helicopter.
Cardinal Spera nodded to her uncle. “They must be stopped,” he said cryptically.
Rachel followed her uncle into the helicopter. They strapped themselves in as the door was shoved closed. The thick insulation muffled a good portion of the engine noise, but Rachel heard the helicopter rev up. It immediately lifted from its skids and rose smoothly into the air.
Uncle Vigor settled against his seatback, head bowed, eyes closed. His lips trembled, speaking a silent prayer. For Jacob…perhaps for themselves.
Rachel waited until he opened his eyes. By then, they were winging away from the Vatican and out over the Tiber. “The attackers,” Rachel began, “…they were driving vehicles with Vatican license plates.”
Her uncle nodded, unsurprised. “It seems that the Vatican not only has spies abroad, but is also spied against within its own midst.”
With a groan, Uncle Vigor cut her off. He sat straighter, reached into his jacket, and removed a folded slip of paper. He passed it to her. “The survivor of the Cologne massacre described this for a sketch artist. He saw it embroidered on the chest of one of the attackers.”
Rachel unfolded the slip of paper. Drawn in surprising detail was the coiled figure of a red dragon, wings blazed out, tail twisted and serpentine, wrapped around its own neck.
She lowered the drawing and glanced to her uncle.
“An ancient symbol,” her uncle said. “Dating back to the fourteenth century.”
“Symbol of what?”
“The Dragon Court.”
Rachel shook her head, not recognizing the name.
“They are a medieval alchemical cult created by a schism in the early Church, the same schism that saw the rise of popes and antipopes.”
Rachel was familiar with the reign of Vatican antipopes, men who sat as head of the Catholic Church but whose election was later declared uncanonical. They arose for a variety of reasons, the most common being the usurpation and exile of the legitimately elected pope, usually by a militant faction backed by a king or emperor. From the third to fifteenth century, forty antipopes had risen to sit on the papal throne. The most tumultuous era, though, was during the fourteenth century, when the legitimate papacy was driven out of Rome and into France. For seventy years, popes reigned in exile, while Rome was governed by a series of corrupt antipopes.
“What does such an ancient cult have to do with the situation now?” she asked.
“The Dragon Court is still active today. Its sovereignty is even recognized by the EU, similar to the Knights of Malta, who hold observer status at the United Nations. The shadowy Dragon Court has been linked to the European Council of Princes, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. The Dragon Court also openly admits to having members within the Catholic Church. Even here in the Vatican.”
“Here?” Rachel could not keep the shock from her voice. She and her uncle had been targeted. By someone inside the Vatican.
“A few years back, there was quite a scandal,” Uncle Vigor continued. “A former Jesuit priest, Father Malachi Martin, wrote of a ‘secret church’ within the Church. He was a scholar who spoke seventeen languages, authored many scholarly texts, and was a close associate of Pope John XXIII. He worked here in the Vatican for twenty years. His last book, written just before he died, spoke of an alchemical cult within the Vatican itself, performing rites in secret.”
Rachel felt a sickening lurch in her stomach that had nothing to do with the helicopter banking in the direction of the international airport in nearby Fiumicino. “A secret church within the Church. This is who may have been involved in the Cologne massacre? Why? What’s their purpose?”
“For stealing the bones of the Magi? I have no clue.”
Rachel allowed this revelation to filter through her mind. To catch a criminal required first knowing them. Ascertaining motive often proved more informative than physical evidence.
“What else do you know about the Court?” she asked.
“Despite their long history, not much. Back in the eighth century, Emperor Charlemagne conquered ancient Europe in the name of the Holy Church, smashing pagan nature-cult religions and replacing their beliefs with Catholicism.”
Rachel nodded, well acquainted with the brutal tactics of Charlemagne.
“But tides turn,” Uncle Vigor continued. “What was once unfashionable becomes fashionable again. By the twelfth century, a resurgence in Gnostic or mystical belief began to arise, taken up in secret by the same emperors who had once beaten it down. A schism slowly formed as the Church moved toward the Catholicism we know today, while the emperors continued their Gnostic practices. The schism came to a head during the end of the fourteenth century. The exiled papacy in France had just returned. To make peace, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg backed the Vatican politically, even outwardly abolishing Gnostic practices among the lower classes.”
“Only the lower classes?”
“The aristocracy was spared. While the emperor beat down mystical beliefs among commoners, he created a secret society among the royal families of Europe, one dedicated to alchemical and mystical pursuits. The Ordinis Draconis. The Imperial Royal Dragon Court. It continues to this day. But there are many sects in different countries; some are benign, merely ceremonial or fraternal, but others have sprouted up that are led by vitriolic leaders. I would wager if the Dragon Court is involved, it is one of these rabid subsects.”
Rachel slipped instinctually into interrogation mode. Know your enemy. “And what’s the goal of these nastier sects?”
“As a cult of aristocracy, these extreme leaders believe they and their members are the rightful and chosen rulers of mankind. That they were born to rule by the purity of their blood.”
“Hitler’s master-race syndrome.”
A nod. “But they seek more. Not just kingship. They seek all forms of ancient knowledge to further their cause of domination and apocalypse.”
“To tread where even Hitler feared to go,” Rachel mumbled.
“Mostly they’ve maintained an austere air of superiority while manipulating politics behind a screen of secrecy and ritual, working with such elite groups as Skull and Bones in America and the Bilderburg think tank in Europe. But now someone is showing their hand, brazenly, bloodily.”
“What does it mean?”
Uncle Vigor shook his head. “I fear this sect has discovered something of major importance, something that draws them out of hiding and into the open.”
“And the deaths?”
“A warning to the Church. Like the attacks upon ourselves. The simultaneous murder attempts today couldn’t be coincidence. They had to have been ordered by the Dragon Court, to slow us, to scare us. It couldn’t be coincidence. This particular Court is flexing its muscles, growling for the Church to back off, shedding the skin it’s worn for centuries.”
“But to what end?”
Uncle Vigor leaned back with a sigh. “To achieve the goal of all madmen.”
Rachel continued to stare at him.
He answered with one word. “Armageddon.”
AIRBORNE OVER THE ATLANTIC
GRAY SHOOK his tumbler, clinking the ice.
Kat Bryant glanced from her seat across the plush cabin of the private jet. She didn’t say anything, but her furrowed brow spoke volumes. She had been concentrating on the mission dossier — for the second time. Gray had already read it from cover to cover. He saw no need to peruse it again. Instead, he had been studying the gray-blue slate of the Atlantic Ocean, trying to figure out why he had been pegged as mission leader. At forty-five thousand feet, he still had no answer.
Swiveling his chair, he stood and crossed to the antique mahogany bar at the back of the cabin. He shook his head again at the opulence here: Waterford crystal, burled walnut, leather seating. It looked like an upscale English pub.
But at least he knew the bartender.
“Another Coke?” Monk asked.
Gray placed his glass on the bar. “I think I’ve reached my limit.”
“Lightweight,” his friend mumbled.
Gray turned and faced the cabin. His father had once told him that acting the part was halfway to becoming that part. Of course, he had been referring to Gray’s stint as a rig hand at an oil field, one overseen by his engineer father. He had been only sixteen, spending a summer in the hot sun of East Texas. It had been brutal work, when other of his high school friends had been summering on the beaches of South Padre Island. His father’s admonishment still rang in his head. To be a man, you first have to act like one.
Perhaps the same could be said for being a leader.
“Okay, enough with hitting the books,” he said, drawing Kat’s eyes. He glanced to Monk. “And I think you’ve explored the depth of this flying liquor cabinet long enough.”
Monk shrugged and came around into the main cabin area.
“We have less than four hours of flight time,” Gray said. With their jet, a custom Citation X, traveling just under sonic speeds, they would be landing at two A.M. German time, the dead of night. “I suggest we all try to get some sleep. We’ll be hitting the ground running once we’re there.”
Monk yawned. “You don’t have to tell me twice, Commander.”
“But first let’s compare notes. We’ve had a lot thrown at us.”
Gray pointed to the seats. Monk dropped into one. Gray joined them, facing Kat across a table.
While Gray had known Monk since joining Sigma, Captain Kathryn Bryant remained a relative unknown. She was so steeped in study that few at Sigma knew her well. She was mostly defined by her reputation since being recruited. One operative described her as a walking computer. But her reputation was also clouded by her former role as an intelligence operative. Overseeing black ops, it was rumored. But no one knew for sure. Her past was beyond the classification of even her fellow Sigma members. Such secrecy only isolated her further from men and women who had risen through the ranks in units, teams, and platoons.
Gray had his own problems with her past. He had personal reasons for disliking those in the intelligence field. They operated aloof, far from the battlefield, farther than even bomber pilots, but more deadly. Gray bore blood on his hands because of poor intel. Innocent blood. He could not shake a certain level of distrust.
He stared at Kat. Her green eyes were hard. Her whole body seemed starched. He pushed aside her past. She was his teammate now.
He took a deep breath. He was her leader.
Act the part…
He cleared his throat. Time to get to business. He lifted one finger. “Okay, first, what do we know?”
Monk answered, his face dead serious. “Not much.”
Kat maintained a fixed expression. “We know the perpetrators are somehow involved with the cult society known as the Royal Dragon Court.”
“That’s as good as saying they’re involved with Hari Krishnas,” Monk countered. “The group is as shadowy and weedy as crabgrass. We don’t have a clue who is truly behind all this.”
Gray nodded. They had been faxed this information while en route. But more disturbingly, news had reached them of an attack upon their counterparts in the Vatican. It had to be the work of the Dragon Court again. But why? What sort of clandestine war zone were they flying into? He needed answers.
“Let’s break this down then,” Gray said, realizing he sounded like Director Crowe. The other two looked at him expectantly. He cleared his throat. “Back to the basics. Means, motive, and opportunity.”
“They had plenty of opportunity,” Monk said. “Striking after midnight. When the streets were mostly empty. But why not wait until the cathedral was empty, too?”
“To send a message,” Kat answered. “A blow against the Catholic Church.”
“We can’t make that assumption,” Monk said. “Look at it more broadly. Maybe it was all sleight of hand. Meant to misdirect. To commit a crime so bloody that all attention would be pulled from the rather insignificant theft of some dusty bones.”
Kat didn’t look convinced, but she was difficult to read, playing her cards close to the chest. Like she had been trained.
Gray settled the matter. “Either way, for now, exploring opportunity offers no inroads into who perpetrated the massacre. Let’s move on to motive.”
“Why steal bones?” Monk said with a shake of his head and sat back. “Maybe they mean to ransom them back to the Catholic Church.”
Kat shook her head. “If it was only money, they would’ve stolen the golden reliquary. So it must be something else about the bones. Something we have no clue about. So maybe it’s best we leave that thread to our Vatican contacts.”
Gray frowned. He was still uncomfortable working jointly with an organization like the Vatican, an establishment built on secrets and religious dogma. He had been raised Roman Catholic, and while he still felt strong stirrings of faith, he had also studied other religions and philosophies: Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism. He had learned much, but he never could answer one question from his studies: What was he seeking?
Gray shook his head. “For now, we’ll mark the motivation for this crime with another big question mark. We’ll pursue that in more depth when we meet with the others. That leaves only means to discuss.”
“Which goes back to the whole financial discussion,” Monk said. “This operation was well planned and swiftly executed. From the manpower alone, this was an expensive operation. Money backed this theft.”
“Money and a level of technology that we don’t understand,” Kat said.
Monk nodded. “But what about that weird gold in the Communion bread?”
“Monatomic gold,” Kat mumbled, creasing lines around her lips.
Gray pictured the gold-plated electrode. They had been given reams of data in their dossier on this strange gold, culled from labs around the world: British Aerospace, Argonne National Laboratories, Boeing Labs in Seattle, the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.
The powder had not been ordinary gold dust, the flaky form of metallic gold. It had been an entirely new elemental state of gold, classified as m-state. Rather than its usual metallic matrix, the white powder was gold broken down into individual atoms. Monatomic, or m-state. Until recently, scientists had no idea that gold could transmute, both naturally and artificially, into an inert white powder form.
But what did it all mean?
“Okay,” Gray said, “we’ve all read the files. Let’s round-robin that topic. See if it leads anywhere.”
Monk spoke up. “First, it’s not just gold that does this. We should keep that in mind. It seems any of the transitional metals on the periodic table — platinum, rhodium, iridium, and others — can also dissolve into a powder.”
“Not dissolve,” Kat said. She glanced down to the dossier with its photocopied articles from Platinum Metals Review, Scientific American, even Jane’s Defense Weekly, the journal of the UK’s Ministry of Defense. It appeared as if she itched to open the folder.
“The term is disaggregate,” she continued. “These m-state metals break down into both individual atoms and microclusters. From a physics standpoint, this state arises when time-forward and time-reverse electrons fuse around the nucleus of the atom, causing each atom to lose its chemical reactivity to its neighbor.”
“You mean they stop sticking to each other.” Monk’s eyes danced a bit with amusement.
“To put it crudely,” Kat said with a sigh. “It’s this lack of chemical reactivity that makes the metal lose its metallic appearance and disaggregate into a powder. A powder undetectable to ordinary lab equipment.”
“Ah…” Monk muttered.
Gray frowned at Monk. He shrugged. Gray knew his friend was playing dumb.
“I think,” Kat went on, oblivious of the exchange, “that the perpetrators knew about this lack of chemical reactivity and trusted the gold powder would never be discovered. It was their second mistake.”
“Their second?” Monk asked.
“They left alive a witness. The young man. Jason Pendleton.” Kat opened her dossier folder. It seemed she couldn’t resist the temptation after all. “Back to the matter of the gold. What about this one paper on superconductivity?”
Gray nodded. He had to give Kat credit. She had zeroed in on the most intriguing aspect of these m-state metals. Even Monk sat straighter now.
Kat continued, “While the powder appears inert to analyzing equipment, the atomic state is far from low-energy. It was as if each atom took all the energy it used to react to its neighbor and turned it inward on itself. The energy deformed the atom’s nucleus, stretching it out to an elongated shape, known as…” She searched the article at her fingertips. Gray noted it had been marked up with a yellow highlighter.
“An asymmetrical high-spin state,” she said. “Physicists have known that such high-spin atoms can pass energy from one atom to the next with no net energy loss.”
“Superconductivity,” Monk said with no dissembling.
“Energy passed into a superconductor would continue to flow through the material with no loss of power. A perfect superconductor would allow this energy to flow infinitely, until the end of time itself.”
Silence settled over them as they all pondered the many perplexities here.
Monk finally stretched. “Great. We’ve ground the mystery down to the level of the atomic nucleus. Let’s pull back. What does any of this have to do with the murders at the cathedral? Why poison the wafers with this weird gold powder? How did the powder kill?”
They were all good questions. Kat closed her dossier, conceding that no answers would be found there.
Gray was beginning to understand why the director had given him these two partners. It went beyond their backgrounds as an intelligence specialist and a forensics expert. Kat had a focused ability to concentrate on minutiae, to pick out details others might miss. But Monk, no less sharp, was better at looking at the bigger picture, spotting trends across a broader landscape.
But where did that leave him?
“It seems we still have much to investigate,” he finished lamely.
Monk lifted one eyebrow. “As I said from the start, we don’t have a lot to go on.”
“That’s why we’ve been called in. To solve the impossible.” Gray checked his watch, stifling a yawn. “And to do that, we should grab as much downtime as we can until we land in Germany.”
The other two nodded. Gray stood and crossed to a seat a short distance away. Monk grabbed pillows and blankets. Kat closed the shades on the windows, dimming the cabin. Gray watched them.
His team. His responsibility.
To be a man, you first have to act like one.
Gray accepted his own pillow and sat down. He did not recline his seat. Despite his exhaustion, he did not expect to get much sleep. Monk toggled down the overhead lights. Darkness descended.
“Good night, Commander,” Kat said from across the cabin.
As the others settled, Gray sat in the darkness, wondering how he got here. Time stretched. The engines rumbled white noise. Still, any semblance of sleep escaped him.
In the privacy of the moment, Gray reached into the pocket of his jeans. He slipped out a rosary, gripping the crucifix at the end, hard enough to hurt his palm. It was a graduation gift from his grandfather, who had died only two months after that. Gray had been in boot camp. He hadn’t been able to attend the funeral. He leaned back. After today’s briefing, he had called his folks, lying about a last-minute business trip to cover his absence.
Fingers traveled down the hard beads of his rosary.
He said no prayers.
CHÂTEAU SAUVAGE crouched in the mountain pass of the Savoy Alps like a stone giant. Its battlements were ten feet thick. Its single foursquare tower crested its walls. The only access to its gates was over a stone bridge spanning the pass. While it was not the largest castle of the Swiss canton, it was certainly one of the oldest, constructed during the twelfth century. Its roots were even older. Its battlements were built on the ruins of a Roman castra, an ancient military fortification from the first century.
It was also one of the oldest privately owned castles, belonging to the Sauvage family since the fifteenth century, when the Bernese army wrested control of Lausanne from the decadent bishops during the Reformation. Its parapets overlooked Lake Geneva far below and the handsome cliff-side city of Lausanne, once a fishing village, now a cosmopolitan town of lakeside parks, museums, resorts, clubs, and cafés.
The castle’s current master, Baron Raoul de Sauvage, ignored the lamp-lit view of the dark city and descended the stairs that led below the castle. He had been summoned. Behind him, a huge wooly dog, weighing a massive seventy kilos, followed his steps. The Bernese mountain dog’s black-and-brown shaggy coat brushed the ancient stone steps.
Raoul also had a kennel of pit-fighting dogs, massive hundred-kilo brutes from Gran Canaria, short-haired, thick-necked, tortured to a savage edge. He bred champions of the blood sport.
But right now, Raoul had matters even bloodier to settle.
He passed the dungeon level of the castle with its stone caves. The cells now housed his extensive wine collection, a perfect cellar, but one section harkened back to the old days. Four stone cells had been updated with stainless steel gates, electronic locks, and video surveillance. Near the cells, one large room still housed ancient torture devices…and a few modern ones. His family had helped several Nazi leaders escape out of Austria after World War II, families with ties to the Hapsburgs. They had been hidden down here. As payment, Raoul’s grandfather had taken his share, his “toll” as he called it, which had helped keep the castle within the family.
But now, at the age of thirty-three, Raoul would surpass his grandfather. Raoul, born a bastard to his father, had been given title to both estate and heritage at the age of sixteen, when his father died. He was the only living male offspring. And among the Sauvage family, genetic ties were given precedence over those of marriage. Even his birth had been conceived by arrangement.
Another of Grandfather’s tolls.
The Baron of Sauvage climbed down even deeper into the mountainside, hunching away from the roof, followed by his dog. A string of bare electrical lights illuminated his way.
The stone steps became natural hewn rock. Here Roman legionnaires had tread in ancient times, often leading a sacrificial bull or goat down to the cave below. The chamber had been converted into a mithraeumby the Romans, a temple to the god Mithra, a sun god imported from Iran and taken to heart by the empire’s soldiers. Mithraism predated Christianity yet bore uncanny similarities. Mithra’s birthday was celebrated on December 25. The god’s worship involved baptism and the consumption of a sacred meal of bread and wine. Mithra also had twelve disciples, held Sunday sacred, and described a heaven and a hell. Upon his death, Mithra was also buried in a tomb, only to rise again in three days.
From this, some scholars claimed Christianity had incorporated Mithraic mythology into its own ritual. It was not unlike the castle here, the new standing on the shoulders of the old, the strong surpassing the weak. Raoul saw nothing wrong with this, even respected it.
It was the natural order.
Raoul descended the last steps and entered the wide subterranean grotto. The roof of the cave was a natural stone dome, crudely carved with stars and a stylized sun. An old Mithraic altar, where young bulls had been sacrificed, stood on the far side. Beyond it ran a deep cold spring, a small river. Raoul imagined the sacrificed bodies had been dumped into it to be carried away. He had disposed of a few of his own that way, too…those not fed to his dogs.
At the entrance, Raoul shed his leather duster. Beneath the coat, he wore an old rough-spun shirt embroidered with the coiled dragon, the symbol of the Ordinis Draconis, his birthright going back generations.
“Stay, Drakko,” he ordered the dog.
The Bernese mountain dog dropped to its haunches. It knew better than to disobey.
As did the dog’s owner…
Raoul acknowledged the cave’s occupant with a half bow, then proceeded forward.
The Sovereign Grand Imperator of the Court waited for him before the altar, dressed in the black leathers of a motorcycle outfit. Though he was two decades older than Raoul, the man matched his height and breadth of shoulder. He showed no withering of age, but remained stolid and firm of muscle. He kept his helmet in place, visor down.
The leader had entered through the secret back entrance to the Grotto…along with a stranger.
It was forbidden for anyone outside the Court to view the Imperator’s face. The stranger had been blindfolded as an extra precaution.
Raoul also noted the five bodyguards at the back of the cavern, all armed with automatic weapons, the elite guard of the Imperator.
Raoul strode forward, right arm across his chest. He dropped to a knee before the Imperator. Raoul was head of the Court’s infamous adepti exempti, the military order, an honor going back to Vlad the Impaler, an ancient ancestor of the Sauvage family. But all bowed to the Imperator. A mantle Raoul hoped to one day assume for himself.
“Stand,” he was ordered.
Raoul gained his feet.
“The Americans are already under way,” the Imperator said. His voice, muffled by the helmet, was still heavy with command. “Are your men ready?”
“Yes, sir. I handpicked a dozen men. We only await your order.”
“Very good. Our allies have lent us someone to assist on this operation. Someone who knows these American agents.”
Raoul grimaced. He did not need help.
“Do you have a problem with this?”
“A plane awaits you and your men at the Yverdon airfield. Failure will not be tolerated a second time.”
Raoul cringed inwardly. He had led the mission to steal the bones in Cologne, but he had failed to purge the sanctuary. There had been one survivor. One who had pointed in their direction. Raoul had been disgraced.
“I will not fail,” he assured his leader.
The Imperator stared at him, an unnerving gaze felt through the lowered visor. “You know your duty.”
A final nod.
The Imperator strode forward, passing Raoul, accompanied by his bodyguards. He was headed for the castle, taking over the chateau here until the end game was completed. But first Raoul had to finish clearing the mess he had left behind.
It meant another trip to Germany.
He waited for the Imperator to leave. Drakko trotted after the men, as if the dog scented the true power here. Then again, the leader had visited the castle often during the last ten years, when the keys to damnation and salvation had fallen into their laps.
All due to a fortuitous discovery at the Cairo Museum…
Now they were so close.
With his leader gone, Raoul finally faced the stranger. What he saw, he found lacking, and he let his scowl show it. But at least the stranger’s garb, all black, was fitting.
As was the bit of silver decoration.
From the woman’s pendant, a silver dragon dangled.
JULY 25, 2:14 A.M.
FOR GRAY, churches at night always held a certain haunted edge. But none more so than this house of worship. With the recent murders, the Gothic structure exuded a palpable dread.
As his team crossed the square, Gray studied the Cologne cathedral, or the Dom, as it was called by the locals. It was lit up by exterior spotlights, casting the edifice into silver and shadow. Most of the western façade was just two massive towers. The twin spires rose close together, jutting up from either side of the main door, only meters apart for most of their lengths until the towers tapered to points with tiny crosses at the tips. Each tier of the five-hundred-foot structures had been decorated with intricate reliefs. Arched windows climbed the towers, all aiming toward the night sky and the moon far above.
“Looks like they left the light on for us,” Monk said, gaping at the spotlighted cathedral. He hitched his backpack higher on his shoulder.
They were all dressed in dark civilian clothes, meant not to stand out. But beneath, each team member wore a clinging undergarment of liquid body armor. Their rucksacks, black Arcteryx backpacks, were stuffed with tools of the trade, including weapons from a CIA contact who had met them at the airport: Glock M-27 compact pistols, chambered in.40-caliber hollowpoints, fitted with tritium night sights.
Monk also had a Scattergun-built shotgun, strapped to his left thigh, hidden under a long jacket. The weapon had been custom-designed for such service, snub-nosed and compact, like Monk himself, with a Ghost Ring sight system for riflelike accuracy in low light. Kat went more lowtech. She managed to hide eight daggers on her body. A blade lay only a fingertip away, no matter her position.
Gray checked his Breitling dive watch. The hands glowed a quarter after two o’clock. They had made excellent time.
They crossed the square. Gray searched the dark corners for anything suspicious. All seemed quiet. At this hour on a weekday, the place was nearly deserted. Only a few stragglers. And most of those weaved a bit as they walked, the pubs having let out. But there were signs of earlier crowds. Piles of flowers from mourners littered the square’s edges, along with the discarded beer bottles of gawkers. Mounds of melted wax candles marked memorial shrines, some with photos of relatives who had died. A few tapers still burned, tiny flickers in the night, lonely and forlorn.
A full candlelit vigil was under way at a neighboring church, an all-night memorial service, with a live feed from the pope. It had been coordinated to empty the square this night.
Still, Gray noted that his teammates kept a wary watch on their surroundings. They were not taking any chances.
Parked in front of the cathedral was a panel truck with the municipal Polizei logo on its side. It had served as the main base of operation for the forensic teams. Upon landing, Gray had been informed by the ops manager of this mission, Logan Gregory, Sigma’s second-in-command, that all local investigative teams had been pulled out by midnight but would be returning in the morning. Zero-six-hundred. Until then, they had the church to themselves.
Well, not entirely to themselves.
One of the flanking side doors to the cathedral opened as they neared. A tall, thin figure stood limned against the light inside. An arm lifted.
“Monsignor Verona,” Kat whispered under her breath, confirming the identity.
The priest crossed to the police cordon that had been placed around the cathedral. He spoke to one of the two guards on duty, posted to keep the curious away from the crime scene, then motioned the trio through the barricade.
They followed him to the open doorway.
“Captain Bryant,” the monsignor said, smiling warmly. “Despite the tragic circumstances, it’s wonderful to see you again.”
“Thank you, Professor,” Kat said, returning an affectionate grin. Her features softened with genuine friendship.
“Please call me Vigor.”
They entered the cathedral’s front vestibule. The monsignor pulled the door closed and locked it. He scrutinized Kat’s two companions.
Gray felt the weight of his study. The man was nearly his height, but more wiry of build. His salt-and-pepper hair had been combed straight back, curling in waves. He wore a neatly trimmed goatee and was dressed casually in midnight-blue jeans and a black V-neck sweater, revealing the Roman collar of his station.
But it was the steady fix of his gaze that most struck Gray. Despite his welcoming manner, there was a steely edge to the man. Even Monk straightened his shoulders under the priest’s attention.
“Come inside,” Vigor said. “We should get started as soon as possible.”
The monsignor led the way to the closed doors of the nave, opened them, and waved the group inside.
As he entered the heart of the church, Gray was immediately struck by two things. First by the smell. The air, while still redolent with incense, also wafted an underlying stench of something burnt.
Still, that was not all that caught Gray’s attention. A woman rose from a pew to greet them. She looked like a young Audrey Hepburn: snowy skin, short ebony hair parted and swept behind her ears, caramel-colored eyes. She offered no smile. Her gaze swept over the newcomers, settling a moment longer on Gray.
He recognized the familial resemblance between her and the monsignor, more from the intensity of her scrutiny than any physical features.
“My niece,” Vigor introduced. “Lieutenant Rachel Verona.”
They finished their introductions quickly. And though there was no outward animosity, their two camps still remained separate. Rachel kept a wary distance, as if ready to go for her gun if necessary. Gray had noted a holstered pistol under her open vest. A 9mm Beretta.
“We should get started,” Vigor said. “The Vatican was able to gain us some privacy, demanding time to sanctify and bless the nave after the last body was removed.”
The monsignor led the way down the central aisle.
Gray noted sections of the pews had been marked off with masking tape. Place cards had been affixed to each with the names of the deceased. He stepped around the chalked outlines on the floor. Blood had been wiped up, but the stain had seeped into the mortar of the stone floor. Yellow plastic markers fixed the positions of shell casings, long gone to forensics.
He glanced across the nave, picturing how it must have looked upon first entering. Bodies sprawled everywhere; the smell of burnt blood, richer. He could almost sense an echo of the pain, trapped in the stone as much as the reek. It shivered over his skin. He was still enough of a Roman Catholic to find such murder disturbing beyond mere violence. It was an affront against God. Satanic.
Had that been part of the motivation?
To turn a feast into a Black Mass.
The monsignor spoke, drawing his attention back. “Over there was where the boy was found hiding.” He pointed to a confessional booth against the north wall, halfway up the long nave.
Jason Pendleton. The lone survivor.
Gray took some degree of grim satisfaction that not all had died that bloody night. The attackers had made a mistake. They were fallible. Human. He centered himself with this thought. Though the act was demonic, the hand that committed it was as human as any other. Not that there weren’t demons in human form.
But humans could be caught and punished.
They reached the raised sanctuary with the slab-marble altar and the tall-backed cathedra, the bishop’s seat. Vigor and his niece made the sign of the cross. Vigor dropped to one knee, then got up. He led them through a gate in the chancel railing. Beyond the railing, the altar was also marked in chalk, the travertine marble stained. Police tape cordoned off a section to the right.
Crashed onto the floor, cracking the stone tile, a golden sarcophagus lay on its side. Its top rested two steps down. Gray shrugged off his backpack and lowered to one knee.
The golden reliquary, when whole, plainly formed a miniature church, carved with arched windows and etched scenes done in gold, rubies, and emeralds, depicting Christ’s life, from his adoration by the Magi to his scourging and eventual crucifixion.
Gray donned a pair of latex gloves. “This is where the bones were enshrined?”
Vigor nodded. “Since the thirteenth century.”
Kat joined Gray. “I see they’ve already dusted it for prints.” She pointed to the fine white powder clinging to cracks and crevices in the reliefs.
“No prints were found,” Rachel said.
Monk glanced across the cathedral. “And nothing else was taken?”
“A full inventory was conducted,” Rachel continued. “We’ve already had a chance to interview the entire staff, including the priests.”
“I may want to speak to them myself,” Gray mumbled, still studying the box.
“Their apartments are across a cloistered yard,” Rachel responded, voice hardening. “No one heard or saw anything. But if you want to waste your time, feel free.”
Gray glanced up at her. “I only said I may want to speak to them.”
She met his gaze without shrinking. “And I was under the impression that this investigation was a joint effort. If we’re going to recheck each other’s work at every step, we’ll get nowhere.”
Gray took a steadying breath. Only minutes into the investigation, and already he had stepped on jurisdictional toes. He should have interpreted her earlier wariness and trodden more lightly.
Vigor placed a hand on his niece’s shoulder. “I assure you the interrogation was thorough. Among my colleagues, where prudence of tongue often surpasses good sense, I doubt you’d gain any further details, especially when being interviewed by someone not wearing a clerical collar.”
Monk spoke up. “That’s all well and good. But can we get back to me?” All eyes turned to him. He wore a crooked grin. “I believe I was asking if anything else was taken.”
Gray felt the attention shift from him. As usual, Monk had his back. A diplomat in body armor.
Rachel fixed Monk with her uncompromising gaze. “As I said, nothing was—”
“Yes, thank you, Lieutenant. But I was curious if any other relics are kept here at the cathedral. Any relics that the thieves didn’t take.”
Rachel frowned in confusion.
“I figured,” Monk explained, “that what the thieves didn’t take may be as informative as what they did.” He shrugged.
The woman’s face relaxed a touch, contemplating this angle. The anger bled away.
Gray inwardly shook his head. How did Monk do that?
The monsignor answered Monk. “There’s a treasure chamber off the nave. It holds the reliquaries from the original Romanesque church that once stood here: the staff and chain of Saint Peter, along with a couple of pieces of the Christ’s cross. Also a Gothic bishop’s staff from the fourteenth century and a jewel-encrusted elector’s sword from the fifteenth.”
“And nothing was stolen from the treasure chamber.”
“It was all inventoried,” Rachel answered. Her eyes remained pinched in concentration. “Nothing else was stolen.”
Kat crouched down with Gray, but her eyes were on those still standing. “So only the bones were taken. Why?”
Gray turned his attention to the open sarcophagus. He slipped a penlight from his nearby backpack and examined the interior. It was unlined. Just flat gold surfaces. He noted a bit of white powder sifted over the bottom surface. More latent powder? Bone ash?
There was only one way to find out.
He turned back to his pack and pulled out a collection kit. He used a small battery-powered vacuum to sniff up some of the powder into a sterile test tube.
“What are you doing?” Rachel asked.
“If this is bone dust, it may answer a few questions.”
He sat back and examined the test tube. There was no more than a couple grams of gray powder. “We might be able to test the dust for age. Find out if the stolen bones were from someone who lived during Christ’s time. Or not. Maybe the crime was to recover the family bones of someone in the Dragon Court. Some old lord or prince.”
