Authors: Lyman, John
God’s Lions – The Secret Chapel
God’s Lions – House of AcerbiPRAISE FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IN THE “GOD’S LIONS” SERIESEditorial reviews for “God’s Lions – The Secret Chapel” (The first book in the “God’s Lions” series)
“Readers who enjoy religious tales filled with symbols and mysteries will find themselves well-supplied.”
J.C. Martin, Arizona Daily Star Newspaper
“A thrilling ride through fact and faith. Lyman skillfully blends scientific facts and religious mythology to propel the reader through a marvelous story to a satisfying, if startling conclusion. He paints realistic characters and puts them in terrific binds. Excellent fiction that I waited too long to read!
Ron Franscell, Bestselling author of “Delivered from Evil”What readers are saying
“Well researched and masterfully woven, this novel will glue you to your seat and have you hanging on with your fingernails.”
“Books like this make one think outside of what you think you know about the world.”
“I could not put this book down – absolutely unpredictable.”Reviews for “God’s Lions – House of Acerbi” (The second book in the God’s Lions series)
“Simply thrilling! If you read anyone this year, put this author on your short list.”
“In a sequel even better than ‘The Secret Chapel’, John Lyman has put forth an exhilarating tale filled with twists and suspense. If you believe the Bible hides important codes about the future of mankind, or love a Crichton-esque drama, ‘House of Acerbi’ will exceed your expectations. You won’t want to put it down until you’re done.”
“God’s Lions- House of Acerbi” was the perfect sequel to “The Secret Chapel”. Whether you’re into religious fiction or techno-thrillers, this one has it all ... another terrific spiritual thriller that I couldn’t put down.”
This book is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental.
© 2012 John Brooks Lyman
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author.
ISBN: 978-1-4800-0472-6 (print)
Cover art by Travis Schmidt
ebook design by eBook Architects
QED stands for Quality, Excellence and Design. The QED seal of approval shown here verifies that this eBook has passed a rigorous quality assurance process and will render well in most eBook reading platforms.
For more information pleaseclick here.ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
First and foremost I want to thank my wonderful wife, Leigh Jane Lyman. Without her help you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. I also want to thank all of my test readers for their valuable feedback and support, especially Chuck Autrey here in the United States, and Shaneese Robinson, my test reader across the pond.
For my grandmother, Evelyn Kingery Wehling“A Beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast, the less he knows it.”George MacDonaldPREFACE
Writing a sequel is always difficult. After I wrote “God’s Lions-The Secret Chapel”, it was evident from the amount of email I received that readers wanted more, thus the “God’s Lions” series was born. Although I have endeavored to make each book a stand-alone novel, I wanted to provide an historical perspective relating to the Cathars who featured so prominently in the second novel in the series, “God’s Lions-House of Acerbi”. Therefore, I have decided to include a brief history of the Cathars to provide some background for readers who haven’t read the first two books, and perhaps serve as a refresher for those who have.
The origin of the Cathars remains something of a mystery. They were a religious group that suddenly appeared in the Languedoc region of southern France in the 11thcentury long before the days of the Protestant Reformation that eventually changed the face of religion in the Christian world forever. The Cathars had been a separate religion from Catholicism—the word Cathar coming from the GreekKatharoi, meaning “pure ones”. Unlike other medieval movements, they had formed their own system of religious beliefs centered on kindness to others, the rejection of material wealth, and the promise of universal redemption inspired by Christ and his disciples.
They alleged that the physical world was evil and created by the Satan-like god they calledRex Mundi. He was known as “the king of the world” who ruled over all that was physical, chaotic, and powerful. The other god, the one whom the Cathars worshipped, was a higher god—a god of love—a pure spirit that embraced his human followers. They believed that Jesus Christ was his messenger and referred to themselves as Christians, but the Catholic Church called them something else. To the medieval Catholic Church, the Cathars were heretics.
At the time, the Languedoc region of southern France that the Cathars lived in was not really considered a part of France. The culture of the area was still rooted in the feudal system, but the enlightened Cathars refused to swear an oath to any feudal lord. By the early 13thcentury, the tolerant and liberal beliefs of the Cathars had become the dominate religion in the area, much to the annoyance of the Catholic Church which was being held up to public ridicule when its bejeweled abbots and priests, dressed in their best finery, preached poverty and demanded tithes to be paid to them in the name of the Church. The Cathars referred to the Catholic Church as theChurch of the Wolves, while the Catholics countered with accusations that the Cathars belonged to theSynagogue of Satan.
And so it went, back and forth, until finally, the Church had had enough. After the French King, Phillip Augustus, refused to intervene, Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc and formed aHoly Army. The first military leader of this army was a Cistercian abbot by the name of Arnaud Amaury, a churchman with a sadistic penchant for terror and killing. He is best remembered for a command he shouted to his troops before they entered the town ofBéziersin 1209. When asked by his soldiers how they could differentiate between the Catholics and Cathars, he said“Kill them all ... God will know his own!”
During this period of history, a war of terror was waged against the indigenous population of the Languedoc by the Church. An estimated 500,000 Languedoc men, women, and children were massacred—Catholics as well as Cathars. During the attack onBéziers, the doors to the church of St. Mary Magdalene were broken down, and over 7000 men, women, and children were reportedly dragged out and slaughtered. Thousands of others in the same town were blinded, mutilated, dragged behind horses, burned at the stake, and used for target practice before the holy crusader army burned the city to the ground.