Gray sealed the test tube and packed the sample away. “I’d also like to get samples of the broken glass from the security vault. It might give us some answers as to how the device shattered bulletproof glass. Our labs can examine the crystalline microstructure for fracture patterns.”
“I’ll get on that,” Monk said, slinging off his pack.
“What about the stonework?” Rachel asked. “Or other materials inside the cathedral?”
“What do you mean?” Gray asked.
“Whatever triggered the deaths among the parishioners might have affected the stone, marble, wood, plastic. Something that could not be seen with the naked eye.”
Gray had not considered that. He should have. Monk met his eyes and shrugged his brows. The carabiniere lieutenant was proving herself to be more than a pretty package.
Gray turned to Kat to organize a collection methodology. But she seemed preoccupied. From the corner of his eye, he had noted her interest in the reliquary, all but ducking her head inside to investigate. She now crouched on the marble floor, bent over something she was working on.
She held up a tiny mink-haired brush. “One moment.” In her other hand, she held a small butane pistol-lighter. She squeezed the trigger and a tiny blue flame hissed from the end. She applied the flame to a pile of powder, plainly whisked from the reliquary with the brush.
After a couple seconds, the gray powder melted, bubbling and frothing into a translucent amber liquid. It dribbled over the cold marble and hardened into glass. The sheen against the white marble was unmistakable.
“Gold,” Monk said. All eyes had been drawn to the experiment.
Kat sat back, extinguishing her torch. “The residual powder in the reliquary…it’s the same as in the tainted wafers. Monatomic, or m-state, gold.”
Gray remembered Director Crowe’s description of the lab tests, how the powder could be melted down to a slag glass. A glass made of solid gold.
“That’s gold?” Rachel asked. “As in the precious metal?”
Sigma had provided the Vatican with cursory information on the tainted wafers, so their bakeries and supplies could be examined for further tampering. Its two spies had also been informed, but plainly they had their doubts.
“Are you sure?” Rachel asked.
Kat was already busy proving her assertion. She had an eyedropper in hand and dribbled its contents onto the glass. Gray knew what filled the eyedropper. They had all been supplied it by the labs back at Sigma for just this purpose. A cyanide compound. For years, miners had been using a process called heap leach cyanide recovery to dissolve gold out of old tailings.
Where the drop touched, the glass etched as if burned by acid. But rather than frosting the glass, the cyanide carved a trail of pure gold, a vein of metal in glass. There was no doubt.
Monsignor Verona stared, unblinking, one hand fingering his clerical collar. He mumbled, “And the streets of New Jerusalem will be paved with gold so pure as to be transparent glass.”
Gray glanced quizzically at the priest.
Vigor shook his head. “From the Book of Revelations…don’t mind me.”
But Gray saw the way the man drew inward, turning half away, lost in deeper thoughts. Did he know more? Gray sensed the priest was not so much holding back as needing time to dwell on something.
Kat interrupted. She had been leaning over her sample with a magnifying lens and an ultraviolet lamp. “I think there might be more than gold here. I can spot tiny pools of silver in the gold.”
Gray shifted closer. Kat allowed him to peer through her lens, shadowing the glass with her hand so the blue sheen of the ultraviolet light better illuminated the sample. The veins of metallic gold did indeed seem pocked with silvery impurities.
“It might be platinum,” Kat said. “Remember that the monatomic state occurs not just in gold but any of the transitional metals on the periodic table. Including platinum.”
Gray nodded. “The powder might not be pure gold, but a mix of several of the platinum series. An amalgam of various m-state metals.”
Rachel continued to stare at the etched glass. “Could the powder just be from the wearing down of the old sarcophagus? The gold crumbling with age or something?”
Gray shook his head. “The process to turn metallic gold into its m-state is complicated. Age alone won’t do this.”
“But the lieutenant might be onto something,” Kat said. “Maybe the device affected the gold in the reliquary and caused some of the gold to transmute. We still have no idea by what mechanism the device—”
“I may have one clue,” Monk said, cutting her off.
He stood by the shattered security case, where he had been collecting shards. He stepped to a bulky iron cross resting in a stanchion not far from the case.
“It looks like one of our forensic experts missed a shell,” Monk said. He reached out and plucked a hollow casing from beneath the feet of the crucified Christ figure. He took a step back again, held the casing out toward the cross, and let it go. It flew through six inches of air, and with a ping, stuck again to the cross.
“It’s magnetized,” Monk said.
Another ping sounded. Louder. Sharper. The cross spun half a turn in its stanchion.
For half a second, Gray did not comprehend what had happened.
Monk dove for the altar. “Down!” he screamed.
Other shots rang out.
Gray felt a kick to his shoulder, throwing him off kilter, but his body armor saved him from real injury. Rachel grabbed his arm and yanked him into a row of pews. Bullets chewed wood, sparked off marble and stone.
Kat ducked with the monsignor, shielding him with her body. She took a glancing shot to the thigh, half collapsing, but they fell together behind the altar with Monk.
Gray had only managed a quick glimpse of their attackers.
Men in hooded robes.
A sharp pop sounded. Gray glanced up to see a fist-sized black object arc across the breadth of the church.
“Grenade!” he screamed.
He scooped up his pack and shoved Rachel down the pew. They scrambled low and ran for the south wall.
MONK BARELY had time to react when Gray yelled. He grabbed Kat and the monsignor and flattened himself against them behind the stone altar.
The grenade hit the far side and exploded, sounding like a mortar blast. A cascade of marble shattered upward and outward, pelting the wooden pews. Smoke rolled and billowed up.
Half deafened by the blast, Monk simply hauled Kat and Vigor to their feet. “Follow me!”
It was death to stay out here in the open. Toss one grenade behind the altar, and they were all hamburger. They needed a more defensible position.
Monk dashed toward the north wall. Behind him, gunfire remained fierce. Gray was striking for the opposite wall. Just as well. Once in position, they could set up a crossfire across the center of the church.
Clear of the altar, Monk pounded across the sanctuary. He aimed for the nearest shelter, spotting a wide wooden door. The gunmen finally noted their escape. Shots spattered against the marble floor, ricocheted off a column, and tore into pews. The shots came from all directions now. More of the assailants had taken up positions deeper in the church, coming in other doors, cutting off escape, surrounding them.
They needed cover.
Monk yanked his own weapon from its straps. The snub-nosed shotgun. On the fly, he lifted the barrel in the crook of his left elbow and pulled the trigger. Along with the blast, he heard a sharp grunt from several pews away. Accuracy was not necessary with a Scattergun.
Shoving the barrel forward, he took crude aim at the door handle. It was too much to hope it was an exit to the outside, but it would at least get them clear of the central nave. From a few steps away, he pulled the trigger as he heard a faint protest from Monsignor Verona.
But there was no time for debate.
The blast punched a fist-sized hole through the door, taking the entire handle and lock with it. Still running, Monk hit the door. It banged open under his shoulder. He fell inside, followed by Kat and the monsignor. Kat turned, limping, and shoved the door closed.
“No,” the priest said.
Monk now understood the reason for his protest.
The vaulted room was the size of a single-car garage. He stared at the glass cases crowded with old robes and insignia, bits of sculpture. Gold shone from some of the cases.
It was the cathedral’s Treasure Chamber.
There was no exit.
Kat took up position, Glock in hand, and peered out the blasted hole. “Here they come.”
RACHEL REACHED the end of the pew, out of breath, heart thundering in her ears. Shots continued to pound their position, coming from all sides, gouging out chunks of wood from the flanking pews.
The grenade blast still echoed in her head, but her hearing was returning. Surely the priests and staff in the rectory had heard the explosion and had called the police.
The gunfire relented momentarily as the robed assailants repositioned themselves, closing up the center aisle.
“Make for that wall,” Gray urged. “Behind the pillars. I’ll cover you.”
Rachel spotted the nest of pylons that supported the vaulted roof. It offered better shelter than being pinned between a row of seats. She glanced back to the American.
“On my signal,” he said, crouching down. Their eyes met. She saw a thread of healthy fear, but also a determined concentration. He nodded to her, shifted around, readied himself, then shouted, “Go!”
Rachel dove out the end of the pew as gunfire erupted behind her, louder than their assailants’. The commander’s guns had no silencers.
She hit the marble floor and rolled behind the trio of pillars. She gained her feet immediately, back to the giant pillar. Carefully peeking around the curve, she spotted Commander Pierce backpedaling toward her, both pistols blazing.
A robed man down the end of the same pew fell backward, punched by the impacts. Another down the center aisle cried out and grabbed his neck as a spat of red arced out. The others had ducked from the American’s attack. Across the church, Rachel spotted five or six men converging on the door to the cathedral’s Treasure Chamber, firing almost nonstop.
As Commander Pierce reached her position, panting, Rachel swung to check the other side of her pillar, peering along the wall. So far no one had circled this way yet. But she had to assume they would soon.
“What now?” she asked, removing her pistol from a shoulder holster, the Beretta given to her by the Carabinieri driver back in Rome.
“This line of columns parallels the wall. We stick to cover. Shoot anything that moves.”
“And our goal?”
“To get the hell out of this death trap.”
Rachel frowned. What about the others?
The American must have noted her worry. “We’ll head for the streets. Draw off as many of the bastards as we can.”
She nodded. They would play decoy. “Let’s go.”
The pillars along the south wall were spaced only two meters apart. They proceeded briskly, staying low, using the rows of neighboring pews out in the nave as additional cover. Commander Pierce fired high, while Rachel discouraged any assailants from entering the alleyway between the wall and the pillars, picking off any shadows that moved.
The ploy worked. More gunfire concentrated on their position. But it also slowed them down, putting them at risk of a second grenade attack. They had only made it halfway down the nave, and it became impossible to leap from pillar to pillar.
The American took a blow to the back, splaying him out on the ground. Rachel gasped. But he pushed back up.
Rachel shifted down the alley, sticking close to the wall, pointing her gun back and forth. With her concentration fixed outward, she made the same mistake as the assailants had the prior night.
The door to the confessional swung open behind her. Before she could move, an arm lashed out and wrapped around her neck. Her weapon was knocked from her fingers. The cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against her neck.
“Don’t move,” a deep bass voice ordered as the commander swung around. The attacker’s arm felt like a tree trunk, strangling her breathing. He was tall, a giant of a man, practically hauling her to her toes. “Drop your weapons.”
The gunfire died out. It was clear now why a second grenade hadn’t been lobbed toward them. While the two of them thought they were escaping, the gunmen had been merely driving them into this trap.
“I’d do as he says,” a new voice said silkily, coming from the penitent’s booth neighboring the priest’s confessional. The door opened and a second figure stepped out, dressed in black leather.
It was no monk, but a woman. Slender, Eurasian.
She lifted her pistol, a black Sig Sauer. She pointed it at Gray’s face. “Déjà vu, Commander Pierce?”
THE DOOR was a problem. With the lock blown off, every strike of a bullet threatened to pop the door open. And they dared not keep it shouldered closed. Most of the rounds were stopped by the wood planks, but a few still found weak spots and cracked through, making Swiss cheese out of the door.
Monk kept one boot against the frame, anchoring the door with his heel, while keeping his body off to the side. Bullets pounded against the door, the impacts rattling up to his knee.
“Hurry it up back there,” he urged.
He pointed his shotgun out the hole in the door and fired blindly. The smoking shell casing ejected out of the weapon’s chamber, hit one of the long glass treasure cases, and bounced off of it. Beyond the door, the spray of the Scattergun kept the assailants wary, firing from a distance. It seemed the attackers knew their prey was trapped.
So what were they waiting for?
Monk expected a grenade to be lobbed against the door at any moment. He prayed the insulation of the stone wall would keep him alive. But what then? With the door blown away, they had no chance at all in here.
And rescue was unlikely. Monk had heard the chatter of Gray’s weapon echo across the church. It sounded like he was retreating toward the main doors. Monk knew that the commander was helping to draw the fire off their location. It was the only reason they were still alive.
But now Gray’s weapon had gone silent.
They were on their own.
A fresh barrage struck the door, rattling the frame, jarring his anchored leg. His thigh burned from the effort and had begun to tremble. “Guys, now or never!”
A rattle of keys drew his eye. Monsignor Verona had been struggling with a key ring, given to him by the cathedral’s caretaker. He fought to get the third bulletproof case open. Finally, with a cry of relief, he found the right key, and the front of the case swung open like a gate.
Kat reached over his shoulder and grabbed a long sword from the case. A fifteenth-century decorative weapon with a gold and jeweled hilt. But the blade, three feet long, was polished steel. She yanked it free and hauled it across the chamber. She kept out of the direct line of fire and stabbed the sword between the door and its frame, jamming and securing the door.
Monk pulled back his leg, rubbing his sore knee. “ ’Bout time.” He again shoved his shotgun through the hole in the door and fired — more in irritation than any hope of hitting anyone.
With the scatter of shot driving the attackers back a step, Monk risked a fast glance out. One of the assailants lay sprawled on his back, head half gone, blood pooled. One of his blind shots had found a target.
But now his attackers were finished taking potshots.
A black smooth pineapple bounced down the pew, aimed right at their door. Monk flung himself flat against the stone.
“Fire in the hole!”
THE EXPLOSION across the church drew all eyes — except Gray’s. There was nothing he could do for the others.
A grim smile creased the tall man’s face. “It seems your friends—”
Rachel moved. With the momentary distraction, her captor must have loosened his grip, perhaps underestimating the slim woman. Rachel dropped her head and snapped it back briskly, smacking the man’s lower jaw hard enough to hear his teeth crack together.
Moving with surprising speed, she struck the encircling arm with the heel of her hand and dropped at the same time. She elbowed her assailant a sharp blow to the midriff, then twisted and punched a fist into the man’s crotch.
Gray swung his pistol toward the Dragon Lady. But the woman was quicker, stepping forward and placing her gun between his eyes, an inch away.
To the side, the tall man crumpled around his waist, falling to a knee. Rachel kicked his gun aside.
“Run!” Gray hissed at her, but he kept his eyes on the Dragon Lady.
The Guild operative met his gaze — then did the oddest thing. She flicked the muzzle of her gun in the direction of the exit and motioned with her head.
She was letting him go.
Gray stepped back. She didn’t fire, but she kept her gun focused on him, ready if he tried to make a move against her.
Rather then ponder the impossibility, Gray swung around and fired at the nearest monks, dropping the two closest. They had been distracted by the grenade blast and missed the lightning-fast change in power here.
Gray grabbed Rachel by the arm and hauled ass toward the exit doors.
A pistol shot sounded directly behind him. He was struck in the upper arm and spun slightly, skipping steps. The Dragon Lady’s pistol smoked. She had shot Gray as she helped the tall man up. Blood dribbled down her face. A self-inflicted wound, covering her subterfuge. She had purposefully missed her shot.
Rachel steadied him and ducked behind the last pillar. The door to the outer vestibule lay directly ahead. No one stood in their way.
Gray risked a glance toward the gunfire at the back of the cathedral. Smoke billowed from the blasted doorway. The handful of gunmen fired a continual barrage through the opening, making sure no one escaped this time. Then one of the men tossed a second grenade — right through the blasted doorway.
The other gunmen ducked as it blew.
Smoke and debris shattered outward.
Gray turned away. Rachel had also witnessed the attack. Tears welled in her eyes. He felt her sag against him, legs weakening. Something deep inside him ached at her grief. He had lost teammates in the past. He was trained to mourn later.
But she had lost family.
“Keep moving,” he said gruffly. It was all he could do. He had to get her to safety.
She glanced to him and seemed to gain strength from his hard countenance. It was what she needed. Not sympathy. Strength. He had seen it in the field before, men under fire. She stood straighter.
He squeezed her arm.
She nodded. Ready.
Together they ran and slammed through the outer doors.
A pair of assassins manned the foyer, posted over the dead bodies of two men in German police uniforms. The guards at the cordon. The pair of monks was not caught by surprise. One of the men fired immediately, driving Rachel and Gray to the side. They would not make it to the outer doors, but another doorway lay to their immediate left.
With no choice, they dodged through it. The second man raised his weapon. A wall of fire cascaded toward them. He had a goddamn flamethrower. Gray slammed the door, but flames licked under the jamb. Gray danced back. There was no lock on the door.
He glanced behind him.
Steps spiraled up.
“The tower stair,” Rachel said.
Gunshots struck the door.
“Go,” he said.
He pushed Rachel ahead of him, and they fled up the stairs, winding around and around. Behind and below, the door crashed open. He heard a familiar voice, yelling in German. “Get the bastards! Burn them alive!”
It was the tall man, the leader of the monks.
Footsteps pounded on the stone steps.
With the twist of the staircase, neither party had a clear shot at the other, but that still put the advantage with their pursuers. As Gray and Rachel ran, a fountain of flames chased them, sputtering up after them, whisking around the bend in the tower stairs.
Around and around they ran. The steps grew more narrow as they climbed the constricting throat of the steepled tower. Tall stained-glass windows dotted the way, but they were too thin to climb through, no more than arrow slits.
At last the steps reached the belfry of the tower. A massive free-swinging bell hung over the tower’s steel-grated well. A deck lay around the bell.
Here at least the windows were wide enough to climb through and held no glass to muffle the mighty bell’s peals — but the way through them was sealed by bars.
“A public observation deck,” Rachel said. She kept a gun, one borrowed from Gray, fixed on the opening to the stairs.
Gray hurried around. There was no other way out. The city views opened around him: the Rhine River sparkled, spanned by the arched Hohenzollern Bridge; the Ludwig Museum was lit up brilliantly, as were the blue sails of the Cologne Musical Dome. But there was no escape to the streets below.
Distantly he heard police sirens, a forlorn and eerily foreign wail.
Gray raised his eyes, calculating.
A shout rose from Rachel. Gray turned as a jet of flames erupted from the stairwell. Rachel fled back, joining him.
They had run out of time.
BELOW, IN the cathedral, Yaeger Grell entered the blasted chamber, gun in hand. He had waited until the smoke from the second grenade had cleared out. His two partners had gone to join the others in setting up the final incendiary bombs near the entrance to the church.
He would join them — but first he wanted to see the damage done to those who had killed Renard, his brother-in-arms. He stepped through, readying himself for the stench of bloody flesh and burst bowel.
The remains of the door made the footing treacherous. He led with his gun. As he took a second step, something struck his arm. He backed a step, stunned, not comprehending. He stared down at the severed stump of his wrist as blood spurted. There was no pain.
He glanced up in time to see a sword — a sword! — swinging through the air. It reached his neck before the surprise faded from his features. He felt nothing as his body pitched forward, his head impossibly thrown back.
Then he kept falling, falling, falling…as the world went black.
KAT STEPPED back and lowered the jeweled sword. She bent, grabbed an arm, and dragged the body out of direct view of the doorway. Her head still rang from the grenade blast.
She whispered to Monk — at least she hoped she whispered. She couldn’t even hear her own words. “Help the monsignor.”
Monk stared from the decapitated body back to the bloody sword in her hand, his eyes wide with a shock, but also grudging respect. He stepped over to one of the treasure cases and manhandled the monsignor free of one of the displays. All three of them had hidden inside a bulletproof case after the first grenade blast, knowing a second grenade would follow.
But the security cases had done their job, protecting the most valuable treasure of all: their lives. The shrapnel had cut through the room, but shielded behind the bulletproof glass, they had survived.
It had been her idea.
Afterward, with the concussion still echoing in her head, Kat had rolled out of her case and found the jeweled sword on the floor. It proved a more circumspect weapon than her pistol. She had not wanted a blast to alert the other gunmen.
Still, her hand shook. Her body remembered the last knife fight she had been in…and the aftermath. She tightened her grip on the sword’s hilt, drawing strength from the hard steel.
Behind her, Monsignor Verona stumbled to his feet. He glanced to his limbs as if surprised to find them still attached.
Kat returned to the door. Except for their dead comrade, none of the other gunmen seemed to be paying attention. They were massed by the entrance.
“We should move.” Kat motioned them out. Sticking to the wall, she led them away from the front exits, away from the guards. She reached the corner where the nave crossed with the transept. Kat waved them around the corner of the intersection.
Once out of the direct view of the gunmen, the monsignor pointed down the length of the transept. “That way,” he whispered.
There was another set of doors back there. Another exit. Unguarded.
With the fifteenth-century sword clutched in her fist, Kat hurried them forward. They had survived.
But what about the others?
RACHEL FIRED her gun down the throat of the spiral staircase, counting down the rounds in the second clip. Nine bullets. They had more ammunition, but no time to load another magazine. Commander Pierce was too busy.
With no other recourse, she shot blindly, sporadically, keeping the attackers at bay. Spouts of flame continued to harass her, licking forth like the tongue of a dragon.
The stalemate could not last much longer.
“Gray!” she yelled, skipping the formalities of rank.
“Another second,” he answered from around the far side of the bell.
As the flames faltered from the stairwell, Rachel aimed and squeezed the trigger. She had to hold them off. The bullet struck the stone wall and ricocheted down the staircase.
Then her pistol’s slide locked open.
Out of bullets.
She backed away and circled the bell to the far side.
Gray had his pack off and had tied a rope around one of the window bars. He had the other end wrapped around his waist and the slack over one arm. He had used a hand jack in a tool kit to pry apart two of the window’s bars, just wide enough to climb through.
“Hold the slack,” he said.
She took the nylon rope, about five meters in length. Behind her, a fresh billow of flame jettisoned from the stairwell. The others were testing again, moving forward.
Gray grabbed his pack and squeezed between the bars. Once out on the stone parapet, he donned the backpack and turned back to her. “The rope.”
She passed it to him. “Be careful.”
“A little late for that.”
He stared down between his toes. Not a wise thing to do, Rachel thought. The hundred-meter drop would weaken anyone’s knees…and strength of leg was most important now.
Gray faced forward from the ledge of the cathedral’s south spire.
Four meters away, over a fatal drop, stood the north spire, a twin to this one. Off limits to the public, there were no bars across the far window. But there was also no hope of jumping from window to window, not from a standing position. Instead, Gray planned to dive straight out and grab whatever handhold he could on the decorated façade of the opposite tower.
The risk was great, but they had no other recourse.
They had to jump ship.
Gray bent his knees. Rachel held her breath, one hand fisted at the hollow of her neck.
Without a second’s hesitation, Gray simply leaned out and leapt, arching the length of his body, flinging away the coil of slack rope. He flew across the gap and struck just below the window ledge. He lunged out with both arms and grabbed ahold of the sill, miraculously catching it. But the impact bounced him back. His arms could not hold him. He began to fall.
“Your left foot!” she yelled to him.
He heard her. His left toe scrambled against the stone surface and found the demon-faced gargoyle on the lower tier. He planted his foot atop its head.
With his plummet stopped, he regained a handful of ledge above and found another toehold for his right leg, clinging like a fly to a wall. He took a deep breath, steadying himself, then climbed and manhandled himself through the window.
Rachel risked a glance behind her, ducking to peer under the bell. The flames had stopped. She knew the others understood the significance of her sudden cease-fire.
Rachel could wait no longer. She shimmied through the bars. The ledge was slick with pigeon guano, the winds gusting and treacherous.
Across the gap, Gray had secured his end of the rope, forming a bridge. “Hurry! I have you.”
She met his eyes across the gap and found firm assurance.
“I have you,” he repeated.
Swallowing, she reached out. Don’t look down, she thought, and grabbed the rope. Hand over hand. That’s all she needed to do.
She leaned out, both fists white-knuckled to the rope, toes still on the ledge. She heard the bell ring behind her. Startled, she glanced over a shoulder and watched a dumbbell-shaped silver cylinder bounce across the stone deck.
She didn’t know what it was — but it certainly wasn’t good.
Needing no other encouragement, Rachel swung out on the rope and quickly scrambled across the bridge, legs kicking, hand over hand. Gray caught her around the midriff.
“Bomb,” she gasped out, tossing her head back to indicate the far tower.
The blast cut off any further words. Buffeted from behind, Rachel was shoved through the casement and into Gray’s chest. They both fell in a tangle to the floor of the bell tower. A wall of blue flame rolled over them through the window, blast-furnace hot.
Gray held her tight, shielding her with his own body.
But the flames quickly dissipated in the gusty winds.
Gray rolled aside as Rachel elbowed up. She stared back toward the south tower. The spire was aflame. Spats of fire licked and roiled from the four windows. The bell clanged within the conflagration.
Gray joined her. He hauled in the rope. The knot on the far side had burned away, severing the bridge. Across the gap, the window bars glowed a fiery red.
“Incendiary device,” he said.
The flames rippled in the strong winds, like a candle in the night. A final memorial to those killed, both last night and tonight. Rachel pictured the rakish smile of her uncle. Dead. Grief welled through her…along with something hotter and sharper. She stumbled back, but Gray caught her.
Police sirens wailed across the city, echoing up to them.
“We must go,” he said.
“They’ll think us dead. Let’s keep it that way.”
She allowed herself to be led to the stairwell. They hurried down, winding around and around. Sirens grew even louder — but closer, an engine coughed to life, revving gutturally, followed by a second.
Gray checked the window. “They’re fleeing.”
Rachel stared out. Three stories below, a pair of black vans pulled away, racing across the pedestrian square.
“C’mon,” Gray said. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
He hurried down, skipping steps. Rachel rushed after him, trusting his instinct.
They hit the foyer at a dead run. One of the doors to the nave had been left ajar. Rachel glanced into the church — toward where her uncle had been killed. But something drew her eye, closer, on the floor, draped down the center aisle.
A dozen or more. Daisy-chained with red wires.
“Run!” she yelled, turning on a heel.
Together they hit the main doors and flew into the square.
Without a word, they fled toward the only shelter. The panel truck of the German Polizei sat on the square. They dove behind it just as the devices exploded.
It sounded like fireworks going off, one after the other, in succession.
A shatter of glass accompanied, loud enough to be heard above the popping explosions. Rachel glanced up. The giant Bavarian stained-glass window above the main door, dating from the Middle Ages, blew out in a brilliant cascade of fire and jeweled glass.
She tucked tight to the truck as the shower of glass pelted the square all around them in a rain of death.
Something hit the far side of the truck with a resounding crash. Rachel bent and stared past the wheels. On the far side, one of the massive wooden doors of the cathedral lay on the street, aflame.
Then a new noise intruded. Surprised voices. Muffled. Coming from inside the truck. Rachel glanced to Gray. He suddenly had a knife in hand, making it appear as if by magic.
They circled around the back of the van.
Before they could touch the handle, the door popped open.
Rachel stared in disbelief as Gray’s stocky team member stumbled out. He was followed by his female partner, bearing a longsword in hand. And lastly by a familiar, welcome figure.
“Uncle Vigor!” Rachel clasped him in a bear hug.
He returned her embrace. “Why is it,” he asked, “that everyone seems determined to blow me up?”
AN HOUR later, Gray paced the hotel room, still edgy, nerves stretched thin. They had taken up the room here using false identification, determining it was best to get off the streets as soon as possible. Hotel Cristall on Ursulaplatz was located less than half a mile from the cathedral, a small boutique establishment with an oddly Scandinavian décor of primary colors.
They had gone to ground here to regroup, establish a plan of action.
But first they needed more intel.
A key scuffled in the door lock. Gray placed a palm on his pistol. He wasn’t taking any chances. But it was only Monsignor Verona returning from a scouting expedition.
Vigor pushed into the room. His expression had gone very grim.
“The boy’s dead,” the monsignor said.
The others gathered closer.
Vigor explained, “Jason Pendleton. The boy who survived from the massacre. It’s just been reported on the BBC. He was killed in his hospital room. Cause of death is still unknown, but foul play is highly suspected. Especially coinciding with the firebombing of the cathedral.”
Rachel shook her head sadly.
Earlier, Gray had been relieved to find everyone alive, only bruised and shaken. He had failed to consider the survivor of the first massacre. But it made a certain horrible sense. The cathedral attack had obviously been a whitewash operation, to erase any residual trail. And of course, that would include silencing the only witness.
“Did you learn anything else?” Gray asked.
He had sent the monsignor down to the lounge after they had checked into the hotel, to investigate the state of affairs at the cathedral. The monsignor was best suited. He spoke the language fluently, and his clerical collar would place him above suspicion.
Even now, Klaxons and sirens wailed across the city. Out the window, they had a view of Cathedral Hill. A bevy of fire engines and other emergency vehicles gathered there, flashing their blues and reds. Smoke clouded the night sky. The streets were crowded with spectators and news vans.
“I learned nothing more than we already know,” Vigor said. “The fire is still raging inside the church. It hasn’t spread. I saw an interview with one of the priests from the rectory. No one was harmed. But they’re reporting concern about the whereabouts of myself and my niece.”
“Good,” Gray said, earning a glance from Rachel. “As I said before, they think we were eliminated for the moment. We should maintain that ruse for as long as possible. As long as they don’t know we’re alive, they’ll be less likely to be looking over their shoulders.”
“And less likely to be gunning for us,” Monk said. “I especially like that part.”
Kat was working on a laptop wired to a digital camera. “The photos are uploading now,” she said.
Gray stood and stepped to the desk. Monk and the others had sought not only a hiding place in the van after their escape, but also a vantage to get some photographs of the assailants. Gray was impressed with their resourcefulness.
Black-and-white thumbnail images filled the screen.
“There,” Rachel said, pointing to one. “That’s the guy who grabbed me.”
“The leader of the group,” Gray said.
Kat double-clicked the image and brought up a full-scale photo. He was frozen in mid-stride as he exited the cathedral. He had dark hair, cut long, almost to the shoulder. No facial hair. Aquiline features. Rocky and expressionless. Even in the photo, he gave off an air of superiority.
“Look at that smug bastard,” Monk said. “The cat who ate the canary.”
“Does anyone recognize him?” Gray asked.
“I can uplink it to Sigma’s facial-recognition software,” Kat said.
“Not yet,” Gray said. He answered her frown. “We need to stay incommunicado.”
He glanced around the room. While normally he preferred to operate on his own, free from Big Brother watching over his shoulder, he could no longer play lone wolf. He had a team now, a responsibility beyond his own skin. His eyes found Vigor and Rachel. And it wasn’t even just his own team any longer. They were all looking to him. He suddenly felt overwhelmed. He desired nothing more than to check in with Sigma, consult with Director Crowe, pawn off his responsibility.
But he couldn’t…at least not yet.
Gray gathered his thoughts and his resolve. He cleared his throat. “Someone knew we were alone in the cathedral. Either they were already spying on the church or they had prior intel.”
“A leak,” Vigor said, rubbing the beard under his lower lip.
“Possibly. But I can’t say for sure where it might have originated.” Gray glanced to Vigor. “From our end or yours.”
Vigor sighed and nodded. “I fear we may be to blame. The Dragon Court has always claimed members inside the Vatican. And with the ambush here following on the heels of the attacks against Rachel and myself, I can’t help but think the problem may lie at the Holy See itself.”
“Not necessarily,” Gray answered. He turned back to the laptop and pointed to another thumbnail picture. “Bring that one up.”
Kat double-clicked. An image of a slender woman climbing into the back of one of the two vans swelled across the monitor. Her face was only in silhouette.
Gray glanced to the others. “Anyone know her?”
Monk leaned closer. “But I wouldn’t mind knowing her.”
“This is the woman who attacked me at Fort Detrick.”
Monk backed away, suddenly finding the woman less appealing. “The Guild operative?”
Vigor and Rachel wore confused expressions. Gray didn’t have time to go into the full history of the Guild, but he gave a brief overview of the organization: its terrorist-cell structure, its ties to Russian mafiya, and its interest in new technologies.
Once he was finished, Kat asked, “So you think the problem might be at our end?”
“After Fort Detrick…?” Gray frowned. “Who can tell where the security leak lies? But the fact that the Guild is here, operating alongside the Dragon Court, I can’t help but think that they’ve been drawn in because of our involvement. But I think they’re as late to the game as we are.”
“Why do you say that?” Rachel asked.
Gray pointed at the screen. “The Dragon Lady let me escape.”
Stunned silence followed.
“Are you sure?” Monk asked.
“Damn sure.” Gray rubbed his bruised upper arm where she had shot him as he fled.
“Why would she do that?” Rachel asked.
“Because she’s playing the Dragon Court. Like I said, I think the only reason the Guild has been called into this venture is because Sigma became involved. The Court wanted the Guild’s assistance to capture or eliminate us.”
Kat nodded. “And if we were dead, then the Guild would no longer be needed. The partnership would end, and the Guild would never find out what the Dragon Court knows.”
“But now the Court thinks we were killed,” Rachel said.