After the siege, Arnaud proudly wrote to Pope Innocent III,“Today, Your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.”Later, after the massacre atBéziers, Simon de Monfort, an especially dangerous and cruel baron who had successfully laid siege to the walled city of Carcassonne, was designated as the new leader of the Crusader army. The war against the Cathars continued on and off through the 14thcentury, setting the precedent for the various church-sponsored inquisitions that were to follow. In the end, an entire culture had almost been exterminated from the face of the Earth in what can only be described as church-sanctioned genocide. The crusade against the Cathars of the Languedoc has been described by historians as one of the greatest human disasters in history on par with that of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II.CONTENTS
THE FERTILE CRESCENT – 10,000 B.C.
On the day the entity returned, a small gathering of primitive nomadic tribesmen were sitting on a crude stone floor, staring up at a massive limestone monolith that towered above their heads. The men were looking at the carved image of a snake, its forked tongue flicking outward, and in a bas-relief tableau that wrapped around all four sides of the gigantic block of stone, they could see other creatures, mostly predators, including leopards, wolves, and scorpions.
Encircled by twelve similar monoliths, a blackened area on the floor marked the spot where a fire had burned overnight, keeping the darkness at bay while the men moved the last stone giant into place. Now, with the sun peeking over the horizon, no one dared to speak, for even though they knew the thing was coming, they feared their words might anger the dark apparition that had haunted their dreams for so long.
For the past two years the men had toiled under a blazing sun to do what the entity had commanded of them. They had worked day in and day out, hacking gigantic blocks of stone from a nearby hillside to be used in the construction of something that was a total mystery to them, and already a dozen of their number had been killed—crushed to death before they had learned the finer points of moving heavy stone objects that weighed over sixteen tons.
In the years preceding the appearance of the entity, this tightly-knit band of hunter-gatherers had roamed the land at will, sleeping under the stars while maintaining a close bond with Mother Earth. They had moved from one place to another following the herds of animals that provided their food and clothing, and like their ancestors before them, they had drunk clear water from free-flowing rivers and wandered through vast green forests where the game was always plentiful and fresh.
Compared to their modern-day brethren, they had lived a relatively idyllic life, but on a warm spring day, as they camped on a grassy plain beneath a potbelly-shaped hill, something had happened—something that was so frightening to these people that they had suddenly ceased their wandering ways to begin construction of something that was completely useless to them.
Where before their life had been one of fluid motion and play, these nomadic tribesmen now toiled beneath an unyielding sun to build something that had never before been seen on the entire planet, and had it not been for the instructions given to them by the entity, they never would have considered building such a thing in the first place.
As far as they could tell, this circle of stone served no obvious purpose. It just sat there, a constant reminder of the seemingly endless days spent in back-breaking labor. A full seven millennia before the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza had even begun, these men had broken with thousands of years of tradition to build a complex stone structure by hand, all without the benefit of metal tools, wheels, or draft animals. The only question was—why?
It was a question that would cause archaeologists to scratch their heads in wonder when, in the 20thcentury, the Stonehenge-like circle of stone was finally unearthed in modern-day Turkey. But unbeknownst to these present-day finders of ancient artifacts, even the primitive men who had labored so long and hard to build it had no idea why they had done it other than the fact that they had been told to do so by something that terrified them.
Now, sitting on a crude stone floor, the men waited, and in the afternoon, as the sun began to beat down on the grassy slope with a fiery stillness, the sound of a dog barking in the distance heralded the arrival of dark clouds that began to flow in from the east. They were roiling black clouds; the kind that brought strong winds and blotted out the sun, and right on cue the winds began to blow.
Huddled inside the circle of stone, the men lifted their fur skins over their heads in an attempt to shield their eyes from the swirling dust, all the while hoping against hope that the structure they had been ordered to build would somehow appease the thing they knew was coming.
Without so much as a whisper, a dark shape began to materialize in the center of the ring. It wavered in and out of the earth plane like a fluctuating hologram from another dimension, until finally, as a hot, sulfur-infused wind continued to blow, a leathery-winged apparition stood before them, swinging it’s monstrous head from side-to-side as its blood-red eyes fixed them with an otherworldly stare.
As the frightened men began to scuttle backward, the ground began to quiver, and as the shaking grew stronger the stone floor became transparent, revealing a black crystal abyss that fell away into the depths of the Earth beneath the feet of the terrified men.
Above their heads, a pillar of bluish light carrying two objects resembling large seeds suddenly descended from the base of the dark clouds, and as soon as they touched the transparent floor, the black surface seemed to liquefy, embracing the objects and pulling them into its depths. For a moment the ground seemed to quiver, as if Mother Earth had been struck by something she wanted to reject. Then all was quiet as the liquefied stone slowly returned to its original solid state.
Frozen in place by fear, the petrified men continued to shrink from the gaze of the hideous winged creature that towered above them, for their instinct for survival had kicked into overdrive, alerting them to avoid its demonic stare. Somehow they knew that if they gazed into the burning red orbs, it would only bring an end to lives that were already too short.