“Exactly. And that’s another reason to keep that ruse going for as long as possible. If we’re dead, the Court will sever its ties with the Guild.”
“One less opponent,” Monk said.
“What do we do next?” Kat asked.
That was a mystery. They had no leads…except one. Gray glanced over to his pack. “The powder we recovered from the reliquary. It must hold a key to all this. But I don’t know what lock it fits. And if we can’t send it to Sigma to test…”
Vigor spoke up. “I think you’re right. The answer lies in the powder. But a better question than ‘What is it—’”
The monsignor suddenly halted, his eyes narrowed. He placed a hand on his forehead. “What is it…” he mumbled under his breath.
“Uncle?” Rachel asked with concern.
“Something…it’s right at the corner of my brain.”
Gray remembered a similar expression of intense internal concentration when the monsignor had quoted a verse from the Book of Revelations.
The priest balled a fist. “I can’t put it together. Like trying to catch a soap bubble in your palm.” He shook his head. “Maybe I’m too tired.”
Gray sensed the man was being truthful…for the most part. But he was holding something back, something triggered by the words what is it. For a flicker, Gray saw fear shine behind the confusion.
“So, what’s the better question?” Monk asked, returning to the original train of thought. “You started to say something about a better question than what the powder might be.”
Vigor nodded, focusing back. “Right. Maybe we should be asking how the powder got there. Once every few years, the bones are carefully taken from the reliquary and the sarcophagus is cleaned. I’m sure they dusted and wiped out the interior.”
Kat sat straighter. “Before the attack, we were wondering if the device somehow altered the gold of the sarcophagus, transmuted the lining into the white powder.”
“That’s how it got there?” Rachel asked.
“Could be,” Monk said. “Remember the magnetized cross back at the church. Something weird happened in there, and it affected metals. So why not gold, too?”
Gray wished he had had more time to collect samples, to perform more tests. But with the cathedral firebombed—
“No,” Kat said, sighing in exasperation. “Remember. The powder was not just gold. We also spotted other elements. Maybe platinum or something else in that transitional group of metals that can also disaggregate into m-state powdery form.”
Gray slowly nodded, remembering the silvery inclusions in the molten gold.
“I don’t think the powder came from the sarcophagus case,” Kat said.
Monk frowned. “But if it’s not coming from the gold in the case and if the box is Windexed every couple of years…then where else could it be coming from?”
Gray’s eyes widened with understanding. He understood Kat’s consternation. “It came from the bones.”
“There is no other explanation,” Kat agreed.
Monk balked, shaking his head. “That’s easy to say. We have no bones to test your hypothesis. They have them all.”
Rachel and Vigor exchanged a sudden glance.
“What?” Gray asked.
Rachel met his gaze. He read the excitement in her expression. “They don’t have all the bones.”
Gray’s brow furrowed. “Where—?”
Vigor answered. “In Milan.”
JULY 25, 10:14 A.M.
LAKE COMO, ITALY
GRAY AND the others fell out of the rented Mercedes E55 sedan and stumbled onto the pedestrian plaza of the lakeside town of Como. Morning strollers and window-shoppers dotted the cobblestone square that led down to a promenade bordering the still blue waters.
Kat yawned and stretched, a cat slowly waking. She checked her watch. “Three countries in four hours.”
They had driven all night. Across Germany to Switzerland, then over the Alps into Italy. They had traveled by car, rather than by train or plane, to maintain their anonymity, passing borders with false identification. They did not want to alert anyone that their group had survived the attack in Cologne.
Gray planned on contacting Sigma command after they had secured the bones from the basilica in Milan and had reached the Vatican. Once ensconced in Rome, they would regroup and strategize with their respective superiors. Despite the risk of a leak, Gray needed to debrief Washington on the events in Cologne, to reevaluate the mission’s parameters.
In the meantime, the plan was to rotate drivers while en route from Cologne to Milan, to let everyone get a bit of shut-eye. It hadn’t worked out that way.
Out of the car, Monk stood at the edge of the plaza, bent over, hands on his knees, slightly green in the face.
“It’s her driving,” Vigor said, patting Monk on the back. “She goes a bit fast.”
“I’ve been on fighter planes, doing goddamn loopty-loops,” he grumbled. “This…this was worse.”
Rachel climbed out of the driver’s seat and closed the door to the rental car. She had driven the entire way at breakneck speed, flying down the German Autobahn and taking the hairpin turns of the Alpine roads at physics-defying velocities.
She pushed her blue-tinted sunglasses to her forehead. “You just need some breakfast,” she assured Monk. “I know a nice bistro along the Piazza Cavour.”
Despite some reservations, Gray had agreed to stop for food. They needed gas, and the place was remote. And with the attack only six hours old, confusion still reigned back in Cologne. By the time it was known that their bodies were not among the dead at the cathedral, they would be in Rome. In a few more hours, the necessity for maintaining the ruse of their deaths would be over.
In the meantime, they were all road-weary and famished.
Rachel led the way across the plaza toward the banks of the lake. Gray followed her with his eyes. Despite the overnight drive, she moved with no sign of fatigue. If anything, she seemed enlivened by her Alpine racing, like it was her form of yoga. The haunted look in her eye from the night of terror had faded with each passing mile.
He found himself both relieved at her resilience and somewhat disappointed. He remembered her hand squeezing his as they ran. The worry in her eyes as she straddled the ledge of the cathedral’s tower. The way her eyes fixed on him at that moment, trusting him, needing him.
That woman was gone.
Ahead, the view opened up, drawing his eye. The lake was a blue jewel set within the rugged green peaks of the lower Alps. A few of the mountains were still tipped with snow, reflected in the placid waters.
“Lago di Como,” Vigor said, striding beside Gray. “Virgil once described this as the world’s greatest lake.”
They reached a gardened promenade. The path was fringed with sprawls of camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons, and magnolias. The cobbled walkway continued along the edge of the lake, lined by chestnut trees, Italian cypresses, and white-barked laurels. Out in the waters, tiny sailboats skimmed along with the mild morning breezes. Up in the green hills, clusters of homes perched precariously atop cliff faces, shaded in hues of cream, gold, and terra-cotta red.
Gray noted the beauty and fresh air seemed to be reviving Monk, or at least the solid footing was. Kat’s eyes also took in the sights.
“Ristorante Imbarcadero,” Rachel said, pointing across the piazza.
“A drive-through restaurant would’ve been fine,” Gray said, checking his watch.
“Maybe for you,” Monk said dourly.
Vigor stepped next to him. “We made good time. We’ll reach Milan in another hour.”
“But the bones—”
Vigor silenced him with a frown. “Commander, the Vatican is well aware of the risk to the relics in the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio. I was already under orders to stop in Milan to collect them on my way back to Rome. In the meantime, the Vatican has secured the bones in the basilica’s safe, the church has been locked down, and the local police have been alerted.”
“That won’t necessarily stop the Dragon Court,” Gray said, picturing the devastation in Cologne.
“I doubt they’d strike in full daylight. The group skulks in shadows and darkness. And we’ll be in Milan before noon.”
Kat added, “It won’t delay us much to place a take-out order and be back on the road.”
Though far from satisfied, Gray conceded the point. The group needed to refuel as much as their automobile.
Reaching the restaurant, Rachel opened a gate to a bougainvillea-adorned terrace overlooking the lake. “The Imbarcadero serves the best local dishes. You should try the risotto con pesce persico.”
“Golden perch with risotto,” Vigor translated. “It is wonderful here. The fillets are rolled in flour and sage, shallow fried, and served crisp on a thick bed of risotto, soaking in butter.”
Rachel guided them to a table.
Somewhat mollified, Gray allowed himself to appreciate Rachel’s enthusiasm. She spoke rapidly in Italian to an older man in an apron who came out to greet them. She smiled easily, making small talk. They hugged afterward.
Rachel turned back and waved to the seats. “If you want something lighter, try the courgette flowers stuffed with bread and boraggine. But definitely have a small plate of agnolotti.”
Vigor nodded. “A ravioli with aubergine and bufala mozzarella.” He kissed his fingertips in appreciation.
“So I take it you’ve eaten here a few times,” Monk said, dropping heavily into a seat. He eyed Gray.
So much for anonymity.
Vigor patted Monk’s shoulder. “The owners are friends of our family, going back three generations. Rest assured, they know how to be discreet.” He waved to a rotund server. “Ciao, Mario! Bianco Secco di Montecchia, per favore!”
“Right away, Padre! I also have a nice Chiaretto from Bellagio. Came by ferry last night.”
“Perfetto! A bottle of each then while we wait!”
“Of course, Mario. We are not barbarians.”
Their order was placed with much bravado and laughter: salmon salad with apple vinegar, barley stew, breaded veal, tagliatelle pasta with whitefish, something called pappardelle.
Mario brought out a platter as large as the table, piled with olives and an assortment of antipasti…along with two bottles of wine, one red, one white.
“Buon appetito!” he said loudly.
It seemed Italians made a feast out of every meal — even take-out orders. Wine flowed. Glasses lifted. Bits of salami and cheese were passed around.
“Salute, Mario!” Rachel cheered as they finished the platter.
Monk leaned back, attempted to stifle a belch and failed. “That alone overfilled the tank.”
Kat had eaten just as much, but she was now studying the dessert menu with the same intensity with which she had read the mission dossier.
“Signorina?” Mario asked, noting her interest.
She pointed to the menu. “Macedonia con panna.”
“It’s only fruit salad with cream.” She glanced at the others, eyes wide. “It’s light.”
Gray sat back. He didn’t suppress the bravado. He sensed they all needed this momentary respite. Once under way, the day would be a blur. They’d blow into Milan, grab the relic bones, and then take one of the hourly high-speed trains into Rome, getting there before nightfall.
Gray had also used the time to study Vigor Verona. Despite the festivities, the monsignor seemed lost to his own thoughts again. Gray could see the gears churning in the man’s head.
Vigor suddenly focused on him, matched his gaze. He pushed back from the table. “Commander Pierce, while we’re waiting on the kitchen, I wonder if I might have a private word. Perhaps we could stretch our legs on the promenade.”
Gray settled his glass and stood. The others glanced to them curiously, but Gray nodded for them to remain there.
Vigor led the way off the terrace and onto the main promenade that bordered the lake. “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you and perhaps get your opinion.”
They walked down a block, and Vigor stepped to a stone railing that abutted an empty dock. They had privacy here.
Vigor kept his view on the lake, tapping one fist on the railing. “I understand that the Vatican’s role in all of this is centered on the theft of the relics. And once we return to Rome, I suspect you plan on cutting ties and pursuing the Dragon Court on your own.”
Gray considered vacillating, but the man deserved an honest answer. He could not risk further endangering this man and his niece. “I think it’s best,” he said. “And I’m sure both our superiors will agree.”
“But I don’t.” A bit of heat entered his words.
“If you’re right about the bones being the source for the strange amalgam powder, then I believe our roles here are more deeply entwined than either organization suspected.”
“I don’t see how.”
Vigor glanced to him again with that focused intensity that seemed to be a Verona family trait. “Then let me convince you. First, we know the Dragon Court is an aristocratic society involved in the search for secret or lost knowledge. They’ve concentrated on ancient Gnostic texts and other arcana.”
“Mystical mumbo jumbo.”
Vigor turned to him, cocking his head. “Commander Pierce, I believe you yourself have undergone a study of alternate faiths and philosophies. From Taoism to some of the Hindi cults.”
Gray flushed. It was easy to forget that the monsignor was an experienced field operative for the Vatican intelligenza. Clearly a dossier had been gathered on him.
“To seek spiritual truth is never wrong,” the monsignor continued. “No matter the path. In fact, the definition of gnosis is ‘to seek truth, to find God.’ I can’t even fault the Dragon Court in this pursuit. Gnosticism has been a part of the Catholic Church since its inception. Even predates it.”
“Fine,” Gray said, unable to keep a trace of irritation out of his voice. “What does any of this have to do with the massacre at Cologne?”
The monsignor sighed. “In some ways, the attack today could be traced back to a conflict between two apostles. Thomas and John.”
Gray shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
“In the beginning, Christianity was an outlaw religion. An upstart faith like none other in its time. Unlike other religions that collected dues as a required part of their faith, the young Christian family contributed money voluntarily. The funds went to feed and house orphans, bought food and medicine for the sick, paid for coffins for the poor. Such support of the downtrodden attracted large numbers of people, despite the risks of belonging to an outlawed faith.”
“Yes, I know. Christian good works and all that. Still, what does—”
Gray was cut off by a raised palm. “If you’ll let me continue, you might learn something.”
Gray bridled but kept silent. Besides being a Vatican spy, Vigor was also a university professor. He plainly didn’t like his lectures being interrupted.
“In the early years of the church, secrecy remained paramount, requiring surreptitious meetings in caves and crypts. This led to different groups being cut off from one another. First by distance, with major sects in Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage, and Rome. Then, with such isolation, individual practices began to diverge, along with differing philosophies. Gospels were popping up everywhere. The ones collected in the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But also others. The Secret Gospel of James, of Mary Magdalene, of Philip. The Gospel of Truth. The Apocalypse of Peter. And many others. With all these gospels, different sects began to develop around them. The young church began to splinter.”
Gray nodded. He had attended the Jesuit high school where his mother had taught. He knew some of this history.
“But in the second century,” Vigor continued, “the bishop of Lyons, Saint Irenaeus, wrote five volumes under the title Adversus Haereses. Against Heresies. Its full title was The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-called Knowledge. It was the moment where all early Gnostic beliefs were sifted out of the Christian religion, creating the fourfold Gospel canon, limiting the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All others were deemed heretical. To paraphrase Irenaeus, just as there are four regions of the universe, and four principal winds, the church needed only four pillars.”
“But why pick those four gospels out of all the others?”
“Why indeed? Therein lies my concern.”
Gray found his attention focused more fully. Despite his irritation at being lectured, he was curious where all this was leading.
Vigor stared out across the lake. “Three of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — all tell the same story. But the Gospel of John relates a very different history, even events in Christ’s life don’t match the chronology in the others. But there was a more fundamental reason why John was included in the standardized Bible.”
“Because of his fellow apostle, Thomas.”
“As in Doubting Thomas?” Gray was well versed on the story of the one apostle who refused to believe Christ had resurrected, not until he could see it with his own eyes.
Vigor nodded. “But did you know that only the Gospel of John tells the story of Doubting Thomas? Only John portrays Thomas as this dull-witted and faithless disciple. The other Gospels revere Thomas. Do you know why John tells this disparaging account?”
Gray shook his head. In all his years as a Roman Catholic, he had never noticed this imbalance in viewpoint.
“John sought to discredit Thomas, or more specifically, the followers of Thomas, who were numerous at that time. Even today you can still find a strong following of Thomas Christians in India. But in the early church, there was a fundamental schism between the gospels of Thomas and John. They were so different that only one gospel could survive.”
“What do you mean? How different could they be?”
“It goes back to the very beginning of the Bible, to Genesis, to the opening line. ‘Let there be light.’ Both John and Thomas identify Jesus with this primordial light, the light of creation. But from there, their interpretations widely diverge. According to Thomas, the light not only brought the universe into being but still exists within all things, especially within mankind, who was made in the image of God, and that the light is hidden within each person, only waiting to be found.”
“And what about John?”
“Now, John took a totally different view of matters. Like Thomas, he believed the primordial light was embodied by Christ, but John declared that only Christ held this light. The rest of the world remained forever in darkness, including mankind. And that the path back to this light, back to salvation and God, could only be found through the worship of the divine Christ.”
“A much narrower view.”
“And more pragmatic for the young church. John offered a more orthodox method for salvation, of coming into the light. Only through the worship of Christ. It was this simplicity and directness that appealed to the church leaders during this chaotic time. Contrarily Thomas suggested everyone had an innate ability to find God, by looking within, requiring no worship.”
“And that had to be squashed out.”
“But which is right?”
Vigor grinned. “Who knows? I don’t have all the answers. As Jesus said, ‘Seek and you shall find.’”
Gray pinched his brows. That line sounded pretty Gnostic to him. He glanced out to the lake, watching the sailboats scud past. Light shone brilliantly off the waters. Seek and you shall find. Had that been the path he had been on himself by studying so many philosophies? If so, he had come to no satisfactory answers.
And speaking of unsatisfactory answers…
Gray turned back to Vigor, realizing how far off track they had gotten. “What does all this have to do with the massacre in Cologne?”
“Let me tell you.” He held up one finger. “First, I think this attack harkens back to the age-old conflict between John’s orthodox faith and Thomas’s ancient Gnostic tradition.”
“With the Catholic Church on one side and the Dragon Court on the other?”
“No, that’s just it. I’ve been pondering this all night. The Dragon Court, while it seeks knowledge through Gnostic mysteries, does not ultimately seek God, only power. They want a new world order, a return to feudalism, with themselves at the helm, confident that they are genetically superior to lead mankind. So no, I don’t think the Dragon Court represents the Gnostic side of this ancient conflict. I think they are perverters of it, power-hungry scavengers. But they definitely have roots back to that tradition.”
Gray grudgingly conceded the point, but he was far from swayed.
Vigor must have sensed this. He lifted a second finger. “Point two. In the Gospel of Thomas, there’s a story that tells of how Jesus pulled Thomas aside one day and told him three things in secret. When the other apostles asked him what was told to him, he answered, ‘If I tell you even one of the things, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.’”
Vigor stared at Gray, waiting, as if it were a test.
Gray was up for it. “A fire from stones that burns. Like what happened to the parishioners at the church.”
He nodded. “I’ve thought of that quote since I first heard of the murders.”
“That’s a pretty thin connection,” Gray said, unconvinced.
“It might be if I didn’t have a third historical point to make.” Vigor lifted a third finger.
Gray felt like a lamb being led to the slaughter.
“According to historical texts,” Vigor explained, “Thomas went on to evangelize in the East, all the way to India. He baptized thousands of people, built churches, spread the faith, and eventually died in India. But in that region, he was most famous for one act, one act of baptism.”
Vigor concluded with great emphasis. “Thomas baptized the Three Magi.”
Gray’s eyes widened. His mind whirled with the threads here: Saint Thomas and his Gnostic tradition, secrets whispered by Christ, deadly fire cast from stones, and all of it tied back to the Magi again. Did the connection extend further? He pictured the photographs of the dead in Germany. The wracked bodies. And the coroner’s report of the liquefaction of the outer layers of the victims’ brains. He also remembered the smell of seared flesh in the cathedral.
Somehow the bones were tied to those deaths.
If there was a historical trail leading to any clues, it was beyond his scope of experience and knowledge to follow. He recognized this and faced the monsignor.
Vigor spoke, confident of his argument. “As I said from the start, I think there is more to the deaths at the cathedral than technology. I think whatever happened is entwined intimately with the Catholic Church, its early history, and possibly even before its founding. And I am certain I can be a continuing asset to this investigation.”
Gray bowed his head in thought, slowly won over.
“But not my niece,” Vigor finished, revealing at last why he had pulled Gray aside. He held out his hand. “Once we return to Rome, I will send her back to the Carabinieri. I will not risk her again.”
Gray reached out and shook the monsignor’s hand.
Finally something the two of them could agree on.
RACHEL HEARD a step behind her, expecting it to be Mario returning with their order. Glancing up, she almost fell out of her seat as she gazed at the elderly woman who stood there, leaning on a cane, dressed in navy slacks and a blue summer frock with a daffodil pattern. Her white hair was curled, her eyes flashing in amusement.
Mario stood behind the visitor, a broad smile on his face. “Surprise, no?”
Rachel gained her feet as Gray’s two partners looked on. “Nonna? What are you doing here?”
Her grandmother patted Rachel on a cheek, speaking in Italian. “Your crazy mother!” She fluttered her fingers in the air. “She goes off to see you in Rome. Leaves me alone with that Signore Barbari to watch over me. Like I need such care. Besides, he always smells of cheese.”
A wave of a hand held her off. “So I come to our villa. I took the train. And then Mario calls me to tell me that you and Viggie are here. I tell him not to tell you.”
“It’s a good surprise, no?” Mario repeated, glowing proudly. He must have been biting his thumb the entire time not to say anything.
“Who are your friends?” her nonna asked.
Rachel introduced them. “This is my grandmother.”
She shook each of their hands and switched to English. “Call me Camilla.” She eyed Monk up and down. “Why do you cut off all your hair? A shame. But you have nice eyes. Are you italiano?”
She nodded sagely. “That’s not too bad.” She turned to Kat. “Is Signor Monk your boyfriend?”
Kat crinkled her brow in surprise. “No,” she said a tad too tartly. “Certainly not.”
“Hey,” Monk interjected.
“You make a nice couple,” Nonna Camilla declared, stating it as if it were set in stone. She turned to Mario. “A glass of that wonderful Chiaretto, per favore, Mario.”
He whisked off, still beaming.
Rachel settled to her seat and spotted Gray and her uncle returning from their private meeting. As they crossed toward her, she noted that Gray would not meet her eye. She knew why her uncle had walked off with Commander Pierce. And from the man’s avoidance, she could guess the outcome.
Rachel suddenly had no interest in her wine.
Uncle Vigor noticed the additional guest at their table. Shock shattered his grim expression.
The surprise was again explained, along with further introductions.
As Gray Pierce was introduced, her grandmother glanced askance at Rachel, one eyebrow raised, before fixing her gaze on the American. She clearly liked what she saw: stubbled dark chin, storm-blue eyes, lanky black hair. Rachel knew her grandmother had a strong matchmaking streak, a genetic trait in all Italian matrons.
Her grandmother leaned toward Rachel. “I see beautiful babies,” she whispered, her eyes still on Gray. “Bellissimo bambini.”
“Nonna,” she warned.
Her grandmother shrugged and raised her voice. “Signore Pierce, are you italiano?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Would you like to be? My granddaughter—”
Rachel cut her off. “Nonna, we don’t have much time.” She made a show of checking her wristwatch. “We have business in Milan.”
The grandmother brightened. “Carabinieri work. Tracking stolen art?” She eyed Uncle Vigor. “Something taken from a church?”
“Something like that, Nonna. But we can’t talk about an open investigation.”
Her grandmother crossed herself. “Horrible…stealing from a church. I read about the murders up in Germania. Terrible, just terrible.” She glanced around the table, taking in the strangers. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, settling on Rachel.
Rachel noted the sharp-eyed realization in her grandmother’s gaze. Despite her outward appearance, nothing slipped past her nonna. The theft of the Magi bones was all over the newspapers. And here they were traveling with a group of Americans, near the border of Switzerland, heading back into Italy. Had her nonna guessed their real purpose?
“Terrible,” her grandmother repeated.
A server arrived laden with two heavy bags of food. A loaf of bread poked from each like a pair of baguette masts. Monk rose to accept the burden with a broad smile.
Uncle Vigor spoke, leaning forward to kiss both her cheeks. “Momma, we’ll see you back home in Gandolfo in a couple of days. Once this business is finished.”
As Gray stepped past, Nonna Camilla took his hand and pulled him down closer. “You watch after my granddaughter.”
Gray looked up to Rachel. “I will, but she takes pretty good care of herself.”
Rachel felt a sudden flush of heat as his eyes met hers. Feeling ridiculous, she glanced aside. She wasn’t a schoolgirl. Far from it.
Her nonna gave Gray a peck on the cheek. “We Verona women always take care of ourselves. You remember that.”
Gray smiled. “I will.”
She patted him on his backside as he stepped away. “Ragazzo buono.”
As the others headed out, her grandmother motioned Rachel to stay. She then reached out, turned back the corner of Rachel’s open vest, and exposed the empty holster. “You lost something, no?”
Rachel had forgotten she was still wearing the empty shoulder belt. She had left her borrowed Beretta back at the cathedral. But her nonna had noticed.
“A woman should never leave the house naked.” Her grandmother reached down and collected her purse. She opened it and pulled out the matte-black handle of her prized Nazi P-08 Luger. “You take mine.”
“Nonna! You shouldn’t be carrying that around.”
Her grandmother dismissed her concern with a wave. “The trains are not that safe for a woman alone. Too many Gypsies. But I think you maybe need this more than me.”
Her grandmother’s gaze weighed heavily on her, making it plain she understood the danger of Rachel’s mission.
Rachel reached out and closed her purse with a snap. “Grazie, Nonna. But I’ll be fine.”
Her grandmother shrugged. “Terrible business up in Germania,” she said with a significant roll of her eyes. “Best to be careful.”
“I will, Nonna.” Rachel began to turn away, but her wrist was grabbed.
“He likes you,” her grandmother said. “Signore Pierce.”
“You would make bellissimo bambini.”
Rachel sighed. Even with danger threatening, her grandmother knew how to stay focused. Babies. The true treasures of nonne everywhere.
She was saved by Mario arriving with the bill. She stepped aside and paid it in cash, leaving enough to cover her nonna’s lunch. She then gathered up her things, kissed her grandmother, and headed out to the piazza to join the others.
But she carried her grandmother’s spirit with her. Verona women certainly did know how to take care of themselves. She met her uncle and the others at the car. She fixed Gray with her best poisonous stare. “If you think you’re going to kick me off this investigation, you can walk to Rome.”
Keys in hand, she rounded the Mercedes, satisfied by the surprised look on the man’s face as he glanced back to Uncle Vigor.
She had been ambushed, shot at, and firebombed. She wasn’t about to be left at the side of the road.
She pulled her door open, but she kept the other doors locked. “And that goes for you, too, Uncle Vigor.”
“Rachel…” he tried to argue.
She slid into the driver’s seat, slammed her door, and keyed the ignition.
“Rachel!” Her uncle knocked on the window.
She shifted into gear.
“Va bene!” her uncle yelled to her over the supercharged engine, agreeing. “We stay together.”
“Swear it,” she called back, keeping her palm on the gear knob.
“Dio mio…” He rolled his eyes heavenward. “And you wonder why I became a priest….”
She revved her engine.
Uncle Vigor placed a palm on the window. “I submit. I swear. I should never have tried to go against a Verona woman.”
Rachel twisted and locked eyes on Gray. He had remained silent, his face hard. He looked ready to hotwire a car and take off on his own. Had she overplayed her hand? But she sensed she needed to make a strong stand now.
Slowly Gray’s blue eyes shifted with a glacial coolness to her uncle, then back to Rachel. As they faced each other, at that moment, Rachel felt how deeply she wanted to remain, down to the marrow of her bones. Maybe he understood. Gray ever so slowly nodded, a barely perceptible movement.
It was enough of a concession.
She unlocked the doors. The others climbed in.
Monk was last. “I was fine with walking.”
FROM THE backseat, Gray watched Rachel.
She had donned her blue-tinted sunglasses, which made her expression all but unreadable. Her lips, though, were pressed tightly. The muscles of her long neck remained taut as bowstrings as she glanced around for traffic. Despite the fact they had relented, she was still angry.
How had Rachel even known what had been decided between her uncle and himself? Her intuitive capacity was impressive, along with her no-nonsense approach to conflict. But he also remembered her vulnerability in the tower, her eyes meeting his across the gap between the two spires. Yet, even then, among the bullets and flames, she had not crumbled.
For a moment, he caught a glance from Rachel in the rearview mirror, her eyes shaded by her glasses. Still, he knew she was studying him. Too conscious of the scrutiny, he glanced away.
He balled a fist on a knee at his reaction.
Gray had never met a woman who so confounded him. He’d had girlfriends before but nothing that lasted more than six months, and even that relationship had been in high school. He’d been too hotheaded in his youth, then too devoted to his career in the military, first in the Army, then in the Rangers. He never called one place home for longer than six months, so romance was usually no more than a long weekend leave. But in all his dalliances, he had never met a woman who was as frustrating as she was intriguing: a woman who laughed easily over lunch, but who could turn hard as a polished diamond.
He leaned back as the countryside flashed past. They left behind the lake country of Northern Italy and descended the foothills of the Alps. The journey was a short one. Milan lay only a forty-minute drive away.
Gray knew enough about himself to understand part of his attraction to Rachel. He was never fascinated by the middle of the road, the mundane, the undecided. But neither was he a fan of extremes: the brash, the strident, the discordant. He had preferred harmony, a merging of extremes where balance was achieved but uniqueness was not lost.
Basically the Taoist yin-and-yang view of the cosmos.
Even his own career reflected this — the scientist and the soldier. His field of disciplines sought to incorporate biology and physics. He had once described this choice to Painter Crowe. “All chemistry, biology, mathematics boil down to the positive and the negative, the zero and the one, the light and the dark.”
Gray found his attention drifting back to Rachel. Here was this same philosophy in shapely flesh.
He watched Rachel lift a hand and knead a kink from her neck. Her lips were slightly parted as she found the sweet spot and rubbed. He wondered what those lips would taste like.
Before he let this thought drift further, she whipped the Mercedes around a tight curve, throwing Gray against the door frame. She dropped her hand, downshifted, gassed the engine, and took the turn even faster.
Gray hung on. Monk groaned.
Rachel merely wore a ghost of a smile.
Who wouldn’t be fascinated by this woman?
EIGHT HOURS and no word.
Painter paced the length of his office. He had been here since ten o’clock the prior night — as soon as the news reached him about the explosion at the Cologne Cathedral. Since then, information had been filtering in slowly.
The source of the incineration: bombs filled with black powder, white phosphorus, and the incendiary oil LA-60. It had taken three hours until the fire was contained enough to attempt entry. But the interior was a smoky, toxic shell, burned down to the stone walls and floors. Charred skeletal remains were discovered.
Was it his team?
Another two hours passed until a report came in that the slag remains of weapons had been found with two of the bodies. Unidentified assault rifles. No such weapons had been deployed with his team. So at least some of the bodies had been unknown assailants.
But what about the others?
Satellite surveillance out of NRO proved useless. No eyes in the skies had been sampling the area at that hour. On the ground, business and municipal cameras in the vicinity were still being canvassed. Eyewitnesses were few. One homeless man, sleeping near Cathedral Hill, reported seeing a handful of people fleeing the burning cathedral. But his blood alcohol level was over.15. Stumbling drunk.
All else was quiet. The safe house in Cologne hadn’t been breeched. And so far, not a word from the field.
Painter could not help but fear the worst.
A knock at his half-open door interrupted him.
He turned and waved Logan Gregory into the office. His second-in-command had reams of paper tucked under his arm and dark circles under his eyes. Logan had refused to go home, sticking at his side all night long.
Painter looked on expectantly, hoping for a good word.
Logan shook his head. “Still no hits on their aliases.” They had been checking hourly at airports, train stations, and bus lines.
“Nothing. But the EU is pretty much an open sieve. They could have crossed out of Germany any number of ways.”
“And the Vatican still hasn’t heard anything?”
Another shake of his head. “I spoke to Cardinal Spera just ten minutes ago.”
A chime sounded from his computer. He strode around his desk and tabbed the key to initiate the video-conferencing feature. He faced the plasma screen hanging on the left wall. A pixilating image appeared of his boss, the head of DARPA.
Dr. Sean McKnight was at his office in Arlington. He had abandoned his usual suit jacket and had the cuffs on his shirt rolled up. No tie. He ran a hand through his graying red hair, a familiar tired gesture.
“I got your request,” his boss started.
Painter straightened from where he had been leaning on his desk. Logan had retreated to the door, staying out of camera view. He made a move to step out, to offer privacy, but Painter motioned him to stay. His request wasn’t a matter of security.
Sean shook his head. “I can’t grant it.”
Painter frowned. He had asked for an emergency pass to go to the site himself. To be on hand in Germany during the investigation. There might be clues others missed. His fingers curled into a fist in frustration.
“Logan can oversee things here,” Painter argued. “I can be in constant communication with command.”
Sean’s demeanor hardened. “Painter, you are command now.”
“You’re no longer a field operative.”
The pain must have been evident in his expression.
Sean sighed. “Do you know how many times I’ve sat in my office waiting to hear from you? How about your last operation in Oman? I thought you were dead.”
Painter glanced down to his desk. Binders and papers were piled everywhere. There was no relief to be found among them. He had never suspected how agonizing this job had been for his boss. Painter shook his head.
“There is only one way of handling matters like this,” his boss said. “And believe me, they’ll happen on a regular basis.”
Painter faced the screen. An ache had settled behind his breastbone, throbbing and hot.
“You have to trust your agents. You put them into the field, but once they’re let loose, you have to have confidence. You picked the team leader for this op and his support. Do you trust they are capable of handling a hostile situation?”
Painter pictured Grayson Pierce, Monk Kokkalis, and Kat Bryant. They were some of the best and brightest in the force. If anyone could survive…
Painter slowly nodded. He did trust them.