Please leave us!The terrified men covered their eyes and began to call out in an instinctive plea for deliverance, for even though they had no true concept of God, they had come to believe that if the dark apparition standing before them existed, then surely its opposite must also exist somewhere, and maybe it could help them. If there was a spirit of darkness, then there must also be a spirit of light—one that could intercede on their behalf and deliver them from this evil. Just like day and night, where the night was to be feared because it cloaked the predators that stalked them in darkness, the light was to be welcomed, for its brightness illuminated their path and revealed those creatures that lay in wait to rob them of their lives.
But there was also another thing these men had figured out. The apparition wavering before them had come from somewhere, but it was not of this earth, which meant that there was another realm out there—one that was invisible to them. If this monstrous thing had come from a world of darkness, which surely it did, then that meant there had to be a world of light—and therein lay their salvation.It had to be!
On the day the entity had first appeared to them standing inside a pillar of fire on the hillside above, the tribesmen had quickly agreed to do whatever it asked of them on the condition that it would spare their lives. They had kept their part of the bargain. They had built the structure it had commanded them to build ... now go! Leave us in peace!
Peering out from under his animal-skin hood, one of the men fell to his knees.The entity was gone!High overhead, the roiling black clouds were already disappearing over the horizon, while on the ground, the wind had descended to a gentle breeze, leaving the shaken men in a state of bewildered relief as the shrieking wind was replaced by the sound of dry leaves rolling across the still-warm stones of the temple floor.
In the days that followed, the men and their families decided to bury the temple as best they could and flee toward the coast, lest the entity return. In their exodus, these people and the generations that followed them began to spread out over the land, taking with them their newfound knowledge of the two opposing forces of darkness and light. It was a revelation within the human psyche that soon began to spread across an area of the ancient world that would one day come to be known as the Fertile Crescent—the very cradle of civilization.
Over the course of the next several millennia, thousands of temples dedicated to various gods representing both darkness and light would rise across the region in homage to the forces of both good and evil, until finally the world’s three dominant monotheistic religions would spring forth, surpassing all others in the belief of a single god of light. It would be from this area of the world that a beacon would eventually shine over billions of people around the globe, giving mankind hope that the god of light would prevail and the thing of darkness would be held at bay—at least for awhile.CHAPTER 1
ISTANBUL — PRESENT DAY
Enveloped by the sights and smells of the bustling Bazaar Quarter, the two dark-clothed men watched the maritime parade of boats flow from the Golden Horn into the Bosporus as they sat drinking strong Turkish coffee next to the steamy entrance of a sidewalk café. Technically it was springtime, but a slight chill blanketed the old section of the city with the last vestiges of a long winter that clung to the land in a feeble attempt to keep the warming rays of the sun from reaching down into narrow streets still cloaked in dewy, early morning shadows.
Cardinal Leopold Amodeo tapped his watch and held it to his ear. “What time do you have?”
“Seven-thirty,” Bishop Anthony Morelli replied.
“He should have been here by now. Maybe you should call him again.”
Morelli’s brown eyes peered from beneath his black baseball cap. “He’ll be here. I’ve worked with this man for years on other archaeological digs here in Turkey. He’s never on time, but he always shows up ... and he’s very discreet about my activities. We can’t afford to bring anyone new onboard at this late stage.”
The cardinal turned the collar up on his jacket and stared past his friend at the turbulent blue water lapping at a distant promontory point facing the Sea of Marmara. He was actually looking at another continent, for they were on the European side of a city that straddled the two continents of Europe and Asia, a geographical position that had made Istanbul a strategic focal point throughout history.
“Too bad Lev couldn’t bring theCarmelainto port here,” Morelli huffed, watching cigarette smoke from a nearby table drift over their heads. “This is practically the yacht’s second home, but her presence here now would have announced our arrival. I’ve been onboard twice when she was anchored off the coast of Turkey. The scenery was beautiful ... and the archaeology! There’s no other place on Earth where the ancient world is so evident. It’s all around us. We’re sitting in the cradle of civilization. The Assyrians, the Hittites, the Greeks ... the Romans. They were all here.”
“I know,” Leo said, picking at his small breakfastbaklavawith a silver fork before downing the last of his coffee. “It wouldn’t have surprised me if Lev had decided to build his villa here in Turkey instead of in Israel.”
“He’ll never leave the Holy Land, Leo, but he does love it here. There are more Roman ruins here than there are in Italy, and more Greek ruins here than in Greece. Even though Lev is surrounded by antiquity in Israel, this is where he discovered his love of archaeology. He brought Ariella here for her first dig when she was only ten years old. We all camped near the site of the ancient city of Troy, and that little girl wore everyone out tromping around looking for artifacts. We had to keep a constant eye on her because of snakes.” Morelli shook his head as he gazed out over the jostling flow of humanity walking past their table. “People who don’t enjoy learning about history ... I just don’t get it.”
By now Leo’s gaze had shifted to nearby tables, looking for eyes that lingered just a little too long in their direction. Like everywhere else in the world, crime was also on the rise here in Turkey, but there was another, more tangible reason for Leo’s growing caution.
Satisfied at last that they were not being watched, Leo looked at his watch again just as the loud screech of brakes on the street jerked his attention to a mud-splattered Chevy Suburban that had just pulled to the curb after cutting off a slower-moving car. Behind the wheel, peering from beneath a head of curly dark hair, the Chevy’s grinning driver pulled his sunglasses down over his nose and winked in their direction.