“Then let them run their game. Like I did you. A horse runs best with only the lightest touch of the reins.” Sean leaned forward. “All you can do now is wait for them to contact you. That is your responsibility to them. To be ready to respond. Not to run off to Germany.”
“I understand,” he said, but it didn’t offer much solace. The ache continued inside his rib cage.
“Did you get that package I sent you last week?”
Painter glanced up, a half-smile forming. He had gotten a care package from his director. A crate of Tums antacids. He had thought it was a gag gift, but now he wasn’t so sure.
Sean settled back into his chair. “That’s all the relief you’ll ever get in this business.”
Painter recognized the truth in his mentor’s words. Here was the true burden of leadership.
“It was easier in the field,” he finally mumbled.
“Not always,” Sean reminded him. “Not always by a long shot.”
LOCKED UP tight,” Monk said. “Just like the monsignor said.”
Gray could not argue. It all looked good. He itched to get inside, grab the bones, and head out of here.
They stood on a shaded sidewalk bordering the unassuming façade of the Basilica of Saint Eustorgio, near one of the side doors. The front was humble adorned red brick; behind it rose a single clock-tower steeple, surmounted by a cross. The tiny sun-baked square was empty for the moment.
A few minutes ago, a municipal patrol car had looped past, going slow, keeping watch. All seemed quiet.
Following Kat’s recommendation, they had searched the entire church’s periphery from a circumspect distance. Gray had also used a set of telescoping lenses to peer discreetly through several windows. The five side chapels and central nave appeared deserted.
Sunlight blazed off the pavement. The day had grown hot.
But Gray still felt cold, unsure.
Would he be less cautious if it were only himself?
“Let’s do this,” he said.
Vigor stepped to the side door and reached for the large iron knocker, a ring containing a simple cross.
Gray stayed his hand. “No. We’ve kept our approach quiet. Let’s keep it that way.” He turned to Kat and pointed to the lock. “Can you get it open?”
Kat dropped to a knee. Monk and Gray shielded her work with their bodies. While Kat studied the lock, her fingers fished through a lock-picking kit. With the meticulous skill of a surgeon, she set to work on the door’s lock.
“Commander,” Vigor said. “To violate a church…”
“If you were already invited entry by the Vatican, it’s no violation.”
A snick of a latch ended the matter. The door opened an inch.
Kat gained her feet and shouldered her pack.
Gray waved the others back. “Monk and I will go in alone. Scout the terrain.” He reached to his collar and secured an earpiece in place. “Radio up while we have a chance. Kat, stay here with Rachel and Vigor.”
Gray taped on a throat mike for subvocalization.
Vigor stepped forward. “Like I said before, priests are more likely to speak to someone wearing a collar. I’ll go with you.”
Gray hesitated — but the monsignor made sense. “Stay behind us at all times.”
Kat did not protest being left holding the door, but Rachel’s eyes sparked fire.
“We need someone to cover our backs if things go south,” he explained, speaking directly to Rachel.
Her lips tightened, but she nodded.
Satisfied, he turned and opened the door enough to slip through. The dark foyer was cool. The doors to the nave were closed. He saw nothing amiss. The quiet of the sanctuary felt heavy, like being underwater.
Monk closed the outer door and flipped his long coat aside to rest a hand on his shotgun. Vigor obeyed his instructions and shadowed Monk.
Gray moved to the central door of the inner nave. He pushed it open with the palm of his hand. He had his Glock in the other.
The nave was brighter than the foyer, full of natural light from the basilica’s windows. Its polished marble floor reflected the illumination, appearing almost wet. The basilica was much smaller than the cathedral in Cologne. Rather than cross-shaped, it was just a single long hall, a straight nave that ended at the altar.
Gray froze and watched for movement. Despite the ample light, there were plenty of places for people to hide. A line of pillars supported the arched roof. Five tiny chapels jetted out from the right wall, sheltering the tombs of martyrs and saints.
Nothing moved. The only noise was the distant rumble of traffic, sounding as if coming from another world.
Gray entered and moved down the center of the nave, pistol ready.
Monk stepped wide, positioning himself to keep the entire nave covered. They crossed the hall in silence. There was no sign of the church’s staff.
“Perhaps they all went out for a late lunch,” Monk subvocalized into his radio.
“Kat, can you hear me?” Gray asked.
“Loud and clear, Commander.”
They reached the end of the nave.
Vigor pointed to the right, to the chapel closest to the altar.
Tucked into the chapel’s corner, a gigantic sarcophagus lay half in shadow. Like the reliquary in Cologne, the Shrine of the Magi here was shaped like a church, but rather than gold and jewels, the sarcophagus had been carved out of a single block of Proconnesio marble.
Gray led the way toward it.
The shrine stood over twelve feet tall from its base to pitched roof and stretched seven feet wide by twelve long. The only access to the interior was through a small barred window low in the front face.
“Finestra confessionis,” Vigor whispered, pointing to the window. “So one can observe the relics while kneeling.”
Gray approached. Monk stood guard. He still didn’t like this situation. He bent and peered through the small window. Behind glass, a white silk-lined chamber opened.
The bones had been removed, just as the monsignor had described. The Vatican was taking no chances. And neither would he.
“The rectory is located off the church’s left side,” Vigor said, a bit too loudly. “That’s where the offices and apartments are. It’s connected through the sacristy.” He pointed across the church.
As if responding to his signal, a door smacked open across the nave. Gray dropped to a knee. Monk yanked the monsignor behind a pillar, swinging up his shotgun.
A single figure strode out, oblivious of the intruders.
It was a young man dressed in black with a clerical collar.
He was alone. He crossed and began lighting a set of candles on the far side of the altar.
Gray waited until the man was only two yards away. Still, no others appeared. Slowly he gained his feet, coming into view.
The priest froze when he spotted Gray, his arm half-raised in lighting another candle. His expression turned to shock when he spotted the pistol in Gray’s hand. “Chi sei?”
Still, Gray hesitated.
Vigor stepped out of hiding. “Padre…”
The priest jumped, and his eyes flicked to the monsignor. He immediately noted the matching collar; confusion surpassed fear.
“I am Monsignor Verona,” Vigor introduced, stepping forward. “Do not be afraid.”
“Monsignor Verona?” Worry etched the man’s features. He backed a step.
“What’s wrong?” Gray asked in Italian.
The priest shook his head. “You can’t be Monsignor Verona.”
Vigor stepped forward and showed him his Vatican ID.
The man glanced from it back to Vigor.
“But a…a man came here early this morning, just after dawn. A tall man. Very tall. With identification as Monsignor Verona. He bore papers with proper seals from the Vatican. To take the bones.”
Gray exchanged a look with the monsignor. They had already been outmaneuvered. Instead of brute force, the Dragon Court had slipped in more slyly this time. By necessity. Because of the increased security. With the real Monsignor Verona believed dead, the Court had assumed his role. Like everything else, they must have known about Vigor’s side mission here to collect the relics. They had used the intelligence to slip the last bones through the intensified security here.
Gray shook his head. They continued to be a step behind.
“Damn it,” Monk said.
The priest frowned at him. Clearly he understood enough English to find affront at the man’s language in a house of God.
“Scusi,” Monk responded.
Gray understood Monk’s frustration, doubly so as mission leader. He bit back his own curse. They had moved too slowly, played too cautiously.
His radio buzzed.
Kat came on the line. She must have overheard enough of the conversation. “Is it all clear, Commander?”
“Clear…and too late,” he answered back sourly.
Kat and Rachel joined them. Vigor introduced the others.
“So the bones are gone,” Rachel said.
The priest nodded. “Monsignor Verona, if you’d like to see the paperwork, we have it in the safe in the sacristy. Maybe that would help.”
“We could check it for fingerprints,” Rachel said tiredly, the exhaustion finally hitting her. “They may have been careless. Not expecting we’d be on their heels. It might flush out whoever betrayed us in the Vatican. It could be our only new lead.”
Gray nodded. “Bag it up. We’ll see what we can find here.”
Rachel and Monsignor Verona headed across the nave.
Gray turned away and strode over to the sarcophagus.
“Any ideas?” Monk asked.
“We still have the gray powder we collected from the golden reliquary,” he said. “We’ll regroup in the Vatican, alert everyone of what’s happened, and test the powder more thoroughly.”
As the sacristy door closed, Gray knelt down by the tiny window again, wondering if praying would help. “We should vacuum out the interior,” he said, struggling to remain clinical. “See if we can confirm the presence of the amalgam powder here, too.”
He leaned closely, cocking his head, not sure what he was looking for. But he found it anyway. A mark on the silk-lined roof of the reliquary chamber. A red seal pressed into the white silk. A tiny curled dragon. The ink looked fresh…too fresh.
But it was not ink….
A warning left behind by the Dragon Lady.
Gray straightened, suddenly knowing the truth.
ROLLING THE BONES
JULY 25, 12:38 P.M.
ONCE INSIDE, the priest closed the door to the sacristy. It was the chamber where the clergy and altar boys robed themselves prior to Mass.
Rachel heard the lock click behind her.
She half turned and found a pistol leveled at her chest. Held in the hand of the priest. His eyes had gone as cold and hard as polished marble.
“Don’t move,” he said firmly.
Rachel backed a step. Vigor slowly raised his hands.
To either side were closets hung with clerical garments and vestments, used daily by the priests to say Mass. A table held a row of silver chalices, haphazardly arranged for the same. A large gilded silver crucifix, mounted on a wrought-iron pole, leaned against one corner, meant to lead a processional.
The door on the opposite end of the sacristy opened.
A familiar bull of a man entered, filling the doorway. It was the man who attacked her in Cologne. He carried a long knife in one hand, the blade wet and bloody. He stepped into the room and used a blessed stole hanging in a closet to wipe it clean.
Rachel felt Vigor wince next to her.
The blood. The missing priests. Oh God…
The tall man no longer wore a monk’s garb, but ordinary street clothes, charcoal khakis and a black T-shirt, over which he wore a dark suit jacket. He carried a pistol in a shoulder holster beneath it and wore a radio headset over one ear, the mike at his throat.
“So you both survived Cologne,” he said, his eyes traveling up and down Rachel’s form, as if sizing up a prized calf at a country fair. “How very fortunate. Now we can become better acquainted.”
He tipped his throat mike up and spoke into it. “Clear the church.”
Behind her, Rachel heard doors slam open in the nave. Gray and the others would be caught off guard. She waited for a spate of gunfire or the blast of a grenade. But all she heard was the patter of boots on marble. The church remained silent.
The same must have been noted by their captor.
“Report,” he ordered into his mike.
Rachel did not hear the reply, but she knew from the darkening of his face that the news was not good.
He shoved forward, passing between Vigor and Rachel.
“Watch them,” he growled to the fake priest. A second gunman had taken up post by the back exit to the sacristy.
Their captor yanked open the door to the nave. An armed figure strode over to him, accompanied by the Eurasian woman, holding her Sig Sauer pistol at her side.
“No one’s here,” the man reported.
Rachel spotted other gunmen searching the main nave and side chapels.
“All exits have been guarded.”
“At all times.”
The giant’s eyes settled on the Asian woman.
She shrugged. “They might have found an open window.”
With a grumble, he cast a final search around the basilica, then swung around with a sweep of his suit jacket. “Keep searching. Send three men to canvass the outside. They can’t have gotten far.”
As the giant turned, Rachel made her move.
Reaching behind her, she snatched the ceremonial pole with the silver crucifix and rammed its butt end square into the man’s solar plexus. He grunted and fell back into the priest. She yanked the pole back, under her elbow, and slammed the cross end into the gunman’s face behind her.
His pistol blasted, but the shot went wild as he fell back out the door.
Rachel followed him, tumbling out the back exit into a narrow hallway, her uncle on her heels. She slammed the door and propped the pole against it, jamming it against the hallway’s far wall.
Beside her, Uncle Vigor smashed a heel on the fallen gunman’s hand. Bones cracked. He then kicked the man square in the face. His head bounced against the stone floor with a thud, then his form went slack.
Rachel bent down and grabbed his pistol.
Crouched, she searched both ways down the windowless hall. No other men were about. The additional forces must have been placed to ambush Gray and his team. A large crash rattled the door in its frame. The Bull was trying to break through.
She dropped flat to the floor and searched beneath the jam. She watched the play of light and shadow. She aimed for darkness and fired.
The bullet sparked off the marble floor, but she heard a satisfying bellow of surprise. A little hotfoot should slow the Bull.
She rolled to her feet. Uncle Vigor had crossed down the hall a few steps.
“I hear someone groaning,” he whispered. “Back here.”
“We don’t have time.”
Ignoring her, Uncle Vigor continued deeper. Rachel followed. Without a frame of reference, one way was no worse than the other. They reached a door cracked open. Rachel heard a moan from inside.
She shouldered in, gun ready.
The room had once been a small dining hall. But now it was a slaughterhouse. One priest lay facedown in a pool of blood on the floor, the back of his head a pulp of brain, bone, and hair. Another black-robed figure lay sprawled on one of the tables, spread-eagled, tied to the bench legs. An older priest. His robes had been stripped to the waist. His chest was a pool of blood. His head was missing both ears. There was also the smell of burned flesh.
A sobbing moan sounded to the left. On the floor, tied hand and foot, was a young man, stripped to boxer shorts, gagged. He had a black eye and blood dribbled from both nostrils. From his half-naked form, it was plain where the clerical garb for the fake priest had come from.
Vigor came around the table. When the man spotted him, he struggled, eyes wild, frothing around his gag.
Rachel held back.
“It’s all right,” Vigor soothed.
The man’s eyes fixed on Vigor’s collar. He stopped struggling, but he was still wracked with sobs. Vigor reached out to free the gag. The man shook and spat it out. Tears flowed down his cheeks.
“Molti…grazie,” he said, his voice weak with shock.
Vigor cut the plastic ties with a knife.
As he worked, Rachel locked the door to the dining room and jammed a chair under the knob for good measure. There were no windows, only a door leading deeper into the rectory. She kept her gun pointed that way and crossed to a phone on the wall. No dial tone. The phone lines had been cut.
She fished out Gray’s cell phone and dialed 112, the universal EU emergency number. Once connected, she identified herself as a Carabinieri lieutenant, though she didn’t give her name, and called for an immediate medical, police, and military response.
With the alarm raised, she pocketed her phone.
Outgunned, it was all she could do.
For herself…and for the others.
FOOTSTEPS APPROACHED Gray’s hiding place. He held perfectly still, not breathing. The steps stopped nearby. He strained to listen.
A man spoke. A familiar voice, angry. It was the leader of the monks. “The Milan authorities have been alerted.”
There was no reply, but Gray was certain two people had approached.
“Seichan?” the man asked. “Did you hear me?”
A bored voice answered. It was equally recognizable. The Dragon Lady. But now she had a name. Seichan.
“They must have gone out a window, Raoul,” she said, returning the favor and naming the leader. “Sigma is slippery. I warned you as much. We’ve secured the remaining bones. We should be gone before Sigma returns with reinforcements. The police may already be on the way.”
“But that bitch…”
“You can settle matters with her later.”
The footsteps departed. It sounded like the heavier of the two was limping. Still, the Dragon Lady’s words remained with Gray.
You can settle matters with her later.
Did that mean Rachel had escaped?
Gray was surprised at the depth of his relief.
A door slammed on the far side of the church. As the sound echoed away, Gray strained his ears. He heard no more footsteps, no tread of boots, no voices.
To be cautious, he waited a full minute longer.
With the church silent, he nudged Monk, who lay spooned next to him. Kat lay scrunched on Monk’s other side. They rolled with a sickening crunch of desiccated bone and reached overhead. Together they shifted the stone lid to the sepulcher.
Light spilled into the tomb, their makeshift bunker.
After spotting the Dragon Lady’s warning in blood, Gray had known they’d been ensnared. All exit doors would be guarded. And with Rachel and her uncle vanished into the sacristy, there was nothing he could do to help.
So Gray had led the others into the neighboring chapel, to where a massive marble sepulcher rested on twisted Gothic columns. They had shifted its lid enough to climb inside, then pulled the lid back over them just as doors crashed open all across the church.
With the search ended, Monk climbed out, shotgun in hand, and shook his body with a disgusted grumble. Bone dust shivered from his clothes. “Let’s not do that again.”
Gray kept his pistol ready.
He saw an object on the marble floor, a few steps away from where they had been hidden. A copper coin. Easy to miss. He picked it up. It was a Chinese fen, or penny.
“What is it?” Monk asked.
He closed his fingers over it and stood, pocketing it. “Nothing. Let’s go.”
He headed across the nave toward the sacristy, but he glanced back to the crypt. Seichan had known.
RACHEL KEPT guard as Vigor helped the priest stand.
“They…they killed everyone,” the young man said. He needed Vigor’s arm to keep his feet. The man’s eyes avoided the bloody figure on the table. He covered his face with one hand and groaned. “Father Belcarro…”
“What happened?” Vigor asked.
“They came an hour ago. They had papal seals and papers, identification. But Father Belcarro had a faxed picture.” The priest’s eyes widened. “Of you. From the Vatican. Father Belcarro knew the lie immediately. But by that time, the monsters were already here. The phone lines were severed. We were locked inside, cut off. They wanted the combination to Father Belcarro’s safe.”
The man turned from the bloody form, guiltily. “They tortured him. He would not speak. But they did worse things then…so much worse. They made me watch.”
The young priest grabbed her uncle’s elbow. “I couldn’t let it continue. I…I told them.”
“And they took the bones from the safe?”
The priest nodded.
“Then all is lost,” Vigor said.
“Still, they wanted to be sure,” the priest continued, seemingly deaf, babbling on. He glanced to the tortured figure, knowing he had been destined to share the same fate. “Then you arrived. They stripped me, gagged me.”
Rachel pictured the fake priest who had worn the man’s cassock. The subterfuge must have been devised to lure Rachel and Kat off the street and into the church.
The priest stumbled to the body of Father Belcarro. He folded back the older man’s robe, covering the mutilated face as if hiding his own shame. Then the priest reached into a pocket of the bloody robe. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes. It seemed the elderly father had not shed all his vices…nor had the young priest.
Fingers shaking, the man peeled back the top and shook out the contents. Six cigarettes — and a broken stub of chalk. The man dropped the cigarettes and held out the ochre bit.
Vigor took it.
Not chalk. Bone.
“Father Belcarro feared sending away all the holy relics,” the young priest explained. “In case something happened. So he kept a bit aside. For the church.”
Rachel wondered how much of this subterfuge was motivated by a selfless desire to preserve the relics and how much was due to pride, and the memory of the last time the bones had been stolen from Milan. Carted off to Cologne. Much of the basilica’s fame was centered on those few bones. But either way, Father Belcarro had died a martyr. Tortured while hiding the holy relic on his own body.
A loud blast made them all jump.
The priest fell back to the floor.
But Rachel recognized the gauge of the weapon.
“Monk’s shotgun…” she said, eyes widening with hope.
GRAY REACHED through the smoking hole in the sacristy door.
Monk shouldered the shotgun. “I’m really going to owe the Catholic Church a month’s salary for carpentry repair.”
Gray shoved aside the pole blocking the way and opened the door. After the shotgun blast, there was no further need for subterfuge. “Rachel! Vigor!” he called as he entered the rectory hall.
A scuffle sounded from down the hall. A door opened. Rachel stepped out, pistol in hand. “Over here!” she urged.
Uncle Vigor led a half-naked man out into the hallway. The man looked pale and haunted, but he seemed to gain strength from their presence.
Or maybe it was the sound of the approaching sirens.
“Father Justin Mennelli,” Vigor said in introduction.
They quickly compared notes.
“So we have one of the bones,” Gray said, surprised.
“I suggest we get the relic back to Rome as soon as possible,” Vigor said. “They don’t know we have it, and I want to be behind the Leonine Walls of the Vatican before they do.”
Rachel nodded. “Father Mennelli will let the authorities know what happened here. He’ll leave out the details of our presence — and of course, about the relic we have.”
“There’s an ETR train leaving for Rome in ten minutes.” Vigor checked his watch. “We can be in Rome by six o’clock.”
Gray nodded. The more under-the-radar they operated, the better. “Let’s go.”
They headed out. Father Mennelli led them to a side exit not far from where they had parked. Rachel climbed into the driver’s seat as usual. They sped off as sirens converged.
As Gray settled back, he fingered the Chinese coin in his pocket. He sensed he had missed something.
AN HOUR later, Rachel crossed from the bathroom to the first-class compartment in the ETR 500 train. Kat accompanied her. It was decided no one would leave the group by themselves. Rachel had wet her face, combed her hair, and brushed her teeth while Kat waited outside the door.
After the horrors in Milan, she had needed a personal moment in the cubicle. For a full minute, she had simply stared at herself in the mirror, teetering between fury and a need to cry. Neither won out, so she had washed her face.
It was all she could do.
But it did make her feel better, a private absolution.
As she strode down the hall, she barely felt the tremble of the tracks under her heels. The Elettro Treno Rapido was Italy’s newest and fastest train, connecting a corridor from Milan to Naples. It traveled at a blistering three hundred kilometers per hour.
“So, what’s the story on your commander?” Rachel asked Kat, taking advantage of the time alone with the woman. Also, it felt good to talk about a subject outside of murder and bones.
“What do you mean?” Kat did not even look over.
“Is he involved with anyone back home? A girlfriend maybe?”
This question earned a glance. “I don’t see how his personal life—”
“What about you and Monk?” Rachel said, cutting her off, realizing how her original question sounded. “With all your professions, do you have time for personal lives? What about the risks?”
Rachel was curious how these people balanced their regular lives with all the cloak-and-dagger. She had a hard enough time finding a man who could handle her position as a lieutenant in the Carabinieri Force.
Kat sighed. “It’s best not to get too involved,” she said. Her fingers had wandered to a tiny enameled frog pinned to her collar. Her voice grew stiffer, but it sounded more like bolstering than true strength. “You form friendships where you can, but you shouldn’t let it go any further. It’s easier that way.”
Easier for whom? Rachel wondered.
She let the matter drop as they reached their compartments. The team had booked two cabins. One was a sleeping compartment to allow them to take short catnaps in shifts. But no one was sleeping yet. Everyone had gathered in the other cabin, seated on either side of a table. The shades had been drawn across the windows.
Rachel slid in next to her uncle, Kat next to her teammates.
Gray had unboxed an assortment of compact analyzing equipment from his backpack and wired it to a laptop. Other tools were neatly aligned in front of him. In the center of the table, resting on a stainless steel sample tray, was the relic from one of the Magi.
“It was lucky that this bit of finger bone escaped their net,” Monk said.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” Rachel bristled. “It cost good men their lives. If we hadn’t come when we did, I suspect we would’ve lost this bit of bone, too.”
“Luck or not,” Gray grumbled, “we have the artifact. Let’s see if it can solve any mysteries for us.”
He slipped on a pair of glasses outfitted with a jeweler’s magnifying loupe and donned a pair of latex gloves. With a tiny trepanning drill, he cored a thin sliver through the center of the bone, then used a mortar and pestle to grind the sample to a powder.
Rachel watched his meticulous work. Here was the scientist in the soldier. She studied the movements of his fingers, efficient, no wasted effort. His eyes focused fully on the task at hand. Two perfectly parallel lines furrowed his brow, never relaxing. He breathed through his nose.
She had never imagined this side of him, the man who leapt between fiery towers. Rachel had a sudden urge to tip his chin up, to have him look at her with that same intensity and focus. What would that be like? She pictured the depth of his blue-gray eyes. She remembered his touch, his hand in hers, both strength and tenderness, somehow at the same time.
Warmth swelled through her. She felt her cheeks flush and had to glance away.
Kat stared up at her, expressionless but still somehow making her feel guilty, her words too fresh. It’s best not to get too involved. It’s easier that way.
Maybe the woman was right….
“With this mass spectrometer,” Gray finally mumbled, drawing back her attention, “we can determine if any of the m-state metal is in the bones. Attempt to rule out, or in, the possibility that the Magi bones were the source of the powder found in the gold reliquary.”
Gray mixed the powder with distilled water, then sucked the silty liquid into a pipette and transferred it to a test tube. He inserted the sample tube into the compact spectrometer. He prepared a second test tube of pure distilled water and held it up.
“This is a standard to calibrate,” he explained, and placed the tube into another slot. He pressed a green button and turned the laptop screen toward the group so all could see. A graph appeared on the screen with a flat line across it. A few tiny barbs jittered the straight line. “This is water. The intermittent spikes are a few trace impurities. Even distilled water is not a hundred percent pure.”
Next, he switched a dial so it pointed to the slot with the silty sample. He pressed the green button. “Here is the breakdown of the pulverized bone.”
The graph on the screen cleared and refreshed with the new data.
It looked identical.
“It hasn’t changed,” Rachel said.
With his brow pinched, Gray repeated the test, even taking out the tube and shaking it up. The result was the same each time. A flat line.
“It’s still reading like distilled water,” Kat said.
“It shouldn’t,” Monk said. “Even if the old magi had osteoporosis, the calcium in the bone should be spiking through the roof. Not to mention carbon and a handful of other elements.”
Gray nodded, conceding. “Kat, do you have some of that cyanide solution?”
She swung to her pack, fished through it, and came up with a tiny vial.
Gray soaked a cotton-tipped swab, then pinched the bone between his gloved fingers. He rubbed the wet swab across the bone, pressing firmly, rubbing as if he were polishing silver.
But it was not silver.
Where he rubbed, the brownish-yellow bone turned a rich gold.
Gray glanced up at the group. “This isn’t bone.”
Rachel could not keep the awe and shock from her voice. “It’s solid gold.”
GRAY SPENT half the train trip disproving Rachel’s statement. There was more than just gold in these bones. Also it wasn’t heavy metallic gold, but that strange gold glass again. He attempted to backward engineer the exact composition.
While he worked, he also grappled another problem. Milan. He went over and over again the events at the basilica. He had walked his team into a trap. He could forgive last night’s ambush up in Germany. They had been caught with their pants down. No one could have anticipated such a savage attack at the cathedral in Cologne.
But the close call in Milan could not be so easily dismissed. They had gone into the basilica prepared — but still came close to losing everything, including their lives.
So where did the fault lie?
Gray knew the answer. He had fucked up. He should never have stopped at Lake Como. He should not have listened to Kat’s words of caution and wasted so much time canvassing the basilica, exposing themselves, giving the Court time to spot them and prepare a trap.
Kat was not to blame. Caution was part and parcel of intelligence work. But fieldwork also required swift and certain action, not hesitation.
Especially in its leader.
Up until now, Gray had been going by the book, staying overly cautious, being the leader that was expected of him. But maybe that was the mistake. Hesitation and second-guessing were not Pierce family traits. Not in the father, not in the son. But where was the line between caution and foolhardiness? Could he ever achieve that balance?
Success on this mission — and possibly their lives — would depend on it.
Finished with his analysis, Gray leaned back. He had blistered his thumb, and the cabin reeked of methyl alcohol. “It’s not pure gold,” he concluded.
The others glanced to him. Two were working, two drowsing.
“The fake bone is a mixture of elements across the platinum group,” Gray explained. “Whoever crafted this, they mixed a powdery amalgam of various transitional metals and melted it down to glass. As it cooled, they molded the glass and roughed up the surfaces to a chalky complexion, making it appear like bone.”
Gray began putting away his tools. “It’s predominantly composed of gold, but there’s also a large percentage of platinum and smaller amounts of iridium and rhodium, even osmium and palladium.”
“A regular potpourri,” Monk said with a yawn.
“But a potpourri whose exact recipe may be forever unknown,” Gray said, frowning at the abused piece of bone. He had preserved three-quarters of the artifact untouched and put the remaining quarter through the battery of tests. “With the m-state powder’s stubborn lack of reactivity, I don’t think any analyzing equipment could tell you the exact ratio of metals. Even testing alters the ratio in the sample.”
“Like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,” Kat said, feet up on the opposite bench, her laptop on her thighs. She tapped as she spoke. “Even the act of looking changes the reality of what’s being observed.”
“So if it can’t be completely tested—” Monk’s words were cut off by another jaw-popping yawn.
Gray patted Monk on the shoulder. “We’ll be in Rome in another hour. Why don’t you catch some sleep in the next room?”
“I’m fine,” he said, stifling another yawn.
“That’s an order.”
Monk stood with a long stretch. “Well, if it’s an order…” He rubbed his eyes and headed out the door.
But he paused in the doorway. “You know,” he said bleary-eyed, “maybe they had it all wrong. Maybe history misinterpreted the words the Magi’s bones. Rather than referring to the skeleton of those guys, maybe it meant the bones were made by the Magi. Like it was their property. The Magi’s bones.”
Everyone stared at him.
Under the combined scrutiny, Monk shrugged and half fell out the door. “Hell, what do I know? I can hardly think straight.” The door closed.
“Your teammate might not be so far off base,” Vigor said as silence settled around the cabin.
Rachel stirred. Gray glanced up. Until the recent exchange, Rachel had been leaning against her uncle and had napped for a short while. Gray had watched her breathing from the corner of his eye. In slumber, all hard edges softened in the woman. She seemed much younger.
She stretched one arm in the air. “What do you mean?”
Vigor worked on Monk’s laptop. Like Kat, he was connected to the DSL line built into the new train’s first-class cabins. They were searching for more information. Kat concentrated on the science behind the white gold, while Vigor searched for more history connecting the Magi to this amalgam.
The monsignor’s eyes remained on his screen. “Somebody forged those fake bones. Somebody with a skill barely reproducible today. But who did it? And why hide them in the heart of a Catholic cathedral?”
“Could it be someone connected to the Dragon Court?” Rachel asked. “Their group traces back to the Middle Ages.”
“Or someone within the Church itself?” Kat said.
“No,” Vigor said firmly. “I think there is a third group involved here. A brotherhood that’s existed before either group.”
“How can you be certain?” Gray asked.
“In 1982, some of the Magi burial cloths were tested. They dated to the second century. Well before the Dragon Court was founded. Before even Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, discovered the bones somewhere in the East.”
“And no one tested the bones?”
Vigor glanced to Gray. “The Church forbade it.”
“It takes a special papal dispensation to allow bones to be tested, especially relics. And the relics of the Magi would require extraordinary dispensation.”
Rachel explained, “The Church doesn’t want its most precious treasures to be ruled fake.”
Vigor frowned at Rachel. “The Church places much weight on faith. The world certainly could use more of it.”
She shrugged, closed her eyes, and settled back down.
“So if not the Church or the Court, who forged the bones?” Gray asked.
“I think your friend Monk was correct. I think an ancient fraternity of mages fabricated them. A group that may predate Christianity, possibly going back to Egyptian times.”
Vigor clicked the mouse on his laptop, bringing up a file. “Listen to this. In 1450 B.C., Pharaoh Tuthmosis III united his best master craftsmen into a thirty-nine-member group called the Great White Brother-hood — named from their study of a mysterious white powder. The powder was described as forged from gold, but shaped into pyramidal cakes, called ‘white bread.’ The cakes are depicted at the temple of Karnak as tiny pyramids, sometimes with rays of light radiating out.”
“What did they do with them?” Gray asked.
“They were prepared only for the pharaohs. To be consumed. Supposedly to increase their powers of perception.”
Kat sat straighter, lowering her feet from the opposite bench.
Gray turned to her. “What is it?”
“I’ve been reading some of the properties of high-spin-state metals. Specifically gold and platinum. Exposure through ingestion can stimulate endocrine systems, creating heightened senses of awareness. Remember the articles on superconductors?”
Gray nodded. High-spin atoms acted as perfect superconductors.
“The U.S. Naval Research Facility has confirmed that communication between brain cells cannot be explained by pure chemical transmission across synapses. Brain cells communicate too quickly. They’ve concluded that some form of superconductivity is involved, but the mechanism is still under study.”
Gray frowned. He had, of course, studied superconductivity in his doctoral program. Leading physicists believed the field would lead to the next major breakthroughs in global technologies, with applications across the board. Also, from his dual degree in biology, he was well familiar with the current theories on thought, memory, and the organic brain. But what did any of this have to do with white gold?
Kat leaned toward her laptop. She tapped up another article. “Here. I did a search for platinum-group metals and their uses. And I found an article about calf and pig brains. A metal analysis of mammalian brains shows that four to five percent of the dry weight is rhodium and iridium.” She nodded to the sample on Gray’s table. “Rhodium and iridium in their monatomic state.”
“And you think these m-state elements might be the source of the brain’s superconductivity? Its communication pathway? That the pharaohs’ consumption of these powders juiced it up?”
Kat shrugged. “Hard to say. The study of superconductivity is still in its infancy.”
“Yet the Egyptians knew about it,” Gray scoffed.
“No,” Vigor countered. “But perhaps they learned some way of tapping into it by trial and error or by accident. However it came about, this interest and experimentation with these white powders of gold appears throughout history, passed from one civilization to the next, growing stronger.”
“How far forward can you trace it?”
“Right back to there.” Vigor pointed to the artifact on Gray’s table.
Gray’s interest piqued. “Really?”
Vigor nodded, up for the challenge. “As I said, we start first in Egypt. This white powder went by many names. The ‘white bread’ I mentioned, but also ‘white nourishment’ and ‘mfkzt.’ But its oldest name can be found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The substance is named hundreds of times along with its amazing properties. It is simply called ‘what is it.’”
Gray remembered the monsignor stumbling on those same words earlier, when they first turned the powder into glass.
“But in Hebrew,” Vigor went on, “‘what is it’ translates to Ma Na.”
“Manna,” Kat said.
Vigor nodded. “The Holy Bread of the Israelites. According to the Old Testament, it fell down from the heavens to feed the starving refugees fleeing Egypt, led by Moses.” The monsignor let that sink in and fiddled with his gathered files. “While in Egypt, Moses showed such wisdom and skill that he was considered a potential successor to the Egyptian throne. Such esteem would entitle him to participate in the deepest level of Egyptian mysticism.”
“Are you saying Moses stole the secret to make this powder? The Egyptian white bread?”
“In the Bible, it went by many names. Manna. Holy Bread. Shrew-bread. Bread of Presence. It was so precious that it was stored in the Arc of the Covenant, alongside the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. All stored in a golden box.”
Gray did not miss the suggestive lift of the monsignor’s eyebrow, emphasizing the parallel to the Magi’s bones being preserved in a golden reliquary. “It seems a stretch,” Gray mumbled. “The name ‘manna’ might just be a coincidence.”
“When was the last time you read the Bible?”
Gray didn’t bother answering.
“There are many things that have perplexed historians and theologians in regards to this mysterious manna. The Bible describes how Moses set fire to the golden calf. But rather than melting into a molten slag, the gold burned down to a powder…which Moses then fed to the Israelites.”
Gray’s brows pinched. Like the pharaoh’s white bread.
“Also, who does Moses ask to make this Holy Bread, this manna from heaven? In the Bible, he doesn’t ask a baker to prepare it. He asks Bezalel.”
Gray waited for an explanation. He was not current on his biblical names.
“Bezalel was the Israelites’ goldsmith. He was the same person who constructed the Arc of the Covenant. Why ask a goldsmith to bake bread unless it was something other than bread?”
Gray frowned. Could it be true?
“There are also texts from the Jewish Kabbalah that speak directly of a white powder of gold, declaring it magical, but a magic that could be used for good or evil.”
“So what became of this knowledge?” Gray asked.
“According to most Jewish sources, it was lost when the Temple of Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century B.C.”
“Where did it go after that?”
“To find hints of it, we skip forward two centuries, to another famous figure in history, who also spent much of his life in Babylon, studying with scientists and mystics.” Vigor paused for emphasis. “Alexander the Great.”
Gray sat straighter. “The Macedonian king?”
“Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., along with a vast part of the world. The man was always interested in esoteric knowledge. Throughout his conquests, he sent Aristotle scientific gifts from around the world. He also collected a series of Heliopolitan scrolls, concerning Old Egypt’s secret knowledge and magic. His successor, Ptolemy I, gathered these into the Library of Alexandria after his death. But one Alexandrian text tells a story about an object called the Paradise Stone. It was said to have mystical properties. When solid, it could surpass its own weight in gold, yet when crushed into a powder, it weighed less than a feather and could float.”
“Levitation,” Kat said, interrupting.
Gray turned to her.
“Such a property of superconducting material is well documented. Superconductors will float in strong magnetic fields. Even these m-state powders demonstrate superconducting levitation. In 1984, laboratory tests in both Arizona and Texas showed that rapid cooling of monatomic powders could raise their tested weight fourfold. Yet if heated again, the weight vanished to less than zero.”
“What do you mean, less than zero?”
“The pan weighed more without the substance on it, as if the pan were levitating.”
“The Paradise Stone rediscovered,” Vigor declared.
Gray began to sense the truth. A secret knowledge passed down through the generations. “Where does the powdery trail lead next?”
“To the time of Christ,” Vigor answered. “In the New Testament, there continue to be hints of a mysterious gold. From Revelations, chapter two: ‘Blessed be the man who will overcome for he shall be given the hidden manna, the white stone of the purest kind.’ Also the Book of Revelations describes the houses of New Jerusalem as being constructed of ‘gold so pure as to appear like transparent glass.’”
Gray remembered Vigor mumbling that verse when the puddle of molten glass had hardened on the cathedral floor back in Cologne.
“Tell me,” Vigor continued, “when does gold ever appear like glass? It makes no sense unless you consider the possibility of m-state gold…this ‘purest of all golds’ described in the Bible.”
Vigor pointed to the table. “Which brings us back to the biblical Magi. To a tale related by Marco Polo out of Persia. It tells the story of the Magi receiving a gift from the Christ child, and this is probably allegorical, but I think it’s important. Christ gave the Magi a dull white stone, a Holy Stone. The story goes that it represented a call to the Magi to remain firm in their faith. During their journey home, the stone burst forth with fire that could not be extinguished, an eternal flame, which often symbolizes higher enlightenment.”
Vigor must have noted Gray’s confusion. He continued, “In Mesopotamia, where this story arises, the term ‘high fire-stone’ is called shemanna. Or shortened to just ‘fire-stone’…manna.”
Vigor leaned back and crossed his arms.
Gray slowly nodded. “So we’ve come full circle. Back to the manna and the biblical Magi.”
“Back to the age when the bones were crafted,” Vigor said with a nod to the table.
“And does it stop there?” Gray asked.
Vigor shook his head. “I need to do more research, but I think it continues beyond this point. I think what I’ve just described is not isolated rediscoveries of this powder, but an unbroken chain of research conducted by a secret alchemical society that has been purifying this process throughout the ages. I think the mainstream scientific community is only now beginning to discover it anew.”
Gray turned to Kat, their scientific web crawler.
“The monsignor is right. There are incredible discoveries being made about these m-state superconductors. From levitation to the possibility of trans-dimensional shifting. But more-practical applications are being explored right now. Cis-platinum and carbono-platinum are already being used to treat testicular and ovarian cancers. I expect Monk, with his forensic training, could go into more detail. But there are even more intriguing discoveries just in the past few years.”
Gray motioned her to continue.
“Bristol-Meyers Squibb has reported success with monatomic ruthenium to correct cancer cells. Same with platinum and iridium, according to Platinum Metals Review. These atoms actually make the DNA strand correct itself, rebuilding without drugs or radiation. Iridium has been shown to stimulate the pineal gland and appears to fire up ‘junk DNA,’ leading to the possibility of increased longevity and reopening aging pathways in the brain.”
Kat leaned forward. “Here’s one from August 2004. Purdue University reports success in using rhodium to kill viruses with light from inside a body. Even West Nile virus.”
“Light?” Vigor asked, his eyes narrowing.
Gray glanced to him, noting the monsignor’s intensified interest.
Kat nodded. “There are a slew of articles about these m-state atoms and light. From turning DNA into superconducting strands…to light-wave communication between cells…to tapping into zero field energies.”
Rachel finally spoke up. She still kept her eyes closed. She’d been listening all along, eavesdropping. “It makes one wonder.”
“What?” Gray turned to her.
She slowly opened her eyes. They were bright and alert. “Here scientists are now talking about heightening awareness, levitation, transmutation, miraculous healing, anti-aging. It sounds like a list of miracles from biblical times. It makes me wonder why so many miracles happened back then, but not now. In the past few centuries, we’re lucky to see an image of the Virgin Mary on a tortilla. Yet now, science is rediscovering these larger miracles. And much of it traces back to a white powder, a substance known better back then than today. Could such secret knowledge have been the source for the epidemic of miracles back in biblical times?”
Gray pondered this, meeting her gaze. “And if these ancient magi knew more than we know now,” he extrapolated, “what has this lost fraternity of wise men done with this knowledge, to what level have they refined it?”
Rachel continued the thread. “Maybe that’s what the Dragon Court is after! Maybe they found some clue, something tied to the bones that could lead them to whatever this purified end product might be. Some final plateau reached by the mages.”
“And along the way, the Court learned that murderous trick back in Cologne, a way to use the powder to kill.” He remembered the monsignor’s words about the Jewish Kabbalah, that the white powder could be used for good or ill.
Rachel’s face sobered. “If they should attain even greater power, gaining access to the inner sanctum of these ancient wise men, they could change the world, remake it in their own sick image.”
Gray stared around at the others. Kat wore a calculating expression. Vigor seemed lost in his own thoughts, but the monsignor noted the sudden silence.
His eyes focused back on them.
Gray faced him. “What do you think?”
“I think we have to stop them. But to do that, we’re going to have to search for clues to these ancient alchemists. That means following in the footsteps of the Dragon Court.”
Gray shook his head. He recalled his concern that they were proceeding too cautiously, too timidly. “I’m done following the bastards. We need to pass them. Let them eat our dust for a change.”
“But where do we begin?” Rachel asked.
Before anyone could answer, a programmed announcement came over the train’s intercom.
“Roma…Stazione Termini…quindici minuti!”
Gray checked his watch. Fifteen minutes.
Rachel was staring at him.
“Benvenuto a Roma,” she said as he looked up. “Lasci i giochi cominciare!”
Gray translated, a ghost of a smile forming. It was as if she read his mind. Welcome to Rome…. Let the games begin!
SEICHAN SLIPPED on a pair of black and silver Versace sunglasses.
When in Rome…
She stepped out onto Piazza Pia from the express bus. She wore a breezy white summer dress and nothing else except for a pair of stiletto-heeled Harley-Davidson boots with silver buckles, a match to her necklace.
The bus pulled away. Behind her, cars jammed the road, a honking, belching line of traffic, headed down Via della Conciliazone. The heat and reek of petrol struck her simultaneously. She faced to the west. Down the street, St. Peter’s Basilica rose, silhouetted against the setting sun. The dome shone like gold, a masterpiece of design by Michelangelo.
Unimpressed, Seichan turned her back on Vatican City.
It was not her goal.
Before her stood a structure that rivaled the great St. Peter’s. The massive drum-shaped building filled the skyline, a fortress overlooking the Tiber River. Castel Sant’Angelo. Atop its roof, a mammoth bronze statue of the Archangel Michael bore aloft an unsheathed sword. The sculpture blazed in the sun. The stone structure beneath was blackened soot, stained in rivulets, like a flow of black tears.
How fitting, Seichan thought.
The place had been built in the second century as a mausoleum to Emperor Hadrian, but shortly thereafter, it had been taken over by the papacy. Still, the castle had developed an illustrious and ignoble history. Under Vatican rule, it had served as a fortress, a prison, a library, even as a brothel. It had also been a secret rendezvous spot for some of the more notorious popes, who kept concubines and mistresses within its walls, often imprisoned there.
Seichan found it amusing to make her own rendezvous here. She crossed the gardens to the entrance and passed through the twenty-foot-thick walls to enter the first floor. It was dark and cool inside. This late in the day, tourists were dribbling out. She headed in, climbing up the wide curved Roman steps.
Off the main staircase, the castle spread out in a warren of rooms and halls. Many visitors got lost.
But Seichan was only going up to the middle level, to a terrace restaurant that overlooked the Tiber. She was to meet her contact there. After the firebombing, it was deemed too risky to meet in the Vatican itself. So her contact was going to cross down the Passetto del Borgo, a covered passageway atop an old aqueduct that connected the Apostolic Palace to the castle fortress here. The secret passage had been originally constructed in the thirteenth century as an emergency escape route for the pope, but over the centuries, it was more often used for amorous trysts.
Though today, there was nothing romantic about this meeting.
Seichan followed the signs to the terrace café. She checked her watch. She was ten minutes early. Just as well. She had a call to make.
She slipped out her cell phone, pressed the scramble feature, and tapped in the speed-dial code. A private, unlisted number. She leaned on a hip, phone to her ear, and waited for the international connection to be made.
The line buzzed, clicked, and a firm, no-nonsense voice answered.
“Good afternoon. You’ve reached Sigma command.”
JULY 25, 6:23 P.M.
"I NEED pen and paper,” Gray said, his satellite phone in hand.
The group waited at a sidewalk trattoria across from Rome’s central train station. Upon arriving, Rachel had called for a pair of Carabinieri vehicles to collect and escort the team to Vatican City. While they waited, Gray had decided it was time to break his silence with central command. He’d been passed immediately to Director Crowe.
After a short debriefing of events in Cologne and Milan, the director had his own surprising bit of news.
“Why would she call you?” Gray asked the director as Monk fished in his pack for pad and pen.
Painter answered, “Seichan is playing our two groups off one another to further her own end. She is not even trying to hide it. The intel she passed to us was stolen from the Dragon Court’s field operative, a man named Raoul.”
Gray scowled, remembering the man’s handiwork back in Milan.
“I don’t think she can decipher the intel on her own,” Painter continued. “So she passed it to us — both to solve it for her and to keep you on the tail of the Court. She’s no fool. Her skill at manipulation must be masterful to be picked by the Guild to oversee this assignment…plus you two have a past. Despite her help in Cologne and Milan, don’t trust her. She will eventually turn on you and attempt to even the score.”
Gray felt the weight of the metal coin in his pocket. He didn’t need the warning. The woman was ice and steel.
“Okay,” Gray said as he had pen and paper in hand, holding the phone with his shoulder. “I’m ready.”
As Painter passed on the message, Gray wrote it down.
“And it’s broken into stanzas, like a poem?” Gray asked.
“Exactly.” The director continued reciting as Gray jotted each line.
Once finished, Painter said, “I have codebreakers working on it here and at the NSA.”
Gray frowned at the pad. “I’ll see what I can make of it. Perhaps using some of the resources at the Vatican, we can make some headway here.”
“In the meantime, keep on your toes,” Painter warned. “This Seichan character may be more dangerous than the entire Court.”
Gray didn’t argue with this last statement. With a few final clarifications, he signed off and stored the phone away. The others looked on expectantly.
“What was that all about?” Monk asked.
“The Dragon Lady called Sigma. She passed on a mystery for us to solve. It seems she has no idea what the Court is going to do next, and while they prepare, she wants us to be nipping at their heels. So she leaked some archaic passage, something discovered two months ago by the Dragon Court in Egypt. Whatever its content, she says it initiated the current operation.”
Vigor stood up from one of the trattoria’s outdoor tables. With a tiny espresso cup balanced in one hand, he leaned over to read the passage along with the others.
When the full moon mates with the sun,
It is born eldest.
What is it?
Where it drowns,
It floats in darkness and stares to the lost king.
What is it?
The Twin waits for water,
But will be burned to bone by bone upon the altar.
What is it?
“Oh, that helps,” Monk grumbled.
Kat shook her head. “What does any of this have to do with the Dragon Court, high-spin metals, and some lost society of alchemists?”
Rachel glanced along the street. “The scholars at the Vatican may be able to help. Cardinal Spera has promised his full support.”
Gray noted Vigor had only glanced once at the sheet of paper, then turned away. He sipped his espresso.
Gray had had enough of the man’s silences. He was done with polite respect of each other’s boundaries. If Vigor wanted to be on this team, it was high time he acted like it.
“You know something,” Gray accused.
The others turned to them.
“So should you,” Vigor answered.
“What do you mean?”
“I already described this back on the train.” Vigor turned and tapped a finger on the pad. “The cadence of this passage should be familiar. I described a book with a similar pattern of text. The repetition of the phrase ‘what is it.’”
Kat remembered first. “From the Egyptian Book of the Dead.”
“The Papyrus of Ani, to be exact,” Vigor continued. “It is broken into lines of cryptic description followed by the one line repeated over and over again: ‘what is it.’”
“Or in Hebrew, manna,” Gray said, remembering.
Monk rubbed a hand over the stubble poking from his shaved scalp. “But if this passage is from some well-known Egyptian book, why would it light a fire under the Court now?”
“The passages aren’t from the Book of the Dead,” Vigor answered. “I’m familiar enough with the Papyrus of Ani to know these passages are not found among the others.”
“Then where did they come from?” Rachel asked.
Vigor turned to Gray. “You said the Dragon Court discovered this in Egypt…only months ago.”
Vigor turned to Rachel. “I’m sure as a part of the Carabinieri TPC that you were informed of the recent chaos at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The museum sent out an alert through Interpol.”
Rachel nodded and explained to the others. “Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities began a painstaking process in 2004 of emptying the basement to the Egyptian Museum, prior to renovation. But upon opening the basement, they discovered over a hundred thousand pharaonic and other artifacts among its maze of corridors, an archaeological dumping ground that was all but forgotten.”
“They estimate it will take five years to catalogue it all,” Vigor said. “But as a professor of archaeology, I’ve heard tidbits of discoveries. There was an entire room of crumbling parchments that scholars suspect may have come from the lost Library of Alexandria, a major bastion of Gnostic study.”
Gray recalled Vigor’s discussion about Gnosticism and the pursuit of secret knowledge. “Such a discovery would surely attract the Dragon Court.”
“Like moths to flame,” Rachel said.
Vigor continued, “One of the items catalogued came from a collection of Abd el-Latif, an esteemed fifteenth-century Egyptian physician and explorer who lived in Cairo. In his collection, preserved in a bronze chest, was a fourteenth-century illuminated copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a complete rendering of the Papyrus of Ani.” Vigor stared hard at Gray. “It was stolen four months ago.”
Gray felt his pulse quicken. “By the Dragon Court.”
“Or someone in their employ. They have fingers everywhere.”
“But if the book is just a bootleg of the original,” Monk said, “what’s the significance?”
“The Papyrus of Ani has hundreds of stanzas. I wager someone forged this copy and hid these specific stanzas”—Vigor tapped Gray’s pad—“among the more ancient ones.”
“Our lost alchemists,” Kat said.
“Hiding needles in a haystack,” Monk said.
Gray nodded. “Until some scholar in the Dragon Court was wise enough to pick them out, decipher the clues, and act on it. But where does that leave us?”
Vigor turned to the street. “You mentioned on the train a desire to catch up and pass the Dragon Court. Now is our chance.”
“We decipher the riddle.”
“But that could take days.”
Vigor glanced over his shoulder. “Not if I’ve already solved it.”
He waved for the pad of paper and flipped to a new blank page. “Let me show you.”
Then he did the oddest thing. He wet his finger in his espresso and dampened the bottom of his tiny cup. He pressed the cup upon the paper, leaving a perfect ring of coffee stain on the blank page. He repeated it again, applying a second ring, this one overlapping the first, forming roughly a snowman shape.
“The full moon mating with the sun.”
“What does this prove?” Gray asked.
“Vesica Pisces,” Rachel said, her face dawning with understanding.
Vigor grinned at her. “Did I ever tell you how proud I am of my niece?”
RACHEL DIDN’T like abandoning their Carabinieri escort, but she understood Uncle Vigor’s excitement. Her uncle had insisted they take alternate transportation to investigate the new lead.
So she had called in to the station and recalled the patrol cars. She had left a cryptic message with General Rende that they all had an errand to run. This last was upon Gray’s suggestion. He thought it best not to broadcast their destination. Not until they could investigate further.
The fewer people who knew of their discovery, the better.
So they sought alternate transportation.
Rachel followed Gray’s broad back down to the rear of the public bus. Kat and Monk held a row of seats open. The air conditioning clanked, and the engine rattled the floorboards as the bus left the curb and shouldered into traffic.
Rachel climbed into a seat with Gray. Their row of seats faced Monk, Kat, and Uncle Vigor. Kat looked especially stern. She had argued for proceeding to the Vatican and securing an escort first. Gray had overruled her. She looked unsettled by this decision.
Rachel eyed Gray beside her. Some new resolve seemed to have hardened in him. It reminded her of his attitude atop the fiery spire in Cologne, a certainty of manner. His eyes shone with a determination that had disappeared after the first attack. It was back now…and it scared her slightly, made her heart beat faster.
The bus rumbled into traffic.
“Okay,” Gray said, “I’ve taken you at your word that this side excursion is necessary. Now how about a bit of elaboration?”
Uncle Vigor raised a palm, conceding. “If I had gone into detail, we would’ve missed our bus.”
He opened the pad again. “This shape of overlapping circles can be seen throughout Christendom. In churches, cathedrals, and basilicas around the world. From this one shape, all of geometry flows. For example.” He turned the picture horizontal and shaded the lower half with the edge of his palm. He then pointed to the intersection of the two circles. “Here you can see the geometric shape of the pointed arch. Almost all Gothic windows and archways bear this shape.”
Rachel had been given the same lecture as a child. One couldn’t be related to a Vatican archaeologist without knowing the importance of those two joined circles.
“It still looks like a couple of doughnuts smashed together to me,” Monk said.
Vigor righted the picture back around.
“Or like a full moon mating with the sun,” her uncle said, bringing up the stanza from the cryptic text. “The more I consider those lines, the more layers I keep coming across, like peeling an onion.”
“What do you mean?” Gray asked.
“They buried this clue within the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The very first book to refer to manna. Later Egyptian texts begin to refer to it as ‘white bread’ and such. It’s as if to find whatever the alchemists hid, you had to start at the beginning. Yet the very answer to this first clue also traces back to the first era of Christianity. Multiple beginnings. Even the answer itself implies multiplication. The one becoming many.”
Rachel understood what her uncle meant. “The multiplication of the fishes.”
“Is anyone going to explain it to us novices?” Monk asked.
“This conjoining of circles is called Vesica Pisces, or Vessel of the Fishes.” Vigor leaned down and shaded the intersection to reveal the fishlike shape rested between the two circles.
Gray peered closer. “It’s the fish symbol that represents Christianity.”
“It is the first symbol,” Vigor said. “‘When the full moon mates with the sun, it is born.’” Her uncle tapped the fish. “Some scholars believe the fish symbol was used because the Greek for fish, ICHTHYS, was an acronym for Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, or Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. But the truth lies here, between these circles, locked in sacred geometry. You’ll often find these locked circles in early paintings with the Christ child resting in the center junction. If you turn the form over on its side, the fish becomes a representation of female genitalia and a woman’s womb, where the baby Jesus is painted.
“It is for this reason that the fish represents fertility. To be fruitful and multiply.” Vigor glanced around the group. “As I said, there are layers upon layers of meaning here.”
Gray leaned back. “But how does this lead us anywhere?”
Rachel was curious, too. “There are fish symbols all over Rome.”
Vigor nodded. “But the second line that reads, ‘It is born eldest.’ Plainly it’s directing us to the oldest representation of the fish symbol. That would be found in the Crypt of Lucina in the Catacombs of Saint Callistus.”
“That’s where we’re heading?” Monk asked.
Rachel noted Gray was not satisfied. “What if you’re wrong?” he asked.
“I’m not. The other stanzas in the text hint at it, too…once you solve the Vesica Pisces riddle. Look at the next line. ‘Where it drowns, it floats in darkness.’ A fish can’t drown, not in water, but it can in earth. And the mention of darkness. It all points to a crypt.”
“But there are many crypts and catacombs throughout Rome.”
“But not many with two fishes, twins to each other,” Vigor said.
Gray’s eyes brightened with understanding. “Another clue, from the last stanza. ‘The Twin waits for water.’”
Vigor nodded. “All three stanzas point to one place. The Catacombs of Saint Callistus.”
Monk settled back to his seat. “At least it’s not a church this time. I’m tired of getting shot at.”
VIGOR SENSED they were on the right track.
He guided the others through Porta San Sebastiano, one of the city wall’s most striking gates. It also served as the gateway to the parklands that surrounded the Appian Way, a preserved section of the famous ancient Roman road. Immediately past the gates, however, stood a series of dilapidated mechanics’ workshops.
Vigor dismissed the ugliness of these junkyards by directing attention ahead. At a fork in the road rose a small church. “The Chapel of Domine Quo Vadis,” he said.
His only real audience was Kat Bryant. She strode alongside him. Kat and Gray seemed to have had a falling-out. The others followed behind. It was good to have this moment with Kat. It had been three years since they had shared a role in cataloguing evidence against a Nazi war criminal, living in rural New York. The target had been trading in stolen artwork in Brussels. It was a long, convoluted investigation, requiring subterfuge on both their parts. Vigor had been most impressed with the young woman’s ability to slide into any role as easily as changing shoes.
He also knew the pain she had experienced recently. Though she was a good actress, hiding her feelings well, Vigor had spent enough time serving his flock as priest, confessor, and counselor to recognize someone still grieving. Kat had lost someone close to her heart and had not healed yet.
He pointed to the stone church, knowing there was a message for Kat within those walls. “The chapel here was built at the site where Saint Peter, fleeing the persecution of Nero, beheld a vision of Jesus. Christ was heading into Rome, while Peter was running out. He asked those famous words, Domine, quo vadis. ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Christ replied he was heading back into Rome to be crucified again. Peter then turned back to face his own execution.”
“Ghost stories,” Kat said without malice. “He should’ve run.”
“Ever the pragmatist, Kat. But you of all people should know that sometimes one’s own life is less important than the cause. We all have a terminal disease. We can’t escape death. But as the good works in our life celebrate our time here, so too can our deaths. To lay one’s life down in sacrifice should be honored and remembered.”
Kat glanced to him. She was sharp enough to understand the tack of the conversation.
“Sacrifice is a final gift we mortals can give in life. We should not squander such a generous gift with misery, but with respectful appreciation, even joy for a life fully lived to its end.”
Kat took a deep breath. They crossed before the small chapel. Her eyes studied it — though Vigor suspected she looked just as intently inward.
“There can be lessons even in ghost stories,” Vigor finished, and guided the group down the fork to the left.
Here the road turned to cobbles of volcanic stone. Though the stones were not original to the Roman road that once led out from the gates of the city all the way to Greece, it was a romantic approximation. Slowly the way opened around them. Green swards of hillsides opened in parklands, dotted with occasional sheep and shaded by umbrella pines. Crumbling lines of walls crisscrossed the landscape, along with the occasional tomb.
At this hour, with most of the attractions closed and the sun near to setting, they had the Appian Way to themselves. An occasional stroller or bicyclist nodded to him, noting his collar. “Padre,” they would mumble and continue past, glancing back at the road-weary group of backpackers he led.
Vigor also noted a few scantily clad women lounging at roadside spots, along with some seemlier-looking figures. After dark, the Appian Way became a roost to prostitutes and their ilk, and often proved dangerous to the average tourist. Brigands and robbers still prowled the ancient road, as they had the original Appian Way.
“It’s not much farther,” Vigor promised.
He headed through an area of vineyards, green vines tied to wood and wire, that traversed the gently sloping hills. Ahead appeared the courtyard entrance to their destination: the Catacombs of Saint Callistus.
“Commander,” Kat asked, dropping back, “shouldn’t we at least scout the area first?”
“Just keep your eyes open,” he answered. “No more delays.”
Vigor noted the firmness in the man’s voice. The commander listened, but he seemed less willing to bend. Vigor was unsure if this was good or bad.
Gray waved for them to proceed.
The subterranean cemetery had closed at five o’clock, but Vigor had called the caretaker and arranged this special “tour.” A petite snowymaned gentleman in gray coveralls stepped out of a sheltered doorway. He hobbled over, using a wooden shepherd’s crook as a cane. Vigor knew him well. His family had been sheepherders of the surrounding campagna going back generations. He held a pipe firmly between his teeth.
“Monsignor Verona,” he said. “Come va?”
“Bene grazie. E lei, Giuseppe?”
“I’m fine, Padre. Grazie.” He waved toward the small cottage that served as his homestead while watching over the catacombs. “I have a bottle of grappa. I know how you like a bit of the grape. From these hills.”
“Another time, Giuseppe. The day grows late and we must be about our business with much haste, I’m afraid.”
The man eyed the others as if they were to blame for the rush, then his eyes caught on Rachel. “It cannot be! Piccola Rachel…but she is not so little anymore.”
Rachel smiled, clearly delighted to be remembered. She hadn’t visited here with Vigor since she was nine years old. Rachel quickly hugged him, kissing him on the cheek. “Ciao, Giuseppe.”
“We must raise a cup to piccola Rachel, no?”
“Perhaps when we finish our business below,” Vigor pressed, knowing the man, lonely here in his cottage, only wanted a bit of company.
“Si…bene…” He waved his crook toward the doorway. “It is open. I will lock after you. Knock when you come up and I will hear.”
Vigor led them to the gateway to the catacombs. He pulled open the door. He waved the others through the threshold, noting that Giuseppe had left the string of electric lights lit. The staircase descended ahead of them.
As Monk stepped through with Rachel, he glanced back to the caretaker. “You should introduce that guy to your grandmother. They’d hit it off, I bet.”
Rachel grinned and followed the stocky man inside.
Vigor closed the door behind him and took the lead again, heading down the stairs. “This catacomb is one of Rome’s oldest. It was once a private Christian cemetery, but it spread out when some of the popes chose to be buried at this site. It now covers ninety acres and descends in four levels.”
Behind him, Vigor heard the door lock snap closed. The air grew danker as they descended, rich with the smell of loam and seeping rain-water. At the foot of the stairs, they reached a vestibule with loculi cut into the walls, horizontal niches for bodies to be laid to rest. Graffiti etched the walls, but it was not the work of modern vandals. Some of the inscriptions dated back from the fifteenth century: prayers, laments, testimonials.
“How far in do we have to go?” Gray asked, stepping next to Vigor. There was barely room for two to walk side by side as the way narrowed from here. The commander eyed the low ceilings.
In here, even those who didn’t suffer from claustrophobia found these crumbling subterranean necropolises unnerving. Especially now. Deserted and empty.
“The Crypt of Lucina lies much deeper. It’s located in the most ancient area of the catacomb.”
Galleries branched off from here, but Vigor knew the way and headed to the right. “Stay close,” he warned. “It’s easy to get lost in here.”
The way narrowed even more.
Gray turned. “Monk, keep a watch on our rear. Ten paces. Stay in sight.”
“Got it covered.” Monk freed his shotgun.
Ahead, a chamber opened. Its walls were pocked with larger loculi and elaborate arcsololia, arched gravesites.
“The Papal Crypt,” Vigor announced. “It is here sixteen popes were laid to rest, from Eutychianus to Zephyrinus.”
“From E to Z,” Gray mumbled.
“The bodies were removed,” Vigor said, delving deeper, passing through the Crypt of Cecelia. “From about the fifth century, the outskirts of Rome were plundered by a series of forces. Goths, Vandals, Lombards. Many of the most important personages buried here were moved into churches and chapels inside the city. In fact, the catacombs were so emptied out and abandoned that by the twelfth century they were completely forgotten, and were not rediscovered until the sixteenth century.”
Gray coughed. “It seems that timeline keeps crossing itself.”
Vigor glanced back.
“Twelfth century,” Gray explained. “That was also when the bones of the Magi were moved out of Italy into Germany. It’s also when you mentioned there was a resurgence in Gnostic belief, creating a schism between emperors and the papacy.”
Vigor slowly nodded, contemplating this angle. “It was a tumultuous time, with the papacy run out of Rome by the end of the thirteenth century. The alchemists may have sought to protect what they had learned, driven into deeper hiding as they were leaving behind clues in case of their demise, breadcrumbs for other Gnostic believers to follow.”
“Like this sect of the Dragon Court.”
“I don’t think they imagined such a perverse group to be enlightened enough to seek such higher truths. An unfortunate miscalculation. Either way, I think you’re right. You may have pegged the date when these clues were placed. I’d say sometime in the thirteenth century, during the height of the conflict. Few at that time knew about the catacombs. What better place to hide the clues to a secret society?”
Pondering this, Vigor piloted them through a successive series of galleries, crypts, and cubicula. “It’s not far. Just past the Sacramental Chapels.” He waved an arm to a gallery of six chambers. Peeling and faded frescoes displayed intricate biblical scenes interspersed with depictions of baptism and the celebration of Eucharistic meals. They were treasures of early Christian art.
After hiking through a few more galleries, their goal appeared ahead. A modest crypt. The ceiling was painted with a typical early Christian motif: the Good Shepherd, Christ with a lamb carried on his shoulders.
Turning from the ceiling, Vigor instead pointed to two neighboring walls. “Here is what we came to find.”
GRAY APPROACHED the nearest wall. A fresco of a fish had been painted against a green background. Above it, almost appearing to be carried on the back of the fish, was a basket of bread. He turned to the second wall. This fresco seemed a mirror image of the first, except the basket also bore a bottle of wine.
“It’s all symbolic of the first Eucharistic meal,” Vigor said. “Fish, bread, and wine. It also represents the miracle of the fishes, when Christ multiplied a single basket of fish and bread to feed the multitude of followers who had come to hear his sermon.”