“That’s him,” Morelli said, rising from his chair. “Let’s go.”
Hefting their backpacks over their shoulders, the two men quickly made their way through the jostling crowd before piling into the large four-wheel-drive vehicle. Glancing in his side-view mirror, the driver lurched the big Chevy out into thick traffic, joining the flow that crossed the famed Galata Bridge—a bridge that was named after the 6thcentury tower that overlooked the Golden Horn from the top of one of the seven hills that rose above the European section of the city.
Sitting in the front passenger seat, Morelli smoothed his thinning red hair under his cap before turning his heavy-set frame sideways so that he could peer into the back seat. “Leo, I’d like to introduce you to a close friend of mine. This is Abbas Sadik. Abbas is an archaeologist attached to the Turkish Ministry of Antiquities, and for the past twenty years he and I have made several important archaeological discoveries, both here and in other areas around the Mediterranean. Without his help here in Turkey I would have been totally lost on more than one occasion.”
With his tanned forearms gripping the steering wheel, Abbas threw his head back in laughter. “Actually, Cardinal, your friend the bishop here is the one who keeps me from getting lost. He sent me a GPS for Christmas a few years ago after we accidently crossed over the border into Iraq. Luckily for us a group of U.S. Marines pointed out our mistake before we ran into any bad guys. Even though he knows I’m not a Christian, he keeps sending me Christmas presents every year just in case I suddenly convert without his knowledge.”
Leo’s stark green eyes narrowed as he smiled at the back of the man’s head. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Abbas. Bishop Morelli tells me that you’re a Muslim.”
“That I am, Cardinal. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Sunni Muslim.” Abbas grinned into the rear-view mirror. “Pay no attention to the bulges under my jacket ... they’re just sandwiches.”
It was quickly becoming obvious why Morelli had chosen this man to be their guide into the remote hinterlands of the Turkish countryside. Morelli enjoyed being around happy people with a good sense of humor, and this guy certainly fit the bill.
“Your people have a proud heritage, Abbas. Have you always lived in Turkey?”
“Yes, except for the time I spent at Cambridge. I was born inMeryemana. That’s about 8 kilometers from the ruins of Ephesus, one of the greatest ancient cities in the western world. The proximity of my birth to such places is probably one of the main reasons I took up the study of ancient cultures. My friends and I used to play in the ruins when we were kids, and my parents still live in the area—a few blocks from the house where the Blessed Virgin Mary spent her last days.”
“That’s some neighborhood you grew up in,” Leo said, impressed.
“It was the best. My father told me that, after Jesus asked Saint John the Evangelist to look after his mother, John brought Mary with him to Ephesus after the crucifixion. She lived there until the day she died, and her house still stands. It’s a revered shrine to both Christians and Muslims alike.”
“I’d love to visit there someday.”
“You will, Cardinal,” Abbas winked up into the mirror at Leo’s blurred silhouette in the back seat. “I will see to it personally.”
Speeding from the crowded Bazaar Quarter along theCiragan Caddesi, the wide boulevard that parallels the Bosporus on the European side of the city, Leo watched the sprawling metropolis pass outside their windows in a blur of vibrant color and muted sound that reminded him of Rome. He was instantly struck by the similarity of the two ancient cities. Not only were they both dominated by seven hills, but Rome and Istanbul had once been major centers of the Roman Empire. In fact, after the Roman Emperor Constantine had made the city the new eastern capital of the Empire in 330 AD, it became widely known as the “City of Constantine” orConstantinople. Constantine himself wanted the city to be calledNea Roma, Latin forNew Rome, but due to the confusion of having two cities with the same name, it never caught on. For almost 1600 years the city was calledConstantinople, until the 1930’s, when Turkish authorities formally announced that the city would be called by its Turkish name—Istanbul.
Curving up a wide ramp on the European side of the Bosporus Bridge, the big Chevy joined an endless parade of traffic moving from one continent to another across one of the busiest bridges in the world, and within minutes, they found themselves headed east through a warren of narrow streets in the Asian part of the city.
Digging through his backpack, Morelli retrieved a map and glanced over at Abbas. “Has there been any activity at the site since Eduardo left?”
“Nothing obvious, Bishop. I was out there last week, and except for a few graduate students and their professor, the place was practically deserted.”
“You say,practically?” Leo asked, leaning forward.
“Yes, Cardinal. The usual sheep herders and farmers still wander by, but as far as I know nothing out of the ordinary has occurred since Eduardo and his team left. Their departure was just as sudden as their arrival the month before. A childhood friend of mine from a nearby village was hired to do some digging at the excavation site, and he said it sounded to him like they didn’t find what they were looking for. He said Eduardo was becoming increasingly upset and threatened to fire everyone and hire another team of archaeologists. The next day, when my friend went to work, he and the other men were surprised to find that Eduardo and his people had packed up and left. They actually left the workmen’s paychecks lying in envelopes under a rock.”
“And the men doing the digging ... they weren’t told what they were looking for?”
“Apparently not. Every time they uncovered anything that looked important, Eduardo would show it to his wife, but she would always just shake her head and walk away.”
“What about the boy?”
“He stayed mostly to himself. Didn’t speak much to anyone, but when he did speak he was very polite. I can tell you one thing though. According to my friend, his mother never let him out of her sight.”