“Again the multiplication symbolism,” Kat said. “Like the geometry of the Vesica Pisces.”
“But where do we go from here?” Monk asked. He stood with his shotgun on his shoulder, facing back into the crypt.
“Follow the riddle,” Gray answered. “The second stanza reads, ‘Where it drowns, it floats in darkness and stares to the lost king.’ We found where it floats in darkness, so we follow where it stares.” He pointed in the direction the first fish was facing.
It led further into the galleries.
Gray strode in that direction, searching around him. It did not take long to find a clear depiction of kings. Gray stopped before a fresco illustrating the adoration of the Magi. It was faded, but the details were plain enough. The Virgin Mary sat on a throne with the Christ child on her lap. Bowed before her were three robed figures, offering gifts.
“The Three Kings,” Kat said. “The Magi again.”
“We keep running into these guys,” Monk replied from a few paces down the passage.
Rachel frowned at the wall. “But what does it mean? Why lead us here? What did the Dragon Court learn?”
Gray let all the events of the past day trickle through his head. He didn’t fight for order, but simply let his mind roam. Connections formed, dissolved, reconfigured. Slowly he began to understand.
“The real question is, why did these ancient alchemists lead us here?” Gray said. “To this particular depiction of the Magi. As Monk mentioned, you can’t turn a corner in Italy without running into these kings. So why this fresco in particular?”
No one had an answer.
Rachel offered a possible avenue to pursue. “The Dragon Court went after the Magi bones. Maybe we need to look at it from that perspective.”
Gray nodded. He should’ve thought of that. They didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Dragon Court had already solved the riddle. All they had to do was backtrack. Gray considered this and found one possible answer.
“Maybe the fish is staring toward these particular kings because they are buried. In a graveyard. Under the earth, where a fish would drown. The answer to the clue is not living Magi, but dead and buried ones, in a crypt once filled with bones.”
Vigor made a small sound of surprise.
“So the Dragon Court went after the bones,” Rachel said.
“I think the Dragon Court already knew the bones were not bones,” Gray said. “They’ve had their nose to this trail for centuries. They must’ve known. Look what happened at the cathedral. They used the powder of white gold in some way to kill. They’re well ahead of the game.”
“And they want more power,” Rachel said. “The final solution of the Magi.”
Vigor’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “And if you’re right, Commander — about the significance of the Magi bones being taken out of Italy to Germany — maybe the transfer was not plunder as history attests, but was done by arrangement. To safeguard the amalgam.”
Gray nodded. “And the Dragon Court let them remain in Cologne…safely in sight. Knowing they were significant, but not knowing what to do with them.”
“Until now,” Monk said from a few paces away.
“But in the end,” Gray continued, “what do all these clues ultimately point to? Right now only to relics in a church. It doesn’t tell what to do with them, what they’re used for.”
“We’re forgetting,” Kat said. She had remained silent this entire time, focused on the fresco. “The stanza from the passage states the fish ‘stares to the lost king.’ Not ‘kings,’ plural. There are three kings here. I think we’re missing another layer of meaning or symbolism.” She turned to the others. “What ‘lost king’ is the clue hinting about?”
Gray struggled for an answer. There were riddles upon riddles.
Vigor had dropped his chin into his hand, concentrating. “There is a fresco in a neighboring catacomb. The Catacomb of Domatilla. The fresco is painted with not three Magi, but four. Because the Bible was never specific on the number of Magi, early Christian artists varied the number. The lost king could mean another Magi, the one missing here.”
“A fourth Magi?” Gray asked.
“A figure representative of the lost knowledge of the alchemists.” Vigor nodded, raising his head. “The second stanza’s message hints that the Magi bones can be used to find this fourth Magi. Whoever he may be.”
Rachel shook her head, drawing both Gray and Vigor’s attention. “Don’t forget this clue is buried in a crypt. I bet it’s not the fourth Magi that we’re supposed to find, but his tomb. One set of bones used to find another. Possibly another cache of amalgam.”
“Or something even greater. That would certainly excite the Dragon Court.”
“But how can the Magi bones help find this lost tomb?” Monk asked.
Gray headed back to the Crypt of Lucina. “The answer has to be in the thirds tanza.”
PAINTER CROWE woke to a knock on his door. He had fallen asleep in his chair, tilted back. Damn ergonomics…
He cleared the sleep from his throat. “Come in.”
Logan Gregory entered. His hair was wet and he wore a fresh shirt and jacket. It looked like he’d just come in for the day, rather than being here 24/7.
Logan must have noted his attention and ran a hand down his starched shirt. “I went down to the gym for a run. I keep a second set of clothes in my locker.”
Painter had no reply, flabbergasted. Youth. He didn’t think he could climb out of his chair, let alone run a few miles. But then again, Logan was only five years his junior. Painter knew it was stress more than age that weighed him down.
“Sir,” Logan continued, “I received word from General Rende, our liaison with the Carabinieri Corps in Rome. Commander Pierce and the others have gone to ground again.”
Painter leaned forward. “Another attack? They were supposed to be at the Vatican by now.”
“No, sir. After your call to them, they waved off the Carabinieri escort and took off on their own. General Rende wanted to know what was relayed to them. His field operative, Lieutenant Rachel Verona, informed him that you passed on some bit of intel. General Rende was not happy to be kept out of the loop.”
“And what did you tell him?”
Logan raised both eyebrows. “Nothing, sir. That is official Sigma policy, is it not? We know nothing.”
Painter smiled. It sometimes felt that way.
“What about Commander Pierce, sir? What do you want to do next? Should we post an alert?”
Painter remembered Sean McKnight’s earlier admonishment. Trust your agents. “We’ll wait for his next call. There’s no evidence of foul play. We’ll give him room to run his own game.”
Logan did not seem satisfied with this answer. “What do you want me to do then?”
“I suggest, Logan, that you get some rest. I imagine that when Commander Pierce gets going, we’re going to get very little sleep over here.”
“Yes, sir.” He headed for the door.
Painter leaned back in his chair and covered his eyes with his arm. Damn, but this chair was comfortable. He drifted away, but something troubled him, keeping him from sleep. Something nagged. Something Gray had said. Not trusting Sigma. A leak.
Could it be?
There was only one person besides himself with full intel on this operation up until now. Not even Sean McKnight knew everything. He slowly tilted forward, eyes open.
It couldn’t be.
BACK AT the Crypt of Lucina, Gray stood by the second fresco with the fish. They needed to solve this third riddle.
Monk asked a good question. “Why didn’t the Dragon Court just fire-bomb the hell out of these catacombs? Why leave them for others to find?”
Rachel stood next to him. “With the forged copy of the Book of the Dead still in the Court’s possession, what would they have to fear? If Seichan hadn’t stolen the riddle map, nobody would know to look here.”
Kat added, “Maybe the Court wasn’t so sure of their interpretation. Maybe they wanted this story in stone to be kept intact until they were certain they had the correct translation.”
Gray weighed this, sensing a greater press of time. He turned back to the fresco. “Then let’s see what they found. The third stanza has the fish waiting for water. Like the first fish, I think we’re supposed to follow where it’s facing.”
Gray motioned to a different gallery branching off from the crypt. The second fish pointed that way.
But Vigor continued his study of the two fishes, looking at one and then the other, mirror images. “Twins,” he mumbled.
Vigor waved a hand between the two fish. “Whoever devised this game of riddles loved to layer it with symbolism. Choosing these two fish. Nearly identical in appearance. Referring to the second fish as ‘twin’ cannot be insignificant.”
“I don’t see the connection,” Gray said.
“You just don’t know your Greek, Commander.”
Monk, surprisingly enough, chimed in, proving his Greek heritage extended beyond a fondness for ouzo and bad dancing. “‘Twin’ translates to didymus.”
“Very good,” Vigor said. “And in Hebrew, ‘twin’ translates to Thomas. As in Didymus Thomas. One of the twelve apostles.”
Gray remembered the discussion at Lake Como with the monsignor. “Thomas was the apostle in conflict with John.”
“And the one who baptized the Magi,” Vigor reminded them. “Thomas represented Gnostic belief. I think using the word twin here is a tribute back to the Gospel of Thomas. By acknowledging Thomas, I wonder if these alchemists might not have been Thomas Christians themselves…churchgoers who followed Rome but still continued their Gnostic practices in secret. There were always whispers of such a church within the Church. A Thomas Church hiding within and alongside the canonical Church. This may be the proof.”
Gray heard the growing excitement in the other’s voice.
“Perhaps this society of alchemists, which traced its roots to Moses and Egypt, merged with the Catholic Church. Continued forward in history wearing the cross and bending a knee to the Church, finding common ground with those who held sacred the secret Gospel of Thomas.”
“Hiding in plain sight,” Monk said.
Gray followed this line of logic. It might be worth pursuing, but for now, they had another riddle to solve. He pointed down the gallery. “Whoever left these clues, they left us a third challenge.”
The Twin waits for water…
Gray led the way down the new gallery. He searched for some fresco with water in it. He passed various biblical scenes, but none depicting water. There was a painting of a family gathered around a table, but it looked like wine was being served. Next there was a fresco with four male figures lifting their arms to heaven. None of them held a flask of water.
Vigor called behind him. He turned.
The others were gathered by one niche. He went back to them. He had searched that one already. It showed a man in a robe striking a stone with a stick. Not a drop of water.
“This is an illustration of Moses in the desert,” Vigor said.
Gray waited for elaboration.
“According to the Bible, he struck a rock in the desert and a fresh spring burst forth to quench the thirst of the fleeing Israelites.”
“Like our old fish back there,” Monk said.
“This must be the fresco indicated by the stanza,” Vigor said. “Remember, Moses knew about manna and these miraculous white powders. It would be appropriate to acknowledge him.”
“So what clue does this crumbling painting hold?” Gray asked.
“‘The Twin waits for water, but will be burned to bone by bone upon the altar,’” Vigor quoted. “‘Burned to bone by bone.’ Think backward. Like Rachel recommended before. What did the Dragon Court do, in Cologne? The parishioners were burned somehow, a massive electrical storm in the brain. And it involved white gold. And possibly the amalgam in the Magi bones.”
“Is that the message?” Rachel asked, looking uneasy. “To kill? To curse an altar site, like in Cologne, with blood and murder?”
“No,” Gray answered. “The Dragon Court ignited the bones and seemingly learned nothing, since they continued on the same trail afterward. Maybe Cologne was just a test or a trial run. Maybe the Dragon Court was not sure of their interpretation of the riddle, like your uncle suggested. Either way, they were plainly aware of some of the white powder’s capabilities. With their device, they proved they can activate and crudely manipulate the energy in these high-spin superconductors. They used it to kill. But I don’t think that is what the alchemists originally intended.”
Rachel still looked ill at ease.
“The true answer is here,” Gray finished. “If the Dragon Court solved it, so can we.”
“But they had months after stealing the text from Cairo,” Monk said. “And they know a lot more about this stuff than we do.”
Sobering nods passed around the group. Running on too little sleep, they were all razor-edged on adrenaline. The riddles were taxing what little mental reserve they still had, leaving a pall of defeat hanging over them.
Refusing to weaken, Gray closed his eyes, concentrating. He considered all he’d learned. The amalgam was composed of many different metals in the platinum group, the exact recipe of which was impossible to determine, even with current laboratory tests. The amalgam was then shaped into bones and secured in a cathedral.
Why? Did the alchemists really belong to a secret church within the Church? Is that how they managed to hide the bones during that tumultuous time, an era of antipopes and strife?
No matter the history, Gray was sure the Dragon Court’s device had somehow tapped into the power in the m-state amalgam. Perhaps the tainting of the Communion wafers was only a way to test the breadth and range of that power. But what was the primary use for such a power? A tool, a weapon?
Gray mulled over the indecipherable codex of chemicals, one hidden for centuries, left behind as a series of clues to a possible storehouse of ancient power.
An indecipherable codex…
About to give up, the answer came to him, sudden and sharp, a pain behind the eyes.
Not a codex.
“It’s a key,” he mumbled aloud, knowing it to be true. He faced the others. “The amalgam is an indecipherable chemical key, impossible to duplicate. Within its unique chemistry must be the power to unlock the location of the tomb of the fourth Magi.”
Vigor started to speak, but Gray held him off with a hand.
“The Dragon Court knows how to ignite that power, to turn that key on. But where’s the lock? Not in Cologne. The Dragon Court failed there. But they must have a second-best guess. The answer is here. In this fresco.”
He stared around the group.
“We’ve got to solve this,” he said. He turned and pointed to the fresco. “Moses is striking a rock. Altars are usually made of stone. Does that mean anything? Are we supposed to go out to the Sinai desert and search for Moses’s stone?”
“No,” Vigor said, stirring out of the fog of defeat. He reached and touched the painted rock. “Remember the layers of symbolism in the riddle. This is not Moses’s stone. At least not his alone. The fresco is actually titled ‘Moses-Peter Striking the Rock.’”
Gray frowned. “Why two names? Moses and Peter?”
“Throughout the catacombs, Saint Peter’s image was often superimposed upon Moses’s acts. It was a way of glorifying the apostle.”
Rachel looked closer at the painted face. “If this is Saint Peter’s rock…?”
“‘Rock’ in Greek is petros,” Vigor said. “This is why the apostle Simon Bar-Jona took the name Peter, eventually Saint Peter. From Christ’s words, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.’”
Gray attempted to put this together. “Are you suggesting that the altar named in the riddle is the altar inside St. Peter’s Basilica?”
Rachel suddenly twisted around. “No. We’ve got the symbolism backward. In the stanza, the word altar is used, but the painting replaces it with the word rock. It’s not an altar we’re looking for, it’s a rock.”
“Great,” Monk said. “That really narrows our search parameters.”
“It does,” Rachel said. “My uncle quoted the most significant biblical passage that connects Saint Peter to a rock. Peter would be the rock upon which the Church would be built. Remember where we are now. In a crypt.” She tapped the stone on the fresco. “A rock underground.”
Rachel faced them all, her eyes so excited they almost glowed in the dark. “What site was St. Peter’s Basilica built atop? What rock is buried under the foundations of the church?”
Gray answered, eyes widening. “Saint Peter’s tomb.”
“The Rock of the Church,” Vigor echoed.
Gray sensed the truth. The bones were the key. The tomb was the lock.
Rachel nodded. “That’s where the Dragon Court will be heading next. We should contact Cardinal Spera immediately.”
“Oh no…” Vigor stiffened.
“What’s wrong?” Gray asked.
“Tonight…at dusk…” Vigor checked his watch, his face ashen. He turned and headed away. “We must hurry.”
Gray followed with the others. “What?”
“A memorial service for the tragedy in Cologne. The mass is scheduled for sunset. Thousands will be in attendance, including the pope.”
Gray suddenly realized what Vigor feared. He pictured the massacre in the cathedral in Cologne. All eyes would be turned away from the Scavi, the necropolis below St. Peter’s Basilica, where the tomb of the apostle had been excavated.
The Rock of the Church.
If the Dragon Court ignited the Magi bones down there…
He imagined the crowds packed inside the church, massed outside on the square.
JULY 25, 8:55 P.M.
THE SUMMER day ran long.
Dusk was just settling over the Appian Way as Gray climbed out of the catacombs. He shaded his eyes with a hand. After the gloom of the catacombs, the slanting rays of the setting sun glared.
The caretaker, Giuseppe, held the door for the exiting group, then closed it behind him, locking it. “Is everything all right, Monsignor?” The old man must have noted the strain in them as they all piled out through the doorway.
Vigor nodded. “I just need to make a phone call.”
Gray handed Vigor his sat-phone. The Vatican needed to be alerted and the alarm raised. Gray knew the monsignor was the best person to reach someone in authority over there.
A step away, Rachel already had her cell phone out, dialing her station house.
A crack of a bullet stopped them all. It struck the flint paving of the courtyard, sparking brightly in the descending gloom.
Gray responded immediately, half surprised, half not.
“Go!” he yelled, and pointed to the caretaker’s cottage that flanked one side of the courtyard. Giuseppe had left the door to his home open.
They bolted toward the shelter. Gray helped the old caretaker, supporting him, with Rachel on his other side.
Before they could reach the cottage, the doorway exploded with a gout of flame, throwing them all back. Gray tumbled in a pile with Giuseppe and Rachel. The rigged door, blown off its hinges, skittered across the paving stones. Glass shattered across the courtyard.
Gray dropped to a knee, sheltering Rachel and the caretaker. Kat covered Vigor in the same manner. Gray had his pistol out, pointing, but he had no target. No cloaked figures came running.
The surrounding landscape of vineyards and umbrella pines lay steeped in shadows and gloom. Silent.
“Monk,” Gray said.
His partner already had his shotgun out. He peered through the night-vision scope fixed to the top of the barrel.
“I can’t pick anything out,” Monk said.
A phone rang. All eyes flicked to Vigor. He crouched with Gray’s satellite phone. It rang again in his hands.
Gray motioned for him to answer it.
Vigor obeyed, raising the sat-phone to his ear.
“Pronto,” he said. He listened for a moment, then lowered and held out the phone toward Gray. “It’s for you.”
Gray knew they had been purposefully pinned down. No further shots were fired at them. Why? He took the phone.
Before he could speak, a voice greeted him. “Hello, Commander Pierce.”
“I see you received my message from Sigma command.”
Seichan had somehow tracked them here, followed them and set up the ambush. And he knew the reason. “The riddle…”
“From the frantic way you and your friends vacated the catacomb, I can only assume you solved the mystery.”
Gray remained silent.
“Raoul didn’t wish to share his knowledge either,” Seichan said calmly. “It seems the Dragon Court wants to keep the Guild at the sidelines, only playing defensive. That won’t do. So if you’d be so kind as to share what you’ve learned, I’ll let you all live.”
Gray covered the phone’s receiver. “Monk?”
“Still nothing, Commander,” he whispered back.
Seichan had taken up a sniping position with a clear view of the courtyard. The vineyards, trees, and shadowed slopes hid her well. She must have snuck down here while they were in the catacombs, and booby-trapped the cottage, forcing them to stay in the open.
They were at her mercy.
“From your urgency,” Seichan said, “time must be a factor. And I can wait all night, picking you off one at a time until you talk.” To emphasize this, a bullet cracked a stone at his toe, stinging him with shards. “So be a good boy.”
Monk whispered at his side. “She must be using an exhaust-suppression device on her rifle. I didn’t even pick up a flicker out there.”
Trapped, he had no choice but to bargain. “What do you want to know?” he asked, stalling.
“The Dragon Court is moving on a target tonight. And I believe you have discovered where that will be. Tell me and you all go free.”
“How do I know you’ll keep your word?”
“Oh, you don’t. You don’t have much choice either. I thought that was obvious, Gray. May I call you Gray?” She continued, not missing a beat. “As long as I find you useful, I’ll keep you around, but I certainly don’t need all of you around. I’ll make an example of your companions if I must.”
Gray had no choice. “Fine. Yes. We solved the goddamn riddle.”
“Where will the Dragon Court strike?”
“At a church,” he bluffed. “Near the Coliseum, there is—”
A whistle sped by his left ear and at the same time a startled cry rose from the caretaker. Gray turned to see the old man clutching his shoulder. Blood oozed between his fingers as he fell to his backside on the stones. Rachel went immediately to his aid.
“Monk, help them,” Gray said, cursing silently.
His teammate had a med pack and the training. Still, Monk hesitated, his shotgun ready, reluctant to give up his search.
Gray waved him over more forcibly. Seichan would not make the mistake of exposing herself. Monk lowered his gun and went to the care-taker’s aid.
“You get one free pass,” Seichan said in his ear. “Another lie and it will cost more than a little blood.”
Gray’s fingers tightened on the phone.
“I have my own intel,” the woman continued. “So I’ll know if your answer makes sense or not.”
Gray sought some way to throw her off track, but the caretaker’s groans made it hard to focus on strategy. And he had no time — and no choice. He had to tell her the truth. She had kept him in the game up until now, and now he had to return the favor. Like it or not, he and the Guild were in bed together. This would have to be settled another time. And for that to happen, they had to live.
“If you’re right about the timetable,” Gray said, “the Dragon Court will assault the Vatican tonight.”
“Below the basilica. At the tomb of Saint Peter.” Gray gave a brief overview of the riddle’s solution as proof of the truth.
“Clever work,” she said. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around. Now if you’d all be so kind as to dispose of all your cellular phones. Toss them into the burning cottage. And no tomfoolery, Commander Gray. Don’t assume I’m ignorant of exactly the number of phones you and your team are carrying.”
Gray obeyed. Kat collected all the phones, then showed each one as she tossed them through the doorway into the growing conflagration.
Except for the phone at Gray’s ear.
“Arrivederci for now, Commander Gray.”
The phone suddenly exploded at his ear, ripped from his fingers, shot from afar. His ear rang. Blood ran down his neck.
Gray tensed, waiting for another parting shot. Instead, he heard an engine ignite with a throaty roar, then settle to a rumble. A motorbike. It headed away, staying below the ridgeline. The Dragon Lady was heading out with the information she needed.
Monk had the caretaker’s shoulder bandaged. “Only a graze. Lucky.”
But Gray knew luck had nothing to do with it. The woman could’ve put a round through any of their eyes.
“How’s your ear?” Monk asked.
Gray shook his head, angry.
Monk came forward anyway. He reached, not particularly gently, and inspected the damage on his ear. “Just a skin lac. Hold still.” He dabbed the wound, then sprayed it from a tiny bottle.
It stung like a son of a bitch.
“Liquid bandage,” Monk explained. “It dries in seconds. Even faster if I blow on it. But I don’t want to get you too excited.”
Behind them, Rachel and Vigor helped the caretaker to his feet. Kat recovered the old man’s shepherd crook. His eyes remained on his cottage. Flames now licked from the shattered windows.
Vigor placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Mi dispiace…” he apologized.
The man shrugged, his voice surprisingly firm. “I still have my sheep. Houses can be rebuilt.”
“We must reach a phone,” Rachel said softly to Gray. “General Rende and the Vatican have to be alerted.”
Gray knew that cutting their lines of communication had only been a delaying tactic, to buy the Dragon Court and thus the Guild a bit more time. He glanced to the western skies.
The sun was gone. Only a crimson glow marked its passage.
The Dragon Court was surely already on the move.
Gray spoke to the caretaker. “Giuseppe, do you have an automobile?”
The old man slowly nodded. “Around back.” He led the way. Behind the burning cottage stood a stone-shingle detached garage, more a shack. It had no door.
Through the opening, a shape filled the space, covered by a tarp.
Giuseppe waved his crook. “The keys are inside. I filled it with gas last week.”
Monk and Kat went ahead to clear the car. Together they pulled the tarpaulin aside, revealing a classic ’66 Maserati Sebring, black as obsidian. It reminded Gray of the early Ford Mustang fastbacks. Long hood, muscular, meaty tires, bred for speed.
Vigor glanced to Giuseppe.
He shrugged. “My aunt’s car…barely driven.”
Rachel walked toward it in a happy daze.
They quickly climbed inside. Giuseppe agreed to wait for the fire department, continuing his post as caretaker of the catacombs.
Rachel slid into the driver’s seat. She knew the streets of Rome the best. But not all were happy with this choice of driver.
“Monk,” Rachel said as she turned the key and the engine roared.
“Maybe you’d better close your eyes.”
AFTER A brief stop at a bank of public telephones, Rachel pulled away from the curb. She sped into traffic, earning an irritated beep from an angry driver. What was his problem? A full handspan stretched between her car and the Fiat behind her. Plenty of room…
The Maserati’s headlights speared ahead. Full night had descended. A line of brake lights wound toward the center of the city. She raced around and between the other cars, mere obstacles. She dove into the oncoming-traffic lane at times. The empty stretches on the far side were a shame to waste.
A groan echoed from the backseat.
She sped faster.
No one voiced a real complaint.
Back at the phones, Rachel had attempted to contact General Rende, while her uncle had called Cardinal Spera. Neither had been successful. Both men were at the memorial service, already under way. General Rende was personally overseeing the Carabinieri force that guarded St. Peter’s Square. Cardinal Spera was in attendance at the service. Messages had been left, the alarm raised. But would it be in time?
Everyone was at the memorial mass, only steps from where the Dragon Court would strike. The crowds of people acted as the perfect cover.
“How much longer?” Gray asked from the passenger seat. He had his pack open on his lap and worked rapidly. Too busy with the road, she had no time to see what he was doing.
Rachel sped past Trajan’s Market, the ancient Roman equivalent of a shopping mall. The crumbling semicircular building was set into the Quirinal Hill. It was a good landmark. “Two miles,” she answered Gray.
“With the memorial crowds, we’ll never reach the front entrances,” Vigor warned, leaning forward from the backseat. “We should try for the railway entry into the Vatican. Aim for Via Aurelia along the south wall. We can cross the grounds behind the basilica. Go in the back way.”
Rachel nodded. Already the traffic congested as the flow bottlenecked toward the bridge over the Tiber River.
“Tell me about the excavations under the basilica,” Gray said. “Are there any other entrances to it?”
“No,” Vigor said. “The Scavi region is self-contained. Just under St. Peter’s lies the Sacred Grottoes, accessed through the basilica. Many of the most famous crypts and papal tombs reside there. But in 1939, sampietrini workers were digging a tomb site for Pope Pius XI and discovered another layer beneath the Grottoes, a huge necropolis of ancient mausoleums dating back to the first century. It was named simply the Scavi, or Excavation.”
“How extensive is the area? What’s the lay of the land?”
“Have you ever been down to the underground city in Seattle?” Vigor asked.
Gray glanced over his shoulder to the monsignor.
“I once went to an archaeological conference there,” Vigor explained. “Beneath modern Seattle lies its past, a Wild West ghost town, where you can see intact shops, streetlamps, wooden walkways. The necropolis is like that, an ancient Roman cemetery buried beneath the Grottoes. Excavated by archaeologists, it’s a maze of gravesites, shrines, and stone streets.”
Rachel finally reached the bridge and fought her way across the Tiber River. Once on the far side, she left the main flow of traffic, circled out, and headed away from St. Peter’s Square. She swung to the south.
After a few serpentine turns, she found herself running alongside the towering Leonine Walls of the Vatican. It was dark here, with few streetlamps.
“Just ahead,” Vigor said, pointing an arm.
The railway spanned the road atop a stone bridge. It was here that the Vatican’s railroad line exited the Holy See and joined Rome’s system of tracks. Popes throughout the century had toured by train, leaving from the Vatican’s own railroad depot within the walls of the papal state.
“Take that turn before the bridge,” Vigor said.
She almost missed it in the dark. Rachel yanked the wheel, fishtailing off the main avenue and onto a gravel service road that climbed steeply. Tires spat rooster tails of gravel as she fought her way to the top. The road hit a dead end at the tracks.
“That way!” Vigor pointed to the left.
There was no street, only a narrow sward of grass, weeds, and chunky rocks that paralleled the railroad tracks. Rachel twisted the wheel, bumped off the service road and onto the side of the tracks.
She shifted gears and rattled her way toward the archway through the Leonine Wall. Her headlights bobbled up and down. Reaching the wall, she manhandled the Maserati through the opening, traversing the gap between the wall and the tracks.
Ahead, her headlights splashed across the side of a midnight-blue service van that blocked the way. A pair of Swiss Guards, in blue night uniforms, flanked the van. They had rifles out, pointing at the intruder.
Rachel braked, arm already out the window, waving her Carabinieri identification. She yelled. “Lieutenant Rachel Verona! With Monsignor Verona! We have an emergency!”
They were waved forward, but one of the guards kept his rifle at his shoulder, pointed at Rachel’s face.
Her uncle quickly showed his own Vatican papers. “We must reach Cardinal Spera.”
A flashlight searched the car, passing over the other occupants. Luckily all their weapons were hidden from direct view. It was no time for questions.
“I vouch for them,” Vigor said sternly. “As will Cardinal Spera.”
The van was directed out of the way, clearing the path into the Vatican grounds.
Vigor still leaned his head out the window. “Has word reached you here? Of a possible attack?”
The guard’s eyes widened. He shook his head. “No, Monsignor.”
Rachel glanced to Gray. Oh no… As they had feared, in all the confusion surrounding the memorial service, word was traveling too slowly up the chains of command. The Church was not known for its swift response…to change or emergency.
“Do not let anyone else through here,” Vigor ordered. “Lock this entry down.”
The guardsman responded to the command in the monsignor’s voice and nodded.
Vigor settled back into the car and pointed. “Take the first road after the depot.”
Rachel did not have to be told to hurry. She raced through a small parking lot that fronted the quaint two-story depot and took the first right. She crossed in front of the Mosaic Studio, the Vatican’s only industry, then tore between the Tribunal Palace and the Palazzo San Carlo. Here the buildings grew denser as the dome of St. Peter’s filled the world ahead of them.
“Park at the Hospice of Santa Marta,” her uncle ordered.
Rachel ran her car up to the curb. The Sacristy of St. Peter rose on her left, connected to the giant basilica. The papal hospice was on her right. A covered walkway joined the sacristy to the hospice. Rachel cut her engine. They would have to continue from here on foot.
Their destination — the entrance to the Scavi — lay on the other side of the sacristy.
As they climbed out, muffled singing reached them. The Pontifical Choir singing “Ave Maria.” The Mass was under way.
“Follow me,” Uncle Vigor said.
He led the way through the covered archway to the open yard on the far side. The grounds were oddly deserted. All attention and focus of the Vatican had turned inward on itself, to the basilica, to the pope. Rachel had witnessed this before. Great services, like this special memorial, could empty the entire city-state, leaving few about.
On the far side of the sacristy, a low sonorous noise joined the choral singing. It came from ahead of them, through the Arch of Bells that led out to St. Peter’s Square. It was the murmur of a thousand voices, rising from the crowd gathered out in the piazza. Through the arch’s narrow gateway, Rachel caught a glimpse of candles glowing among the dark throng.
“Over here,” Vigor said, pulling free a large ring of keys. He led them to a nondescript door at the edge of the tiny yard. Solid steel. “This leads down to the Scavi.”
“No guards,” Gray noted.
The only security was a pair of Swiss Guards posted by the Arch of Bells. They were armed with rifles as they studied the crowd. They didn’t even glance back toward the newcomers.
“At least it’s locked,” Vigor said. “Maybe we’ve beat them here after all.”
“We can’t count on that,” Gray warned. “We know they have contacts inside the Vatican. They may have keys.”
“Only a few people have these keys. As head of the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology, I have a set.” He turned to Rachel and held out two other keys. “These open the lower door…and the tomb site of Saint Peter.”
Rachel refused to take them. “What—?”
“You know the lay of the Scavi better than anyone. I must reach Cardinal Spera. The pope must be removed from harm’s way, and the basilica emptied without creating panic.” He touched his clerical collar. “There’s no one else who can get there fast enough.”
Rachel nodded and took the keys. It would take someone of her uncle’s stature to quickly gain audience to the cardinal, especially during such an important mass. It was probably why the alarm had yet to be raised. Roadblocks of procedure. Even General Rende did not have jurisdiction upon Vatican soil.
Vigor gave Gray a sharp stare before turning away. Rachel interpreted it. Watch after my niece.
Rachel closed her fingers over the keys. At least her uncle was not trying to send her away. He recognized the danger. Thousands of lives hung in the balance.
Her uncle turned and headed for the sacristy’s main door. It was the fastest way to reach the heart of the basilica.
Gray turned to the group and had them all don their radios, even securing an extra for her, taping the microphone to her throat himself and showing her how the barest whisper could be heard. Subvocalizing was the word he used. It was eerie, so quiet yet perfectly understandable.
She practiced as Monk cracked the door open. The way down to the basement was dark.
“There’s a light switch just inside,” she whispered, surprised at the loudness of the audible pickup on the microphone.
“We go in dark,” Gray said.
Monk and Kat nodded. They pulled goggles over their eyes. Gray handed Rachel a pair. Night-vision. She was familiar enough with them from her military training. She donned them. The world brightened into shades of green and silver.
Gray led the way; she followed with Kat. Monk silently closed the door behind him. The way became dark, even with the scopes. Night vision required some light. Gray clicked on a handheld flashlight. It flared bright in the gloom. He secured it below his pistol.
Rachel tilted up her goggles. The way ahead went pitch dark again. Gray’s flashlight must be emitting ultraviolet light, visible only through the scopes.
She reseated her goggles.