“Did your friend ever have a chance to speak with him?”
“Only once, Cardinal. The kid was sitting in the sun all alone on a hillside looking out at the horizon. My friend went over and offered him some bottled water. He said the boy looked up toward the top of the hill where his mother was standing before taking the water, and ...
“Please, Abbas ... any detail could be important.”
“He said the boy seemed distant. There was something about him that made my friend feel uneasy whenever he was around.”
“In what way?”
“Nothing he could pinpoint. I asked him the same question, and he said it was just a vague feeling of uneasiness ... like when a big dog is walking toward you and staring you down ... not growling but not wagging its tail either. A dog like that ... you never know what it’s going to do.”
“Interesting. I wish we could have come here sooner.”
Abbas cleared his throat. “I don’t think that would have been a good idea, Cardinal.”
“Sorry, Cardinal, I thought you knew. A Coptic priest arrived the day before they left and offered to bless the site. The security men hustled him away and ...
Abbas glanced up at the rear-view mirror and swallowed. “After his visit, the priest’s body erupted in black boils. He died two days later.”CHAPTER 2
Squinting in the sun’s reflective glare, Eduardo Acerbi wrapped a frail hand around a glass of orange juice and looked out over the sand-covered ruins of the ancient city of Babylon from the rooftop garden of his new home. Actually, the word palace would be a better term to describe the immense structure that stretched out beneath him, for it was much more than just a home.
Originally built for an Iraqi dictator who had wisely decided to flee for his life ahead of an advancing American army, it was surrounded on all sides by high walls that enclosed manicured gardens and an artificial lake that mirrored the sky, and on the inside, the cavernous interior was dominated by immense crystal chandeliers that hung over patterned marble floors laid by some of the finest craftsmen in the world. Even the bathrooms, with their ridiculously high ceilings and gold-plated fixtures, seemed out of proportion. To Eduardo, it looked like the building had been constructed for a race of giants; a fitting architectural accommodation made in the name of ego rather than the actual size of the people who had once inhabited it.
The colossal palace was quite a change from the simple stone house in the idyllic French village of Foix, where the old man had lived for the past forty years after abandoning a life of privilege as one of the wealthiest men on the planet. He had left it all—simply turned his back and walked away in order to lead a life of virtual isolation with his wife Colette so that they could be true to the central tenets of their Cathar faith—a faith that had given Eduardo Acerbi the peace he had always desired.
After he had disappeared from his French chateau in the 1970’s, the search had lasted for months, until finally all hope had been abandoned. The newspapers and magazines of the day had called it one of the strangest disappearance cases on record. It was a total mystery. One of the world’s wealthiest men—a handsome husband and loving father who doted on his family—suddenly and inexplicably gone. He had vanished into thin air without a trace.
Eduardo’s first wife had remarried shortly after his disappearance, but within a year she and her new husband were dead; killed in a freak automobile accident. In her will she had bequeathed everything to the son she and Eduardo had adopted before he disappeared. They had named the boy Rene, and it was he who eventually inherited the entire sum of the Acerbi fortune on the day of his twenty-first birthday.
For years, as Eduardo and his new wife Colette lived in their quiet Cathar enclave, they had heard rumors of how Rene had been using the immense wealth and power of the Acerbi fortune in ways Eduardo never could have imagined. Some said his son had gone mad; that he was even indulging in criminal enterprises, but despite the rumors, Eduardo had remained steadfast. He had made his decision, and as painful as it was to hear these things about his adopted son, he had no desire to return to the brutal and corrupt corporate world he had fled from years before. He had become a Cathar. He was free—free from the materialistic world he had left behind to live a happy life with Colette.
But then, twenty-four years after he had disappeared, something had happened that had altered the course of his life forever. Eduardo and Colette were gifted with a child. Like the proverbial thief in the night, the child had been left on their doorstep; an infant swaddled in fine linens. At first they thought he must have been the product of some unfortunate young girl in the village who had secretly given birth out of wedlock, but Eduardo quickly realized something didn’t quite fit. As a man who had once enjoyed the finer things in life, he immediately recognized the label on the swaddling cloth. It had come from a company that manufactured the finest linen in the world—cloth so fine that it was affordable only to the very rich. Therefore the question remained as to why someone who could afford such expensive cloth would leave their baby on his doorstep in the middle of the night without so much as a note of explanation.
At first, Eduardo had been hesitant. He and his wife were getting on in age, and his first instinct had been to take the child and drive into the village where he could deliver the infant into the hands of a couple that was young enough to raise the boy into adulthood. But as he gathered the child up to drive him to town and looked into the infant’s eyes, he stopped. Maybe it was the fact that he had already left behind one adopted son in his haste to escape his past life. Maybe it was guilt. But whatever the reason, as soon as the infant’s golden-brown eyes had met with his, he somehow knew that the child in his arms was his destiny.
Together, Eduardo and Colette decided to name the boy Adrian, and after only a few short months, thoughts of ever giving him up had long since been forgotten. They were now hopelessly in love with their new son, and together they had become a family. They did all the family things together; joyful mealtimes full of laughter, planting vegetables together in the garden, walks through the woods and bedtime stories at night. Eduardo was recapturing the youthful life of a new father; a life he had abandoned once before and now vowed never to abandon again. Life had begun to take on the idyllic quality of renewed meaning—until fate once again intervened when the world was suddenly struck by an unimaginable horror.