The otherworldly light illuminated an anteroom at this level. A few displays and models dotted the space, used in tours. One was a model of Constantine’s first church, built on the site here in 324 B.C. The other was a model of an aedicula, a burial shrine shaped like a tiny two-level temple. It was such a temple that had marked Saint Peter’s gravesite. According to historians, Constantine had constructed a cube made out of marble and porphyry, a rare stone imported from Egypt. He encased the aedicula shrine and built his original church around it.
Soon after the excavation of the necropolis began, the original Constantinian cube was rediscovered, positioned directly under the main papal altar of St. Peter’s. A wall of the original temple remained, scratched and scrawled with Christian graffiti, including the Greek letters spelling out Petros eni, or “Peter is within.”
And indeed, inside a cavity in that graffiti wall, bones and cloth were found that matched a man of Saint Peter’s stature and age. Now they were sealed in bulletproof plastic boxes made, oddly enough, by the U.S. Department of Defense and secured back into the wall cavity.
That was their goal.
“This way,” Rachel whispered, and pointed to a steep, circular stair that led below.
Gray took the lead.
They wound down below the basement and even deeper.
A chill settled through Rachel’s clothes. She felt almost naked. The goggles narrowed her vision, triggering a twinge of claustrophobia.
At the bottom of the stairs, a small door blocked the way. Rachel squeezed next to Gray, bodies touching, and noted his musky scent before she fished out the key and unlocked the door.
He held her hand against opening the door and gently but firmly pushed her behind him. He then pulled the door open a few centimeters and stared through. Rachel and the others waited.
“All clear,” he said. “Dark as a tomb in there.”
“Funny,” Monk grumbled.
Gray pulled open the door.
Rachel readied herself for a blast, gunfire, or some sort of attack, but found only silence.
As they all pushed inside, Gray turned to the group. “I think the monsignor was right. For once, we’ve got the jump on the Dragon Court. It’s about time we set up the ambush.”
“What’s the plan?” Monk asked.
“No chances. We set the trap and get the hell out of here.” Gray pointed to the door. “Monk, stand guard at the door. It’s the only way out or in. Guard our exit and our backs.”
“Not a problem.”
Gray handed what looked like two small egg cartons to Kat. “Sonic grenades and flash bombs. I expect they’ll come in dark like we did, with their ears up. Let’s see if we can blind and deafen them. Distribute these as we cross to the tomb. Full coverage.”
He turned next to Rachel. “Show me Saint Peter’s tomb.”
She headed out into the dark necropolis, walking along an ancient Roman road. Family crypts and mausoleums lined the path, each six meters square. Walls were covered with ultrathin bricks, a common building material during the first century. Frescoes and mosaics decorated many of the tombs, but such details were murky under night-vision. There remained a few bits of statuary, appearing to move in the eerie illumination. The dead come to life.
Rachel mapped out the route to the center of the necropolis. A metal walkway led up to a platform and rectangular window. She pointed through it.
“The tomb of Saint Peter.”
GRAY POINTED his pistol and shone his UV spot into the gravesite.
Ten feet beyond the window, a brick wall rose alongside a massive cube of marble. A hole near the base of the wall had an opening in it. Bending down, he aimed his light. Within the opening, he could see a clear box with a blob of white claylike material.
From Saint Peter.
Gray felt the hairs on his arms stand a bit on end, a shiver of awe and fear. He felt like an archaeologist, delving into a dark cave, out in some lost continent, not a couple floors below the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. Then again, maybe here was its true heart.
“Commander?” Kat asked. She rejoined them, having lagged a bit behind to plant her charges.
Gray straightened. “Can we get closer?” he asked Rachel.
She pulled out the second key her uncle had given her and unlocked a gate that led into the inner sanctum.
“We must be quick,” Gray said, sensing time was running short. Then again, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the Dragon Court wouldn’t strike until after midnight, like in Cologne. But he was taking no chances.
He pulled out the gear he had been calibrating on the way here. He searched the space and found an inconspicuous spot. He fixed the tiny video camera within a crevice of a neighboring mausoleum and positioned it to face Saint Peter’s tomb. He took a second camera and turned it the opposite way, making sure it faced back out through the window to cover the approach.
“What are you doing?” Rachel asked.
Finished with the cameras, Gray waved them back out. “I don’t want to spring the trap too soon. I want them to get comfortable in here, set up their apparatus. Then we’ll strike. I don’t want to leave them any room to bolt with the Magi bones or their device.”
After they exited, Rachel relocked the gate.
“Monk,” Gray said into his radio, “how are you doing?”
Gray crossed to a nearby crumbling mausoleum, one open at the front. The bones had long been cleared out. He freed the laptop from his pack and hid it inside the mausoleum, attaching a portable boost-transmitter to its USB port. A green light flashed a positive connection. He flicked a switch, sending the apparatus into dark mode. No light shone from computer or transmitter. Good.
Gray straightened and explained as they headed back out. “The video cameras are not strong enough to transmit very far. The laptop will pick up the signal and boost it. It’ll have enough range to reach the surface. We’ll monitor it on another laptop. Once the Court is down here, trapped, we blast them with the sonic and flash charges, then sweep below with a whole barrack of Swiss Guards.”
Kat nodded and eyed him. “If we had been too cautious back at the catacombs, delayed too long, we wouldn’t have had this chance.”
Finally luck was with them. A bit of boldness had—
The explosions cut off his thought. They were not loud, more muffled, sounding like depth charges exploding far underwater. They echoed throughout the necropolis, accompanied by a louder crash of stone.
Gray crouched as small holes were punched through the roof from above. Rock and earth blasted downward, crashing into the mausoleums and crypts below. Before the debris could even settle, ropes snaked through the smoky openings, followed by one man after another.
A full assault team.
They dropped into the necropolis and vanished.
Gray immediately recognized what was happening. The Dragon Court was entering from the floor above, the Sacred Grottoes. That level was accessed from inside the basilica. The Dragon Court must have come to the memorial service — then through their contact here, snuck below into the papal crypts of the Sacred Grotto. Their gear had probably been smuggled in over the course of a couple days and hidden among the shadowy tombs of the Grotto. Then, under the cover of the service, they regained their tools, bored specially shaped charges, and quietly punched their way down here.
The assault team would escape the same way, disappearing back among the thousands gathered here.
That must not happen.
“Kat,” Gray whispered, “take Rachel to Monk. Don’t engage. Get back above. Find the Swiss Guard.”
Kat grabbed Rachel’s elbow. “What about you?” she asked.
He was already moving, heading back toward Saint Peter’s tomb. “I’m staying here. I’ll monitor from the laptop. Delay them if need be. Then signal you by radio once I spring the ambush.”
Perhaps all was not yet lost.
Monk came on over the radio. Even subvocalizing, his words were faint. “No go here. They blasted a hole right above the exit. Practically cracked my skull with a chunk of rock. The bastards are riveting the goddamn door shut.”
Gray heard the machine-gun pops of an air gun echoing from the rear of the necropolis.
“No one’s going in or out this way,” Monk finished.
“Roger that, Commander.”
“Everyone go to ground,” he ordered. “Wait for my signal.
Gray crouched low and ran down the cemetery street.
They were on their own.
VIGOR ENTERED St. Peter’s Basilica through the sacristy door, flanked by two Swiss Guards. He had shown his identification three times to gain access. But at least word was slowly filtering through the screens and checks. Maybe he hadn’t been forceful enough when he’d placed the call twenty minutes ago, hedging that he didn’t know for certain when the Dragon Court would assault the tomb.
But now things were moving in the right direction.
Vigor passed the monument to Pius VII and entered the nave near the middle of the church. The basilica was shaped like a giant cross, covering twenty-five thousand square meters, so cavernous two soccer teams could play a game within the confines of the nave alone.
And presently it was full. Every pew was crowded, from nave through transept. The space glowed with thousands of candles and the illumination of eight hundred chandeliers. The Pontifical Choir was in mid-song, Exaudi Deus, fitting for a memorial, but amplified and echoing as loud as any rock concert.
Vigor hurried, but forced himself not to run. Panic would kill. There were only a limited number of exits. He waved the two Swiss Guards to sweep right and left and alert their brothers-in-arms. Vigor had to get the pope clear first and alert the presiding clerical staff to slowly evacuate the parishioners.
Stepping into the nave, he had a clear view to the papal altar.
On the far side of the altar, Cardinal Spera was seated with the pope. The pair sat under Bernini’s bronze baldacchino, a canopy of gilded bronze that covered the center altar. It rose eight stories, supported by four massive twisted bronze columns, decorated with gilded gold olive and laurel branches. The canopy itself was topped by a golden sphere surmounted by a cross.
Vigor worked his way surreptitiously forward. He had no time to change into proper vestments and was still shoddily attired. A few wealthy parishioners glanced at him, frowning, then noted his Roman collar. Still their glances were disdainful. A poor parish priest, they must think, awed by the spectacle.
Reaching the front, Vigor edged to the left. He would circle toward the rear of the altar, where he could speak to Cardinal Spera in private.
As he pushed past the statue of Saint Longinus, a hand reached out from a shadowed doorway. He glanced over as his elbow was gripped. It was a lanky man his own age, silver-haired, someone he knew and respected, Preffetto Alberto, the head prefect of the Archives.
“Vigor?” the prefect said. “I heard…”
His words were lost to an especially loud refrain from the chorus.
Vigor leaned closer, stepping into the alcove that sheltered the doorway. It led down to the Sacred Grottoes. “I’m sorry, Alberto. What—?”
The grip tightened. A pistol shoved hard into his ribs. It had a silencer.
“Not another word, Vigor,” Alberto warned.
HIDDEN INSIDE the crypt, Gray lay on his belly, out of view of the opening. His pistol rested beside the open laptop. He had its display turned to dark mode, glowing in UV. Two images split the screen — one feed from the camera facing Saint Peter’s tomb, the other from the camera facing the main necropolis.
The assault team had divided into two groups. While one set patroled the necropolis in darkness, the other had broken out flashlights to expedite their work by the tomb. They worked quickly and efficiently, each man knowing his job. They had already opened the gate that blocked access to Saint Peter’s tomb. Two men flanked the famous crypt, bent to a knee. They were fixing two large plates to either side.
The third man was immediately recognizable by his size.
He carried a steel case. He opened it and removed a clear plastic cylinder, full of a familiar grayish powder. The amalgam. They must have pulverized the bone down to its powdery form. Raoul slid the cylinder through the low opening into Saint Peter’s tomb.
Plugging in the battery…
With everything in place, Gray could wait no longer. The apparatus was set. It was their one chance to catch the Court off guard, perhaps to drive them off, abandoning their gear behind.
“Ready to go blackout,” Gray whispered. His hand moved to the transmitter that controlled the sonic and flash bombs. “Take out as many as you can while they’re stunned, but don’t take any needless chances. Keep moving. Stay out of sight.”
Affirmatives answered him. Monk was holed up near the door. Kat and Rachel had found another crypt to hide themselves inside. The assault team remained unaware of their presence.
Gray watched the trio of men exit the tomb area, trailing wires that led to the device. Raoul closed the gate, shielding himself from any danger. Atop the metal platform, he pressed one hand against his ear, plainly communicating the okay to proceed.
“Blackout on the count of five,” Gray whispered. “Earplugs in place, goggles blinkered closed. Here we go.”
Gray counted down in his head. Five, four, three… Blind, he rested one hand on his pistol and the other on the laptop. Two, one, zero.
He hit the button on the laptop.
Though deafened by his earplugs, he could feel the deep whump of the sonic charges behind his sternum. He waited a three-count for the strobing flash grenades to expire. He blinkered open his goggles, then yanked out the earplugs. Shots echoed across the necropolis. Gray rolled to the entrance to the crypt.
Directly ahead, the metal platform was empty.
No one was in sight.
Raoul and his two men were gone.
The sound of gunfire intensified. A firefight waged in the dark necropolis. Gray remembered Raoul had received some communiqué just before he had ignited the sonic and flash charges. Had it been a warning? From whom?
Gray searched the vicinity. The world had receded to shades of green. He climbed the steps to the platform. He had to take the risk to secure the apparatus and the amalgam.
As he reached the top, he kept low, edging on his toes, one hand on the platform for support, his pistol swiveling to cover all directions.
Light suddenly blazed through the window ahead. It revealed Raoul standing on the far side, a few steps from the tomb. Upon the attack, the man must have dodged back through the gate. He met Gray’s eyes and lifted his arms. In his hands, he held the control device to ignite the amalgam.
Futilely, Gray aimed and fired.
But the bulletproof glass repelled the slug.
Raoul smiled and twisted the handle on the control device.
JULY 25, 9:54 P.M.
THE FIRST quake threw Vigor into the air. Or maybe it was the ground that had dropped below his feet. Either way, he went airborne.
Cries rose across the basilica.
As he fell back down, he took advantage of the moment to plant an elbow square into the nose of the traitor Alberto, who had tumbled back with the first tremor. He swung next and punched Alberto a solid blow to the Adam’s apple.
The man fell heavily. The pistol tumbled from his fingers. Vigor grabbed it just as the next tremor followed the first. He was knocked to his knees. By now, screams and yells erupted all around. But beneath it all, a deep, hollow thrum vibrated, as if a bell as large as the basilica had been struck and they were all trapped inside.
Vigor remembered the description given by the witness to the Cologne survivor. A pressure as if the walls squeezed in on themselves. It was the same here. All noises — cries, pleas, prayers — were perfectly discernible but muted nevertheless.
While he climbed to his feet, the floor continued trembling. The polished marble surface seemed to ripple and shiver, appearing watery. Vigor shoved the pistol under his belt.
He turned to go to the aid of the pope and Cardinal Spera.
As he stepped forward, he felt it before he saw it. A sudden increase in pressure, deafening, squeezing inward. Then it let loose. Up from the base of the four bronze columns of Bernini’s baldacchino, fiery cascades of electrical energy spiraled upward, spitting and crackling.
They rushed up the columns, across the canopy’s roof, and met at the gold globe. A crack of thunder erupted. The ground jolted again, shattering fissures in the marble floor. From the canopy’s globe, a brilliant fork of lightning erupted. It blasted upward, striking the underside of Michelangelo’s dome and dancing across it. The ground bumped again, more violently.
Cracks skittered across the dome. Plates of plaster rained.
It was all coming down.
MONK PICKED himself up off the floor. Blood ran into one eye. He had landed face-first into the corner of a crypt, cracking his goggles, slicing his eyebrow.
Blind now, he crouched and fished for his weapon. The shotgun’s built-in night scope would help him see.
As he searched, the ground continued to vibrate under his fingertips. All gunfire had stopped after the first quake.
Monk reached forward, sweeping the ground near the crypt. His shotgun couldn’t have gone far.
He felt something hard at his fingertips.
He reached forward and realized his mistake. It was not the butt of his weapon. It was the toe of a boot.
Behind him, he felt the hot barrel of a rifle press against the base of his skull.
GRAY HEARD the crack of a rifle blast across the necropolis. It was the first shot since the quakes began. He had been thrown off the metal platform and had landed near the mausoleum where he’d hid his laptop. He had rolled into a ball, taking a blow to his shoulder, keeping his goggles and pistol in place. But he had lost his radio.
Shattered shards of glass littered the stone street, blown out of the platform window with the first violent quake.
He searched around him. Up the few steps to the metal platform, the wash of light still radiated from the tomb area. He had to know what was going on in there. But he couldn’t assault the gate by himself. At least not without knowing the lay of the land.
Making certain no eyes were upon him, he dove back into the mausoleum. The planted cameras should still be transmitting.
As he lay flat on his belly, one arm covering the entrance with the pistol, he engaged the laptop. The split-screen image bloomed. The camera pointing into the main necropolis revealed nothing but darkness. No further shots were heard. The necropolis had gone deathly silent again.
What had happened to the others?
With no answers, he focused on the opposite side of the screen. Nothing seemed to have changed. Gray spotted two men with rifles pointed back toward the gate, Raoul’s guards. But there was no sign of the big man. The tomb seemed unchanged. But the image, the entire image on the screen, pulsed slightly, in tune with the vibration in the stone floor. It was as if the cameras were picking up some emanation given off by the charged device, a field of energy radiating out.
But where was Raoul?
Gray reached out and rewound the digital recorder back a full minute, stopping at the spot where Raoul stood near the tomb and twisted the control handle to his device.
On the screen, Raoul turned to watch the result. Green lights flared on the two plates fixed to either side of the tomb. Movement caught his attention. Gray used a toggle to zoom in on the tomb’s small opening. The cylinder of amalgam powder vibrated — then rose off the floor.
Gray began to understand. He remembered Kat’s description of how the m-state powders demonstrated an ability to levitate in a strong magnetic field, acting as superconductors. He recalled Monk’s discovery of a magnetized cross back in Cologne. The plates with the green lights. They must be electromagnets. The Court’s device apparently did nothing more than create a strong electromagnetic field around the amalgam, activating the m-state superconductor.
He now understood the energy pulsing outward.
He knew what had killed the parishioners.
Suddenly the image jolted with the first quake. The view fritzed completely for a second, then settled, the perspective slightly askew now as the camera shifted. On the screen, Raoul backed away from the tomb.
Gray didn’t understand why. Nothing seemed to be happening.
Then he spotted it, half hidden in the glare of the flashlights. At the base of the tomb, a section of the stone floor slowly tilted downward, forming a narrow ramp that led beneath the tomb. From below, a cobalt light flickered. Raoul stepped in front of the camera, blocking the view. He headed down the ramp, leaving only the two guards.
That’s where he had disappeared.
Gray sped up the video back to the present. He now watched a few brilliant flashes erupt from below, blinding bursts of white light. Camera flashes. Raoul was recording whatever he found down there.
A few seconds later, Raoul climbed back up the ramp.
The bastard wore a grimace of satisfaction.
He had won.
LYING FLAT atop the mausoleum roof, Kat had managed to get one shot off, taking out the gunman holding a rifle to Monk’s head. But another quake threw off her next shot. The remaining opponent did not hesitate. From the direction his comrade’s body had fallen, he must have guessed where she hid.
He dove down and clubbed Monk with the metal hilt of a hunting knife, then pulled him up as a shield. He pressed the blade to Monk’s neck.
“Come out!” the man called in heavily accented English, sounding Germanic. “Or I will remove this one’s head.”
Kat closed her eyes. It was Kabul all over again. She and Captain Marshall had gone in to save two captured soldiers, teammates. Decapitation had been threatened. But they had no choice. Though the odds were stacked against them three-to-one, they had made an assault, going in quiet, with knives and bayonets. But she had missed one guard, hidden in an alcove. A crack of a rifle, and Marshall went down. She had dispatched the last guard with a fling of a dagger, but it was too late for the captain. She had held his body as he gasped his last breath, thrashing in pain, eyes on her, pleading, knowing, disbelieving…then nothing. Eyes gone to glass. A vital man, a tender man, gone like smoke.
“Come out now!” the man yelled across the necropolis.
“Kat?” Rachel subvocalized to her, touching her elbow. The Carabinieri lieutenant lay flat next to her on the roof.
“Stay hidden,” Kat said. “Try to make it to one of the ropes that lead out of here.” That had been their original plan, to leap from rooftop to rooftop, to gain one of the scaling ropes that still hung down from the level above, to raise the alarm and gather reinforcements. That plan must not fail.
Rachel knew this, too.
Kat had her own duty. She rolled off the mausoleum roof and landed lithely on her toes. She glided over two rows to hide her former position, leaving some room for Rachel to escape, then stepped out into the open, ten yards from the man who held Monk. Kat lifted her hands and tossed her pistol aside. She laced her fingers and put them atop her head.
“I surrender,” she said coldly.
Dazed and blind, Monk struggled, but the man restraining him had enough training to keep him subdued, on his knees, knife point digging into his neck. Kat studied Monk’s eyes as she strode forward.
The combatant relaxed. Kat noted his knife point shift away.
She dove forward, pulling the dagger from her wrist sheath. She used her momentum to fling the blade. It sailed and struck the man in the eye. He fell backward, carrying Monk with him.
Kat twisted, yanking a blade from her boot. She flipped it in the direction Monk had indicated, catching the barest flicker of shadow. A third combatant. A short cry followed. A man fell out of the shadows, pierced through the neck.
Monk struggled to his feet, fingers scrabbling and finding the other’s knife. But he had lost his goggles, and Kat didn’t have a spare pair. She would have to guide him.
She helped Monk up and placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Stay with me,” she whispered.
She turned as a flashlight flared ahead of her. Amplified by her night-vision scopes, the sudden brightness seared into the back of her head, blinding, painful.
A fourth combatant.
Someone she missed.
GRAY HAD noted the bloom of light on his computer screen, deep in the necropolis. That couldn’t be good. It proved not to be. On one side of the split-screen image, he watched Raoul press his radio to his ear, his smile broadening. On the other side, he watched Kat and Monk being marched out at gunpoint, arms secured behind their backs with yellow plastic fast-ties.
They were shoved up the steps to the top of the platform.
Raoul remained by the tomb. The ground continued to tremble. One of his bodyguards stood beside him; the other had gone down the ramp.
Raoul raised his voice. “Commander Pierce! Lieutenant Verona! Show yourselves now or these two die!”
Gray remained where he was. He didn’t have the force to overpower this situation. Rescue was hopeless. And if he gave in to the demands, he would just be handing his own life over. Raoul would kill them all. He closed his eyes, knowing he was dooming his teammates.
A new voice drew his eyes back open.
“I’m coming!” Rachel stepped into view on the second camera. She had her hands in the air.
Gray watched Kat shake her head. She, too, knew the foolishness of the lieutenant’s act.
Two armed gunmen collected Rachel and drove her to join the others.
Raoul stepped forward and pointed a meaty pistol into Rachel’s shoulder. He bellowed at her ear, “This is a horse pistol, Commander Pierce! Fifty-six caliber! It will rip her arm right off! Show yourself or I’ll start removing limbs! On the count of five!”
Gray saw the flash of terror in Rachel’s eyes.
Could he watch his friends brutally torn apart? And if he did, what would he gain? As he hid, Raoul and his men would surely take or destroy whatever clue had been hidden here. The others’ deaths would be for nothing.
He stared at the laptop, at Rachel…
Suppressing a groan, he wiggled out of his pack and grabbed one item from an inner pocket, palming it.
Gray switched the laptop into dark mode and clicked it closed. If he didn’t live, he would have to trust that the computer would serve as witness to the events down here.
Gray crawled out of the mausoleum but remained hidden. He circled to hide his position.
He ducked back onto the main street.
He laced his hands atop his head and stepped into sight. “I’m here. Don’t shoot!”
RACHEL WATCHED Gray march up to them at gunpoint.
From the hard look on Gray’s face, she recognized her error. She had hoped her surrender would buy Gray time to act, to do something to save them, or at least himself. She had not wanted to be the one left alone out in the necropolis, to stand by and watch the others be killed.
And while Kat had given herself up for Monk, the woman had had a rescue plan in place, botched though it may have ended. Rachel, on the other hand, had acted on faith alone, placing all her trust in Gray.
The Dragon Court leader shoved her aside, meeting Gray as he climbed atop the platform. Raoul raised the massive horse pistol, pointing it at Gray’s chest.
“You’ve caused me a hell of a lot of trouble.” He cocked the gun. “And no amount of body armor will stop this slug.”
Gray ignored him.
His eyes were on Monk, Kat…then Rachel.
He parted his fingers atop his head, revealing a matte-black egg, and said one word.
GRAY COUNTED on the full attention of Raoul and his men as the flash grenade exploded above his head. With his eyes squeezed closed, the strobing flare still burned through his lids, a crimson explosion.
Sightless, he dropped and rolled to the side.
He heard the thunderous bark of Raoul’s horse pistol.
Gray reached to his boot and pulled free his.40-caliber Glock.
As the strobe ended, Gray opened his eyes.
One of Raoul’s men lay at the foot of the steps, a fist-sized hole through his chest, taking the slug meant for Gray.
Raoul roared and dove off the platform, twisting in midair, shooting blindly back at the platform.
“Down!” Gray yelled.
Major-caliber slugs tore holes through steel.
The others dropped to their knees. Monk’s and Kat’s hands were still secured behind their backs.
Gray rolled and clipped one dazzled gunman in the ankle, toppling him off the platform. He shot another down at the foot of the steps.
He searched for Raoul. For such a giant of a man, he moved fast. Raoul had landed out of sight, but still blasted at them from below, tearing holes through the meshed floor of the platform.
They were sitting ducks.
Gray had no way of judging how long the flash grenade’s effects would last. They had to move.
“Get back!” Gray hissed to the others. “Through the gate!”
Gray fired a volley, covering their retreat, then followed.
Raoul had stopped firing for the moment, reloading. But no doubt he would come at them again with deadly fury.
Shouts arose from deeper in the necropolis. Other gunmen. They were rushing to the aid of their compromised comrades.
What now? He had only one magazine of ammo.
A cry rose behind him.
Gray glanced back. He watched Rachel flailing backward. She must have been half dazzled by the flash bomb. In the darkness, she missed seeing the ramp in front of the tomb and back-stepped into it. She grabbed for Kat’s elbow, trying to stop her fall.
But Kat was equally caught off-guard.
Both women tumbled down the ramp and rolled below.
Monk met Gray’s eyes. “Shit.”
“Down,” Gray said. It was the only shelter. And besides, they had to protect whatever clue lay below.
Monk went first, stumbling with his arms behind his back.
Gray followed as a new barrage began. Chunks of rock were torn from the surface of the tomb. Raoul had reloaded. He meant to keep them away.
Twisting around, Gray’s eyes caught on the green light glowing from one of the two plates attached to the tomb. Still activated. He thought quickly and made a choice. He pointed his pistol and fired.
The slug severed the knot of wires running to the plate. The green light winked out.
Gray ran down the stone ramp, noting the immediate cessation of the trembling in the ground. Both ears popped with a sudden release of pressure. The device had shorted.
Immediately a loud grinding sounded underfoot.
Gray dove forward and landed inside a small cavern at the foot of the ramp, a natural pocket, volcanic in origin, common in the hills of Rome.
Behind him, the ramp swung back up, closing.
Gray rolled to his feet, keeping his gun pointed up. As he had hoped, the device’s activation had opened the tomb, and likewise its deactivation was closing it. Outside, the barrage by Raoul continued, tearing into rock.
Too late, Gray thought with satisfaction.
With a final grate of stone on stone, the ramp sealed above them.
Darkness settled — but it was not complete.
The others had gathered around a slab of metallic black rock that rested on the floor. It was lit by a tiny pyre of blue flame atop its surface, rising like a small flume of electrical fire.
Gray approached. There was barely room for the four of them to circle it.
“Hematite,” Kat said, identifying the rock from her background in geology. She glanced from the sealed ramp to the slab. “An iron oxide.”
She bent down and studied the silver lines etched into its surface, tiny rivers against a black background, which were illuminated by the blue flames.
As Gray watched, the fire slowly expired, fading to a flicker, then winked out.
Monk drew their attention to a more immediate concern. Another glowing object.
“Over here,” he said.
Gray joined him. Resting in a corner of the blind cavern was a familiar silver cylinder, shaped like a barbell. An incendiary grenade. A timer counted down in the dark.
Gray remembered one of Raoul’s bodyguards ducking down here after their leader was done taking photographs. He had been planting the bomb.
“Looks like they intended to destroy this clue,” Monk said. He dropped down to one knee, studying the device. “Damn thing’s booby-trapped.”
Gray glanced to the sealed ramp. Maybe Raoul’s barrage a moment ago hadn’t been meant to drive them off — but to trap them.
He stared back to the bomb.
With the fiery star on the hematite slab extinguished, the only light in the cavern glowed from the LCD timer on the incendiary grenade.
VIGOR HAD felt the sudden release. The wash of electrical fire that had been tearing plaster from the cupola dispersed in seconds. Its energy skittered away like ghostly cerulean spiders.
Still, chaos reigned inside the basilica. Few noted the cessation of the fireworks. Half the parishioners had managed to flee to safety, but the logjam at the entrances had slowed further evacuation. The Swiss Guard and Vatican Police were doing their best to assist.
Some people hid under pews. Dozens of other parishioners had been struck by falling plaster and sat with bloody fingers pressed to scalp wounds. They were being helped and consoled by a handful of brave individuals, true Christians.
The Swiss Guard had come to the rescue of the pope. But he had refused to abandon the church, acting as the captain of this sinking ship. Cardinal Spera remained at his side. They had evacuated out from under the fiery baldacchino and taken shelter in the Clementina Chapel off to the side.
Vigor strode over to join them. He glanced back across the basilica. The chaos was slowly subsiding. Order was being restored. Vigor stared up at the assaulted dome. It had held — whether through the mercy of God or through the engineering genius of Michelangelo.
As Vigor approached, Cardinal Spera broke through the ranks of the Swiss Guard. “Is it over?”
“I…I don’t know,” Vigor said honestly. He had a larger concern.
The bones had been ignited. That was plain.
But what did that mean for Rachel and the others?
A new voice intruded, shouted with familiar command. Vigor turned to find a wide-shouldered, silver-haired man striding toward him, dressed in a black uniform, hat under his arm. General Joseph Rende, family friend and head of the local Parioli Station. Vigor now understood why order was being restored. The Carabinieri had responded in full force.
“What is His Holiness still doing here?” Rende asked Vigor, nodding to the pope, who remained ensconced among a clot of black-robed cardinals.
Vigor had no time to explain. He grabbed the general’s elbow. “We have to get below. To the Scavi.”
Rende frowned. “I just heard word from the station…from Rachel…something about a robbery down there. Then this all happened.”
Vigor shook his head. He wanted to scream his panic, but he spoke firmly and steadily. “Gather as many men as you can. We have to get down there. Now!”
To his credit, the general responded immediately, barking crisp commands. Black-uniformed men swiftly ran up, armed with assault weapons.
“This way!” Vigor said, heading to the sacristy door. The entrance to the Scavi was around back, not far. Still, Vigor could not move fast enough.
GRAY KNELT with Monk. He had freed both his teammates’ wrists with a knife hidden on Kat. Monk had borrowed Gray’s night-vision scopes to aid in his study.
“Are you sure you can’t defuse it?” Gray asked.
“If I had more time…better tools…some goddamn decent light…” Monk glanced to him and shook his head.
Gray watched the timer count down in the darkness.
Gray gained his feet and stepped to Kat and Rachel on the other side. Kat had been studying the ramp mechanism with the eyes of a trained engineer. She noted Gray’s approach without turning.
“The mechanism is a crude pressure plate,” she said. “Sort of like a deadman’s switch. It takes weight to hold the ramp closed. But lift the weight off and the ramp opens by gears and gravity. But it doesn’t make sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“As well as I can tell, the trigger plate lies under the tomb over our heads.”
“Saint Peter’s tomb?”
Kat nodded and directed Gray to the side. “Here is where they pulled the stabilizing pin after weighing down the plate with the tomb. Once set, the only way to open this ramp is to move Saint Peter’s tomb off the plate. But that didn’t happen when the Dragon Court activated their device.”
“Maybe it did….” Gray pictured the cylinder containing the super-conducting amalgam, how it had levitated. “Kat, do you remember your description of the test done in Arizona — the test on these m-state powders? How, when these superconductors were charged, they weighed less than zero?”
She nodded. “Because the powder was actually levitating the pan it held.”
“I think that’s what happened here. I saw the amalgam cylinder levitate when the device was turned on. What if the field around the amalgam affected the tomb, too, like the pan in the experiment. While not actually lifting the massive structure, it simply made the stone structure weigh less.”
Kat’s eyes widened. “Triggering the pressure plate!”
“Exactly. Does that offer any clue on how to reopen the ramp?”
Kat stared a moment at the mechanism. She slowly shook her head. “I’m afraid not. Not unless we can move the tomb.”
Gray glanced to the timer.
VIGOR RUSHED down the spiral stairs that led to the Scavi. He saw no evidence of trespassing. The narrow door appeared ahead.
“Wait!” General Rende said behind him. “Let one of my men go in first. If there are hostiles…”
Vigor ignored him and rushed to the door. He hit the latch. Unlocked. Thank God. He didn’t have a spare key.
His weight struck the door. But it held.
He bounced back, shoulder bruised.
Flipping the latch, he shoved again.
The door refused to budge, as if blocked or bolted on the far side.
Vigor stared back at General Rende.
RACHEL STARED unblinking as the timer ticked below one minute. “There must be another way out,” she mumbled.
Gray shook his head against such wishful thinking.
Still, Rachel refused to give up. She may not know engineering, nor the art of defusing a bomb. But she did know Rome’s history. “No bones,” she said.
Gray stared at her as if she had slipped a gear.
“Kat,” she said, “you mentioned that someone had to pull the stabilizing pin when the mechanism was first set, locking the ramp. Right?”