While Eduardo’s attention had been fixated on his new family, his first adopted son’s madness had escalated to a whole new level. Fifteen years later, after Adrian had become a teenager, Rene had begun using the immense resources of the Acerbi fortune to go on a murderous rampage. He and a core group of power-hungry individuals had killed tens of thousands of innocent people with a deadly pathogen in a mad plot to eliminate half the planet’s population so that they could sweep in and take over the world.
As Eduardo watched and listened to events unfold, he felt helpless. As far as the world knew, he was dead. He had unknowingly handed over the keys to the vast Acerbi fortune to a madman, and now there was nothing he could do to stop him.Or was there?Clearly something had to be done to stop Rene. Eduardo’s conscience and mankind’s future demanded it.
After discussing the situation with a fellow Cathar, he had been put into contact with a secretive group in Israel known as the Bible Code Team, and it was during his first meeting with them that Eduardo had reluctantly divulged information that would eventually lead an armed force to his son.
After waiting in his little stone house to hear if their mission to eliminate Rene had been a success, Eduardo had finally learned that their plan to stop his mad son had failed. Rene had outsmarted some of the best tacticians in the world, and now millions would die a horrible death unless someone stopped him.
It was then, in a decision that he believed would doom his soul to hell for all eternity, that Eduardo Acerbi had finally decided to take matters into his own hands. He made contact with Rene, and under the guise of fatherly love, as he and his long-lost son sat talking in the upstairs library of the small farmhouse in Foix, the old man had tearfully served him a freshly baked croissant laced with the same pathogen his son’s scientists had developed. Two days later Rene Acerbi lay dead in a French chateau surrounded by men in blue biohazard suits, and Eduardo was devastated—but that was only half of the tragedy.Once again, the peace of Eduardo Acerbi’s world was about to be shattered by news that would be even more devastating to him.CHAPTER 3
In the days following Rene Acerbi’s death, the world had been shocked to find that Eduardo Acerbi was still alive. Not only was the reclusive billionaire still alive, but he also had a new wife and another son, and as the rightful heir to the vast Acerbi fortune, the old man had reluctantly agreed to resume his place at the head of the large multi-national conglomerate that he had created years before. Now, along with some of his old associates and a new group of wealthy men and women, Eduardo Acerbi began his rapid climb back to his former position as one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
But there was a problem. Eduardo Acerbi was still a Cathar, and although his religion meant everything to him, it mattered little to his powerful new associates when it came to making ruthless business decisions that could affect the economic well-being of countless numbers of families.
Now, caught between two worlds, Eduardo agonized over what to do. He was trapped, for in the Cathar world, the possession of wealth and the power it gave them over others was seen as a tool of the devil. He had no choice. In order to protect his Cathar friends, he had to take his family and flee the sleepy village of Foix.But where would he go?As he sat thinking in the small upstairs library of the stone farmhouse he had lived in for the past forty years, his thoughts were suddenly interrupted by his ringing phone.
“Yes ... who is this?”
An aged voice rattled on the other end of the line. “My name is of no importance. What is important is that you harbor the Beast within your house.”
Eduardo looked at the phone in disgust. “Look, whoever you are ... I don’t appreciate these kinds of calls. I’m hanging ...
“If you care about your son you will listen.”
Eduardo grasped the phone as his eyes stared off into space. “What is it you want ... money?”
“No,” the voice laughed, “money is the last thing I am interested in. I only want to make sure the child is safe. Check the signs. You know about the code in the Old Testament ... you’re good at codes, Eduardo. I know all about you. You are a highly intelligent man. You met with some members of the Bible Code Team a few months ago, and you possess the same code-breaking software on your computer that they use. Go and look for yourself. You might say your first son Rene was only a trial run. Why don’t you use some of those powerful connections of yours to access the latest classified astronomy reports? The dark star has risen, and you are now the child’s protector. Guard him well, for we’ll be watching.” The raspy voice in Eduardo’s ear suddenly evaporated as the call was terminated from the other end.
Now, sitting alone in his tiny upstairs library, Eduardo felt a bead of sweat running down one side of his flushed face.The Beast?At first, Eduardo thought the caller was just another nut-job attracted to people with wealth and power, but the more he thought about it the more troubling it became to him. Whoever the caller was, it was evident that he was in possession of information known only to a few select individuals. Not only did he know about the Bible code software on his personal computer, but he also knew of Eduardo’s collaboration with Lev Wasserman and his team the year before when they were looking for a way to stop Rene.
Rushing to his computer, Eduardo booted up the Bible code software program, and after selecting a particular scan sequence, he began to look for key words—words likeBeast, Evil One,andAntichrist—all words that would trigger the computer to halt its scan if they were discovered encoded in the original Hebrew text.