Rachel glanced at the others. “Then he would’ve been trapped down here. Where are his bones?”
Kat’s eyes widened.
Gray clenched a fist. “Another way out.”
“I think I just said that.” Rachel pulled a book of matches from one of her pockets. She struck a flame. “All we have to do is find an opening. Some secret tunnel.”
Monk joined them. “Pass those around.”
In seconds, each member held a flickering flame. They searched for some sign of a freshening breeze, a telltale sign of a hidden exit.
Rachel spoke out of nervousness. “Vatican Hill was named after the fortune-tellers that used to gather here. Vates is Latin for ‘seer of the future.’ Like many oracles of the time, they hid in caves like this and voiced prophecies.”
She studied her flame as she searched the wall.
Rachel tried not to glance at the timer, but failed.
“Maybe it’s sealed too tight,” Monk mumbled.
Rachel lit a fresh match.
“Of course,” she continued nervously, “most of the oracles were chalatans. Like turn-of-the-century séances, the soothsayer usually had an accomplice hidden in a secret niche or tunnel.”
“Or under the table,” Gray said. He had squatted by the slab of hematite. He held his match low to the ground. His flame flickered, dancing shadows on the walls. “Hurry.”
There was no need to goad them.
That was incentive enough.
Monk and Gray grabbed the edge of the slab, bending with their knees. They heaved up, legs straining.
Kay had dropped to her hands and held a match out. “There’s a narrow tunnel,” she said with relief.
“Get inside,” Gray ordered.
Kat waved Rachel down.
Rachel slid feetfirst through the hole, discovering a stone well. She squiggled down its throat. It took no effort with the steep incline. She slid on her butt. Kat followed next, then Monk.
Rachel craned around, counting in her head. Four seconds remained.
Monk braced the slab with his back. Gray dove headfirst between the man’s planted legs.
“Don’t have to tell me twice.”
Dropping, Monk let the slab’s weight push him into the chute.
“Down! Down!” Gray urged. “Get as much—”
The explosion cut out further words.
Rachel, still half turned, saw a wash of orange flames lick around the edges of the slab, searching for them.
Rachel ignored caution and slid down the chute. It grew steeper and steeper. Soon she was bobsledding down a dank tunnel on her rear end, uncontrolled.
Distantly a new noise intruded.
A rumbling rush of water.
FIFTEEN MINUTES later, Gray helped Rachel climb out of the Tiber River. They shivered on the bank. Her teeth chattered. He hugged her close and rubbed her shoulders and back, warming her as best he could.
“I…I’m okay,” she said, but she didn’t move away, even leaned a bit further into him.
Monk and Kat slogged out of the river, wet and muddy.
“We’d better keep moving,” Kat said. “It’ll help offset hypothermia until we can get into dry clothes.”
Gray set out, climbing the bank. Where were they? The escape chute had dumped into an underground stream. Blind, they had had no choice but to hold tight to one another’s belts and follow the flow of the channel, hoping it would dump them somewhere safe.
Gray had felt some stonework as they proceeded, his arm held out to avoid obstacles. Possibly an ancient sewer line or drainage canal. It had emptied into a maze of channels. They had continued following the downward flow, until at last they had reached a glowing pool, plainly illuminated by reflected light from beyond the underground tunnel. Gray had investigated the pool and discovered a short stone passage that emptied into the Tiber River.
The others had followed, and soon they were all back under the stars with a full moon shining down on the river. They had made it.
Monk squeezed river water from his shirtsleeves, glancing back at the channel. “If they had a goddamn back door, why all the business with the Magi bones?”
Gray had considered the same question and had an answer. “No one could find that back door by chance. I doubt I could even find my way back through that maze. These ancient alchemists hid the next clue in such a manner that the seeker not only had to solve the riddle, but also had to have a basic understanding of the amalgam and its properties.”
“It was a test,” Rachel said, shivering in the slight breeze. Clearly she had also pondered this matter. “A trial of passage before you could move onward.”
“I would’ve preferred a multiple choice test,” Monk said sourly.
Gray shook his head and climbed the bank. He kept his arm around Rachel, helping her. Her continuous shivering slowly subsided to occasional chilled shudders.
They reached the top and found themselves at the edge of a street. A park lay beyond. And farther up the hill, St. Peter’s Basilica glowed golden against the night sky. Up there, sirens blared and emergency lights flickered in hues of red and blue.
“Let’s find out what happened,” Gray said.
“And find a hot bath,” Monk grumped.
Gray didn’t argue.
AN HOUR later, Rachel sat wrapped in a warm, dry blanket. She still wore her damp clothes, but at least the trek here and the heated arguments with a series of stubborn guards had warmed her considerably.
They were all ensconced in the offices of the Holy See’s Secretary of State. The room was decorated with frescoes and outfitted with plush chairs and two long divans that faced each other. Seated around the room were Cardinal Spera, General Rende, and a very relieved uncle.
Uncle Vigor sat beside Rachel, her hand in his. He hadn’t let go since they had broken through the cordon and gained access to this inner sanctum.
They had gone over a preliminary account of events.
“And the Dragon Court is gone,” Gray asked.
“Even the bodies,” Vigor said. “It took us ten minutes to break through the lower door. All we found were some discarded weapons. They must’ve left the way they came in…through the roof.”
“At least the bones of Saint Peter are safe,” Cardinal Spera said. “The damage to the basilica and the necropolis can be repaired. If we had lost the relics…” He shook his head. “We owe you all a large debt.”
“And no one in attendance at the memorial service died,” Rachel said, equally relieved.
General Rende held up a folder. “Cuts and bumps, bruises, a few broken bones. More damage was done by the trampling crowd than from the series of quakes.”
Cardinal Spera absently twisted the two gold rings of his station, one on each hand, switching back and forth, a nervous gesture. “What about the cavern below the tomb? What did you find?”
Rachel frowned. “There was—”
“It was too dark to see clearly,” Gray said, cutting her off. He met her eyes, apologetic but firm. “There was a large slab that had some writing on it, but I suspect that the firebomb will have scorched the surface clean. We may never know what was there.”
Rachel understood his reluctance to speak plainly. The head prefect of the Archives had vanished during the confusion, disappearing with the Dragon Court. If Preffetto Alberto worked with the Court, who else might be a part of the conspiracy? Cardinal Spera had already promised to investigate Alberto’s room and private papers. Maybe it would lead somewhere.
In the meantime, discretion was important.
Gray cleared his throat. “If this debriefing is finished, I appreciate the Vatican’s hospitality in offering us a suite of rooms.”
“Certainly,” Cardinal Spera stood. “I’ll have someone show you there.”
“I’d also like to take another look around the Scavi myself. See if anything was missed.”
General Rende nodded. “I can send you with one of my men.”
Gray turned to Monk and Kat. “I’ll see you back up in the rooms.” His eyes flicked to include Rachel and Vigor.
Rachel nodded, understanding the silent command.
Speak to no one.
They would talk together later in private.
Gray headed out with General Rende.
Rachel watched him leave, remembering those arms around her. She tightened the blanket about her shoulders. It was not the same.
GRAY SEARCHED the mausoleum where he had hidden his gear. He found his pack where he had left it, unmolested.
Beside him, a young carabiniere stood as stiffly as his uniform was starched. The red stripes down the edges of his suit ran as straight as plumb lines, the white sash a perfect ninety-degree angle across his chest. The silver emblem on his hat looked spit-polished.
He eyed the pack as if Gray had just stolen it.
Gray did not bother to explain. He had too much on his mind. Though his backpack was still here, his laptop was gone. Someone had taken it. Only one person would steal the computer and leave the pack behind, someone conspicuously absent during the evening’s events.
Angry, Gray stalked back up out of the necropolis. As he was escorted, he barely noted the courtyards, stairs, and hallways. His mind worked feverishly. After five minutes of hiking and climbing, he pushed inside the team’s suite of rooms, leaving his escort outside.
The main room was opulent with gold leaf, embroidered furniture, and rich tapestries. A massive crystal chandelier filled a coved ceiling painted with clouds and cherubs.
Candles flickered in wall sconces and tabletop candelabras.
Kat sat in one of the chairs. Vigor in another. They had been in conversation as he entered. They had changed into thick white robes, as if this were a suite at the Ritz.
“Monk’s in the bath,” Kat said, nodding to one side.
“As is Rachel,” Vigor added, pointing an arm toward the other side. All their rooms shared this common living space.
Kat noted his pack. “You found some of our gear.”
“But not the laptop. I think Seichan nabbed it.”
Kat raised one eyebrow.
Gray felt too filthy to sit in any of the chairs, so he paced the room. “Vigor, can you get us out of here unseen in the morning?”
“I…guess. If need be. Why?”
“I want us off the map again as soon as possible. The less anyone knows of our whereabouts, the better.”
Monk entered the room. “We going somewhere?” He dug in an ear with a finger. A butterfly bandage closed the cut over his eye. He wore a white robe, too, which he had left open. At least there was a towel around his waist.
Before Gray could answer, the door on the opposite side opened. Rachel entered barefooted and robed, with her sash tied snugly. But as she strode toward the group, her robe still showed calf and much of her upper thigh. Her hair was freshly shampooed, wet and tousled. She finger-combed it into submission, but Gray liked it better wild.
“Commander?” Monk asked, dropping heavily into a chair. He kicked his legs up, adjusting his towel appropriately.
Gray took a deep swallow. What was I saying?
“Where are we going?” Kat prompted him.
“To find the next clue on this journey,” Gray said, clearing his throat, tightening his voice. “After what we saw this evening, do we want the Dragon Court to gain whatever knowledge lies at the end of this treasure hunt?”
No one argued.
Monk picked at his bandage. “What the hell did happen tonight?”
“I may have some idea.” Gray’s words drew all their full attention. “Is anyone familiar with Meissner fields?”
Kat raised a hand halfway. “I’ve heard that term used in reference to superconductors.”
Gray nodded. “When a charged superconductor is exposed to a strong electromagnetic field, a Meissner field develops. The strength of this field is proportional to the intensity of the magnetic field and the amount of power in the superconductor. It is a Meissner field that allows superconductors to levitate in a magnetic field. But other, stranger effects have been seen when manipulating superconductors, postulating other effects from Meissner fields. Inexplicable energy bursts, true antigravity, even distortions in space.”
“Is that what happened in the basilica?” Vigor asked.
“The activation of the amalgam, both here and in Cologne, was accomplished with nothing more than a pair of large electromagnetic plates.”
“Big magnets?” Monk asked.
“Tuned to a specific energy signature to release the power laying dormant in the m-state superconductor.”
Kat stirred. “And the released energy — this Meissner field — levitated the tomb…or at least made it weigh less. But what about the electrical storm inside the basilica?”
“I can only guess. The bronze and gold canopy over the papal altar lies directly above Saint Peter’s tomb. I think the metal columns of the canopy acted like giant lightning rods. They siphoned some of the energy given off below and blasted it upward.”
“But why would these ancient alchemists want to harm the basilica?” Rachel asked.
“They wouldn’t,” Vigor answered. “They didn’t. Remember, we estimated that these clues were laid sometime during the thirteenth century.”
Vigor paused, then rubbed his beard. “In fact, it would’ve been easy to construct the secret chamber during that same time period. The Vatican was mostly empty. It did not become the seat of papal power until 1377, when the popes returned from their century-long exile in France. Prior to that, the Lateran Palace in Rome had been the papal seat. So the Vatican was unimportant and unwatched during the thirteenth century.”
Vigor turned to Rachel. “So the electrical storm could not be the alchemists’ fault. Bernini’s baldacchino wasn’t installed until the 1600s. Centuries after the clues had been laid here. The storm had to be an unfortunate accident.”
“Unlike what happened in Cologne,” Gray countered. “The Dragon Court purposefully tainted those Communion wafers with m-state gold. I think they used the parishioners as guinea pigs in some vile experiment. Their first field test. To judge the strength of the amalgam, to validate their theories. The ingested m-state gold acted like the bronze canopy here. It absorbed the energy of the Meissner field, electrocuting the parishioners from the inside out.”
“All those deaths,” Rachel said.
“Nothing more than an experiment.”
“We must stop them,” Vigor asserted, his voice brittle.
Gray nodded. “But first we have to figure out where to go next. I memorized the drawing. I can sketch it out.”
Rachel glanced to him, then to her uncle.
“What?” Gray asked.
Vigor shifted and pulled forth a folded piece of paper. He leaned forward and smoothed it on the table. It was a map of Europe.
“I recognized the line drawing on the rock,” Rachel said. “The tiny river delta gave it away, especially if you live along the Mediterranean. Watch.”
Rachel leaned forward and made a square box of her fingers, as if she were sizing up a photo shot. She laid it atop the eastern end of the map.
Gray stared down, as did the others. The enclosed section of the coastline was a rough match to the etched line drawing on the hematite slab.
“It’s a map,” he said.
“And the glowing star…” Rachel met his eyes.
“There must’ve been a tiny deposit of m-state gold imbedded in the slab. It absorbed the Meissner field energy and ignited.”
“Marking a spot on the map.” Rachel placed a finger on the paper.
Gray leaned closer. A city lay at her fingertip, at the mouth of the Nile, where it drained into the Mediterranean.
“Alexandria,” Gray read. “In Egypt.”
He lifted his eyes, his face inches from Rachel’s. Their eyes locked as he looked down upon her. Both froze for a heartbeat. Her lips parted slightly as if she were going to say something but forgot her words.
“The Egyptian city was a major bastion of Gnostic study,” Vigor said, breaking the spell. “Once the home of the famed Library of Alexandria, a vast storehouse of ancient knowledge. Founded by Alexander the Great himself.”
Gray straightened. “Alexander. You mentioned he was one of the historical figures who knew about the white powder of gold.”
Vigor nodded, eyes bright.
“Another magi,” Gray said. “Could he be the fourth Magi we were instructed to seek?”
“I can’t say for sure,” Vigor answered.
“I can,” Rachel replied, her voice certain. “The verse in the riddle…it specifically refers to a lost king.”
Gray remembered the riddle about the fish. Where it drowns, it floats in darkness and stares to the lost king.
“What if it wasn’t just allegorical?” Rachel insisted. “What if it was literal?”
Gray didn’t understand, but Vigor’s eyes widened.
“Of course!” he said. “I should have thought of that.”
“What?” Monk asked.
Rachel explained, “Alexander the Great died at a young age. Thirty-three. His funeral and internment were well documented in the historical record. His body was laid in state in Alexandria.” She tapped the map. “Only…only…”
Vigor finished for her, too excited. “His tomb vanished.”
Gray stared down at the map. “Making him the lost king,” he mumbled. His gaze swept the room. “Then we know where we have to go next.”
THE IMAGE on the laptop played through once again, without sound, video only. From the appearance of the Dragon Court, through the escape of the Sigma team. There continued to be no answers. Whatever lay below in Saint Peter’s tomb remained a mystery.
Disappointed, he closed the laptop and leaned back from his desk.
Commander Pierce had not been entirely forthcoming at the debriefing. His lie had been easy to read. The commander had discovered something in the tomb.
But what had he found? How much did he know?
Cardinal Spera leaned back, twisting the gold ring around his finger.
It was time to end all this.
JULY 26, 7:05 A.M.
OVER THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA
THEY’D BE in Egypt in two hours.
Aboard the private jet, Gray inventoried his pack. Director Crowe had managed to outfit them with new supplies and weapons. Even laptops. The director had also had the foresight to move their rented Citation X plane down from Germany to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport.
Gray checked his watch. They had taken off half an hour ago. The two hours remaining until they landed in Alexandria was all the time the group had to strategize. The few hours of downtime in Rome had at least helped revive the group. They had left before dawn, sneaking out of Vatican City without alerting anyone of their departure.
Director Crowe had arranged additional cover at his end, setting up a dummy flight plan to Morocco. He had then used his contacts with National Reconnaissance Office to change their call signs in mid-flight as they turned for Egypt. It was the best they could do to cover their tracks.
Now there remained only one detail to iron out.
Where to begin their search in Alexandria?
To answer this, the Citation X’s cabin had been turned into a research think tank. Kat, Rachel, and Vigor all hunched over workstations. Monk was up in the cockpit, coordinating transportation and logistics once on the ground. The man had already taken apart and inspected his new Scattergun. He kept it with him. As he stated, “I feel naked without it. And trust me, you wouldn’t want that.”
In the meantime, Gray had his own investigation to pursue. Though it was not directly related to the immediate question, he intended to research further into the mystery of these m-state superconductors.
Gray stood and crossed to the trio of researchers. “Any headway?” he asked.
Kat answered, “We’ve divided our efforts. Scouring all references and documents beginning before Alexander’s birth and continuing through his death and the eventual disappearance of his tomb.”
Vigor rubbed his eyes. He’d had the least sleep of any of them. A single hour nap. The monsignor had taken it upon himself to do some further research among the stacks at the Vatican Archives. He was sure that the head prefect of the libraries, the traitor Dr. Alberto Menardi, was the mastermind behind solving the riddles for the Dragon Court. Vigor had hoped to track the prefect’s footsteps, to gain some additional insight. But little had been discerned.
Kat continued, “Mystery still surrounds Alexander. Even his parentage. His mother was a woman named Olympias. His father was King Philip II of Macedonia. But there’s some disagreement here. Alexander came to believe his father was a god named Zeus Ammon, and that he himself was a demigod.”
“Not exactly humble,” Gray said.
“He was a man of many contradictions,” Vigor said. “Prone to drunken rages, but thoughtful in his strategy. Fierce in his friendships, but murderous when crossed. He dabbled with homosexuality, but married both a Persian dancer and the daughter of a Persian king, this last in an attempt to unite Persia and Greece. But back to his parentage. It was well known that his mother and father hated each other. Some historians believe Olympias may have had a hand in assassinating King Philip. And what’s interesting is that one writer, Pseudo-Callisthenes, claimed Alexander was not the son of Philip, but instead was the son of an Egyptian magician to the court, named Nectanebo.”
“A magician…as in magi?” Gray understood the implication.
“Whoever his parents truly were,” Kat continued, “he was born on July 20, 356 B.C.”
Vigor shrugged. “But even that might not be true. On that same date, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus burned down. One of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The historian Plutarch wrote that Artemis herself was ‘too busy taking care of the birth of Alexander to send help to her threatened temple.’ Some scholars believe the choice of date might be propaganda, the true date of Alexander’s birth moved to match this portentous event, portraying the king as a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
“And a rise it was,” Kat said. “Alexander lived only to thirty-three, but he conquered most of the known world during his short life. He defeated King Darius of Persia, then went on to Egypt, where he founded Alexandria, then on to Babylonia.”
Vigor finished, “Eventually he moved east into India, to conquer the Punjab region. The same region where Saint Thomas would eventually baptize the Three Magi.”
“Uniting Egypt and India,” Gray noted.
“Connecting a line of ancient knowledge,” Rachel said, stirring from her own laptop. She didn’t raise her eyes, still focused on her research, but she did work a kink from her back.
Gray liked the way she stretched, slow, unhurried.
Maybe she noticed his study. Without turning her head, just her eyes flicked toward him. She stuttered a moment, glancing away. “He…Alexander even sought out Indian scholars, spending a significant amount of time in philosophical discussions. He was very interested in new sciences, having been taught by Aristotle himself.”
“But his life was cut short,” Kat continued, drawing back Gray’s attention. “He died in 323 B.C. In Babylon. Under mysterious circumstances. Some say he died of natural causes, but others believe he was poisoned or contracted a plague.”
“It is also said,” Vigor added, “that upon his deathbed in the royal palace of Babylon, he gazed out upon the city’s famous Hanging Gardens, a tower of sculpted terraces, rooftop gardens, and waterfalls. Another of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.”
“So his life began with the destruction of one and ended at another.”
“It may just be allegorical,” Vigor conceded. He scratched at the beard under his chin. “But Alexander’s history seems strangely tied to the Seven Wonders. Even the first compilation of the Seven Wonders was made by an Alexandrian librarian named Callimachus of Cyrene in the third century B.C. The towering bronze statue in Rhodes, another of the Wonders, the ten-story Colossus that spanned the island’s harbor and held up a fiery torch, like your Statue of Liberty, was modeled after Alexander the Great. Then there’s the Statue of Zeus in Olympia, a glowering four-story figure of gold and marble. By Alexander’s own claim, possibly his real father. And there can be no doubt that Alexander visited the Pyramids of Giza. He spent a full decade in Egypt. So Alexander’s fingerprints seem to be all over these masterpieces of the ancient world.”
“Can this be significant?” Gray asked.
Vigor shrugged. “I can’t say. But Alexandria itself was once home to another of the Seven Wonders, the last to be built, though it no longer stands. The Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria. It rose from a spit of land extending into the harbor of Alexandria, splitting the bay into two halves. It was a three-tiered tower of limestone blocks, held together by molten lead. It rose taller than your Statue of Liberty, some forty stories. At its top, a fire burned in a brazier, amplified by a gold mirror. Its light guided boat pilots from as far away as fifty kilometers. Even today, the very name lighthouse harkens back to this Wonder. In French, phare. In Spanish and Italian, faro.”
“And how does this connect to our search for Alexander’s tomb?” Gray asked.
“We were pointed to Alexandria,” Vigor said. “Chasing clues left by an ancient society of magi. I can’t help but think that the lighthouse, this shining symbol of a guiding light, would be significant to this group. There’s also a legend surrounding the Pharos Lighthouse — that its golden light was so potent that it could burn ships at a distance. Perhaps this hints back to some unknown source of power.”
Vigor finally sighed and shook his head. “But how this all hangs together, I don’t know.”
Gray appreciated the monsignor’s intellect, but he needed more concrete information, something to pursue once they arrived in Alexandria. “Then let’s go directly to the heart of the mystery. Alexander died in Babylon. What happened after that?”
Kat spoke up, leaning over her laptop. She ran a finger down a list she had compiled. “There are many historical references to the parade of his body from Babylon to Alexandria. Once entombed in Alexandria, it became a shrine for visiting dignitaries, including Julius Caesar and the emperor Caligula.”
“During this time,” Vigor added, “the city itself was ruled by one of Alexander’s former generals, Ptolemy, and his descendants. They would go on to establish the Library of Alexandria, turning the city into a major site of intellectual and philosophical study, bringing scholars from around the known world.”
“And what happened to the tomb?”
“That’s what’s intriguing,” Kat said. “The tomb was supposedly a massive sarcophagus made of gold. But in other references, including the major historian of the time, Strabo, the tomb is described as being made of glass.”
“Perhaps golden glass,” Gray said. “One of the states of the m-state powder.”
Kat nodded. “In the early third century A.D.; Septimus Severus closed the tomb from viewing, out of concern for its safety. It’s also interesting to note that he placed many secret books into the vault. Here’s a quote.” She leaned forward to the laptop. “‘So none could read the books nor see the body.’” She pushed back and glanced to Gray. “This plainly supports that something of great importance was hidden at this tomb site. Some storehouse of secret arcana that Septimus feared would be lost or stolen.”
Vigor elaborated, “There were many attacks upon Alexandria from the first through third centuries. They grew worse and worse. Julius Caesar himself burned a large portion of the Alexandrian library to ward off attack at the harbor. These attacks would continue, leading to the eventual destruction and dissolution of the library by the seventh century. I can understand why Septimus would want to protect a portion of the library by hiding it. He must have hidden the most important scrolls there.”
“It wasn’t just military aggressors that threatened the city,” Kat added. “A series of plagues struck. Frequent earthquakes damaged significant parts of Alexandria. A whole section of the city fell into the bay in the fourth century, destroying the Ptolemaic Royal Quarters, including Cleopatra’s palace, and much of the Royal Cemetery. In 1996, a French explorer, Franck Goddio, discovered sections of this lost city in the East Harbor of Alexandria. Another archaeologist, Honor Frost, believes that perhaps this might be the fate of Alexander’s tomb, sunk into a watery grave.”
“I’m not convinced of that,” Vigor said. “Rumors abound on the location of that tomb, but most historical documents place the tomb in the center of the city, away from the coastline.”
“Until, like I said, Septimus Severus closed it off,” Kat argued. “Maybe he moved it.”
Vigor frowned. “Either way, throughout the subsequent centuries, treasure hunters and archaeologists scoured Alexandria and its vicinity. Even today, there’s a gold-rush-like fervor to find this lost tomb. A couple of years ago, a German geophysics team used ground-penetrating radar to show that the subsoil throughout Alexandria is riddled with anomalies and cavities. There are plenty of places to hide a tomb. It could take decades to search them all.”
“We don’t have decades,” Gray said. “I don’t know if we have twenty-four hours.”
Frustrated, Gray paced the narrow cabin. He knew the Dragon Court had the same intel as they did. It would not take them long to realize the hematite slab under Saint Peter’s tomb was a map with Alexandria marked on it.
He faced the trio. “So where do we look first?”
“I may have one hint,” Rachel said, speaking for the first time in a while. She had been furiously typing at her keyboard and squinting at the screen periodically. “Or two.”
All attention turned to her.
“There is a reference back in the ninth century, testimony from the emperor of Constantinople, that some, and I quote, ‘fabulous treasure’ was hidden within or under the Pharos Lighthouse. In fact, the caliph who ruled Alexandria at the time dismantled half of the lighthouse searching for it.”
Gray noted that Vigor stirred at her words. He remembered the monsignor’s interest in the lighthouse. Rachel must have been swayed by her uncle and gone in search of clues.
“Others periodically continued the search, but the lighthouse served a strategic role for the harbor.”
Vigor nodded, his eyes glowing with excitement. “What better place to hide something you don’t want dug up than under a structure too important to tear down?”
“Then it all ended on August 8, 1303, when a massive quake shook the eastern Mediterranean. The lighthouse was destroyed, toppling into the same harbor where the Ptolemaic ruins fell.”
“What became of the original site?” Gray asked.
“It varied over the centuries. But in the fifteenth century, a Mamluk sultan built a fort on the peninsula. It still stands today, the Fort of Qait Bey. Some of its construction includes the original limestone blocks that made up the lighthouse.”
“And if the treasure was never found,” Vigor continued, “then it must still be there…beneath the fort.”
“If it ever existed,” Gray warned.
“It’s a place to start looking,” Vigor said.
“And what do we do? Knock on the door and ask them if it’s okay to dig under their fort?”
Kat offered a more practical solution. “We contact NRO. They have access to satellites with ground-penetrating radar capability. Have them do a pass over the site. We can look for any abnormalities or cavities like the German geophysicists did in the city. It might help pinpoint our search.”
Gray nodded. It wasn’t a bad idea. But it would take time. He had already checked. It would be eight hours until the next pass of a surveillance satellite.
Rachel offered an alternative. “Remember the back door into the cavern under Saint Peter’s tomb? Maybe we don’t have to go in the front door of the Fort of Qait Bey. Maybe there’s a back entrance. One underwater like in Rome.”
Gray liked her idea.
Rachel seemed to take strength from the approval in his face. “There are tour groups that dive on the sites near Qait Bey and the Ptolemaic ruins. We could easily blend in and search the underwater coastline of the harbor.”
“It might not lead to anything,” Kat said, “but it would allow us to do something until a GPR satellite could make a pass over there.”
Gray nodded slowly. It was a start.
Monk pushed into the cabin from the cockpit. “I have a van and a hotel already booked under our aliases, and customs has already been cleared through some cooperation with Washington. I think that should take care of everything.”
“No.” Gray turned to him. “We’re also going to need a boat. Preferably something fast.”
Monk’s eyes widened. “Okay,” he dragged out. His gaze settled on Rachel. “But she’s not going to be driving the damn thing, is she?”
THE HEAT of the morning did not help Raoul’s mood. It was only midmorning and already the temperature spiked. Sunlight baked the stone square outside and glared too brightly. His naked body gleamed with sweat as he stood at the doors out to his room’s balcony. The doors were open but no breeze moved.
He hated Rome.
He despised the stupefying herds of tourists, the black-draped locals smoking continually, the constant chatter, yells, the honking cars. The air reeked of petrol.
Even the whore he had picked up in Travastere, her hair smelled of cigarettes and sweat. She stank of Rome. He rubbed his raw knuckles. At least the sex had been satisfactory. No one had heard her screams through the ball gag. He had enjoyed the way she squirmed under his knife as he dragged the tip around the wide brown nipples and corkscrewed down her breast. But he had found greater satisfaction pounding her face with his fist, flesh to flesh, as he rutted into her.
Upon her body, he beat out his frustration with Rome, with the bastard American who had nearly blinded him, ruining his chance to make their deaths slow. And now he had learned that the others had somehow again escaped certain doom.
He turned from the window. The whore’s body was already wrapped in the bedsheets. His men would dispose of the corpse. It meant nothing to him.
At the bedside table, the phone rang. He had been expecting this call. It was what had really soured his mood.
He crossed and picked up the cell phone.
“Raoul,” he said.
“I received the report from last night’s mission.” As expected, it was the Imperator of his Order. His voice was stiff with fury.
He was cut off. “I won’t accept any excuse. Failure is one thing, but insubordination will not be tolerated.”
Raoul frowned at this last. “I would never disobey.”
“Then what about the woman, Rachel Verona?”
“Sir?” He pictured the black-haired bitch. He remembered the smell of the nape of her neck as he clutched her and threatened her with a knife. He had felt her heartbeat in her throat as he squeezed and lifted her to her toes.
“You were instructed to capture her…not kill her. The others were to be eliminated. Those were your orders.”
“Yes, sir. Understood. But three times now, I’ve been restrained from using full brutal force against the American team because of this caution. They are still in this matter only because of such restraint.” He hadn’t been planning on excusing his failures, but here was one handed to him. “I need better clarification. Which is more important: the mission or the woman?”
A long silence stretched. Raoul smiled. He poked the dead body on the bed with the tip of his finger.
“You do make a good point.” The edge of fury had faded from the other’s voice. “The woman is important, but the mission must not be jeopardized. The wealth and power at the end of this trail must be ours.”
And Raoul knew why. It had been drilled into him since childhood. The ultimate goal of their sect. To bring about a New World Order, one led by their Court, descendants of kings and emperors, genetically pure and superior. It was their birthright. For generations, going back centuries, their Court had hunted for the treasure and arcane knowledge of this lost society of mages. Whoever possessed it would hold the “keys to the world,” or so it was written in an ancient text in the Court’s library.
Now they were so close.
Raoul spoke, “Then I have the go-ahead to proceed forward without concern for the woman’s security?”
A sigh came through. Raoul wondered if the Imperator was even aware of it. “There will be disappointment in her loss,” he answered. “But the mission must not fail. Not after so long. So to clarify, the opposition must be destroyed by any and all means. Is that plain enough?”
“Good. But I will also ask that if the opportunity should arise where the woman could be captured, all the better. Still, take no needless risks.”
Raoul tightened a fist. He had a question that had been bothering him. He had never asked it before. He had learned it best to keep such curiosities to himself, to obey without question. Still, he asked it now. “Why is she so important?”
“The Dragon blood runs strongly through her. Back all the way to our Austrian Hapsburg roots. In fact, she had been chosen for you, Raoul. To be your mate. The Court sees great value in strengthening our lines through such a blood tie.”
Raoul stood straighter. He had been denied offspring until now. The few women who took his seed were forced to abort or were killed. It was forbidden to sully their royal bloodlines by producing mud children.
“I hope this information encourages you to seek out an opportunity to secure her. But as I stated, even her blood is expendable if the mission is threatened. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Raoul found his breath shortened. He again pictured the woman clutched in his arms, held at knifepoint. The smell of her fear. She would make a good baroness…and if not that, then at least an excellent brood mare. The Dragon Court hid a few such women across Europe, caged away, kept alive only to produce children.
Raoul grew hard thinking about such an opportunity.
“Everything has been arranged in Alexandria,” the Imperator finished. “The endgame nears. Get what we need. Slay all who stand in your way.”
Raoul slowly nodded, though the Imperator could not see it.
He pictured the black-haired bitch…and what he would do to her.
RACHEL STOOD behind the wheel of the speedboat, one knee on the bucket seat behind her to support her. Once past the No Wake buoy, she gunned the throttle and shot across the bay. The boat skimmed the flat water, bucking over the occasional wake of another boat.
Wind whipped her hair. Spray cooled her face. Sunlight glinted brightly off the sapphire blue waters of the Mediterranean. Her every sense rang and tingled.
It helped awaken her after the plane ride and the hours spent in front of the computer. They had landed forty minutes ago. They had breezed through customs, greased by Monk’s calls, and had found the boat and gear already waiting for them at the pier to the East Harbor.
Rachel glanced behind her.
The city of Alexandria rose from the arc of the blue bay, a modern sprawl of high-rise apartments,