As he waited for the computer to do its work, Eduardo thought back to the year before, when Rene was spreading his lethal virus and killing thousands in his quest for world domination. Even then, some had voiced their opinions that Rene was the Beast ... the Antichrist. After all, it was a logical assumption considering his ruthless methods, but Rene was dead. Only Adrian remained.Adrian! Oh, God ... no ... it couldn’t be. Were people really starting to believe that Rene was just some kind of cosmic sleight of hand, a diversion from the fact that Adrian was the real Antichrist? Even though the caller seemed concerned for the boy’s safety for some reason, Eduardo realized that his young son was now in danger, making his departure from Foix even more urgent. He had to take his family to a location that was so difficult to travel to that it would be almost impossible for the lunatic fringe to get to them.He had to go somewhere that most people would be afraid to go!
Suddenly the computer program stopped on a page from Genesis. Across the top, written in Hebrew, Eduardo read the first of several phrases circled in red. The name,Eduardo Acerbiwas crossed diagonally by a second phrase—Father of the dark one. Below that, he saw the word he had been dreading—Antichrist.
Eduardo hit the scan button again and the computer froze at the bottom of the page. Two more words jumped out at him—dark star, and running across the bottom of the page, he saw a new phrase that made chills run down his spine—it will appear in the child’s sixteenth year.
Eduardo shouted to his wife, and as she rushed upstairs, Acerbi quickly dialed the head of the Acerbi Corporation’s science division.
“Yes ... hello?”
“I need you to do something for me.”
“Do you know what time it is?”
“This is Eduardo Acerbi.”
“Oh ... Mr. Acerbi. My apologies. What can I do for you, sir?”
“What is your name?”
“This is Paul Comstock. I’m the head of your science ...
“I know who you are. You have a connection at the Kleck Observatory in Hawaii. I need you to call him and find out if there is such a thing as a dark star, and if so, ask him if one has appeared within the past year.”
“I don’t need to call him. We had lunch together last week in Kona. Are you calling me on a secure line?”
“Yes, of course. You’re on speaker, and only my wife is listening.”
“Good, because what I’m about to tell you is highly classified to prevent panic among the general populace.”
“Go ahead ... I’m listening.”
“Apparently, a new star suddenly appeared at the edge of the solar system back in August.”
“Yes ... in a manner of speaking.”
“But that’s impossible ... isn’t it? I mean, wouldn’t another sun that close to the Earth be visible to the naked eye?”
“Not if it’s dark. Up until now their presence was just theoretical. Dark stars were thought to have existed early on in the history of the universe before conventional stars were able to form, but it appears that astronomers have discovered one right in our own cosmic neighborhood. These massive dark objects are practically invisible, because no visible light can escape from their strong gravitational pull. However, this one has been emitting vast amounts of gamma rays, so the astronomers in Hawaii who discovered it are classifying it as a star in the Newtonian sense. Nothing like it has ever been seen before.”
Eduardo held his breath as he gripped the phone. “When did this thing show up?”
“It appeared this year ... on the 6thof August”
Colette let out a gasp as she held her hands to her mouth.
“Thank you, Mr. Comstock. I don’t have to tell you that this call never happened. You’ll find a nice bonus in your next paycheck.”
Hanging up the phone, Eduardo stared up at his trembling wife, and as they clung to one another, deep sobs began to shake Colette’s body. “Oh, my God, Eduardo ... our son. Adrian was born on August 6th, sixteen years ago.”
“What?” Eduardo paled. “But he was left on our doorstep with no note ... nothing. How do you know this?”
“I’m sorry,” Colette sobbed, wringing her hands. “I know I wasn’t supposed to talk to anyone about Adrian, but I couldn’t help myself. After we decided to keep him, I checked around with some of the ladies in town when I went to the marketplace every weekend. One of them finally told me that a woman had suddenly appeared in Foix with an infant. She seemed distressed and told them she had been traveling non-stop since the day the child was born ... on August the sixth.
“They were worried about the infant, so they took the woman to a house and fed her while they summoned the local midwife to make sure the baby was healthy, but while they were waiting for the midwife, the woman had snuck out the back door with the child. By this time the women were suspicious, so two of them decided to follow her. They saw her walk to our house and leave the infant on the porch before knocking on the door and running off into the darkness. As soon as the women from the village saw us take the baby in, they left. Apparently, they figured we needed a child, and after they saw how much we loved him, our Cathar neighbors decided to keep the entire incident a secret.” Colette buried her face in her hands. “Oh, Eduardo! What if word of this ever leaks out?”
For a few minutes, Eduardo had stroked his wife’s hair, and then, with gentle hands guiding her, he led her down the stairs to their son’s room. Peering inside, they could see that the boy was sleeping soundly, his relaxed features highlighted by moonlight as it crept through the open window and across his bed. Suddenly they both began to weep, for they loved him with all their hearts, and no matter what happened, Eduardo Acerbi knew at that moment that he would do whatever had to be done to protect Adrian.
Now, with their lives thrown into chaos by an unknown caller, Eduardo and Colette prepared to flee. They had been gifted with a burden from which there was no escape—a burden they could never reveal to outsiders. After all, who knew what any of this really meant? The child seemed happy and well-adjusted, and in all the years they had lived together as a family, the boy had always displayed a tender and loving side that had touched his parents. Polite and deferential in his interactions with them, he never once displayed any hint of a cruel or vicious nature—a nature that would almost certainly have manifested itself somehow if he was truly the Beast.
In fact, things had been boringly normal. In all the years the boy had lived in their house, there had been no hint of an evil presence lurking nearby. No strange visitors, no snarling dogs, no bumps in the night—no strange occurrences of any kind. In short, he possessed none of the ghoulish attributes that seemed to spring from the minds of Hollywood screenwriters when they tried to imagine the Antichrist.
In the days that followed the call, Eduardo had surrounded his house with the best security force money could buy while he began searching for an area of the world where he could protect his son from outsiders. After much deliberation, he had finally decided to flee to Iraq—to a part of the world where he could buy his safety behind the walls of a palace in the ancient city of Babylon.
But before they left, on the very night before they walked through the door of their home in Foix for the last time, Colette had come to him with a sudden request. She told him of a dream she had the night before—a dream so strong that she felt compelled to follow the vision she had seen. In the dream she had been surrounded by monolithic ruins in the rolling hills of southeastern Turkey, but when pressed for more details, all she could tell him was that she felt there was something there of great importance, and that if they took Adrian with them, the significance of the dream would somehow be revealed to them.
For Eduardo, the decision to go had been fraught with mixed emotions. At first he had been reluctant to follow a dream that would divert them from their direct route to Babylon, thus putting Adrian at even greater risk from those who would seek to do him harm. But in the end he realized that in all the time he and Collette had been together she had never really asked anything for herself, and as a husband who loved his wife dearly, he knew he must honor the request of the woman who had brought so much joy and happiness to his life.
In the early morning hours on the day of their departure, Eduardo looked out from the second story window of his upstairs library as he had done so many times before. He gazed out at the lengthening shadows created by the rising sun as it crept over the distant mountains, filling the narrow vertical canyons before rushing out over the land and filtering through the fat leafy trees that ran along the side of the road.
In the past, the shadows had frightened him, for he had been a man who had lived in fear of shadows, and as any man who had ever lived in hiding can tell you, it is the unknown that dwells within the shadows that holds the terror. It would be in the shadows that the hunters would linger, waiting for the right moment to reach out and jerk everything he held dear away from him. But now, as he gathered up his family and boarded a private train for Turkey surrounded by security men, the shadows seemed less fearful.
As the lights of the villages flashed by outside the train’s windows, Acerbi sat in his private car and wondered at the turn of events. After throwing off the shackles of an immense family fortune and disappearing without a trace forty years before to live a simple life of peace in accordance with his newfound Cathar faith, he now found himself forced back into the world of money and power, all to protect his son. The world he had returned to was full of the material things he abhorred, and as he looked through the reflective glass at the passing countryside and watched the sleeping forms of his wife and son on opposite sofas, he knew what he had to do.
Rising from his seat by the window, Eduardo made his way back down a narrow hallway into a private office and closed the door. There was something he felt compelled to do, and as he sat at a wood-paneled desk and stared straight ahead, he thought of what he would say. In the darkness of the small room, flashing pools of light marked the passage of the train through small villages, and as the moonlight flowed in through the thin curtains covering a small overhead window, it cast an ethereal glow over the blue veins in his wrinkled, fragile skin as he picked up a satellite phone and dialed a private number.
“Hello, Marcus ... or should I say ... Your Holiness.”
“Hello, Eduardo,” Pope Michael replied. “This is quite a surprise. We’ve been trying to contact you.”
“It’s been a long time.”
“Yes ... it has. How are you?”
“As well as can be expected, Your Holiness. I wanted to call and congratulate you last year, but at that time everyone still believed I was dead, so I thought I should let sleeping dogs lie.”
“Are you calling about your son?”
“The one that is with you now.”
“Yes, but before we get to that, I want you to know that I make no request for absolution when it comes to my actions concerning Rene. I leave the matter of my soul in God’s hands. I did what had to be done. Rene was a monster ... an aberration within the human race. I had no other choice than to put an end to his tortured existence.”
“Yet you protect the Beast.”
“The boy has done nothing to warrant that kind of judgment, Your Holiness. He’s kind and sweet. There’s absolutely no sign to indicate he is anything but an innocent child. There must be some other explanation ... it’s only a star for God’s sake.”
“You know about the star?”
“Yes. Someone called.”
“I’m afraid there’s no mistaking the signs, Eduardo.”
“We’ll see. We must give it some time, Your Holiness ... just in case.”
“Time? You have all the time in the world, my friend. If your son is who we think he is, we are powerless to do anything about it. His reign has been foretold. This is not a matter for man to decide, for we are all only witnesses to God’s greater plan. You were forced to save the world by taking the life of one who had once been close to you, and that took a special kind of strength. I’ve always admired you, Eduardo. My father always said you were one of his closest friends. He was devastated when you disappeared. He said you had a warrior’s heart and a scholar’s mind. You would have made a great soldier of the cross.”
“I may have a warrior’s heart, Marcus, but I would have made a lousy Jesuit. I don’t follow orders very well.”
“The life you chose after you disappeared was very similar. Very few men could walk away from billions of dollars over a matter of faith.”
Eduardo could almost see the striking blue eyes of the tall Norwegian pope, his mind clicking in the silence on the other end of the line. “What are your plans now, Eduardo?”
“I’ve decided to support Adrian, Your Holiness. I may have made a mistake by leaving Rene behind when I fled to Foix. Maybe if I would have been there while he was growing up ... who knows? What I do know is that I’m going to protect Adrian now. I called to ask ... to beg you to call off your dogs and leave me and my family in peace.”
“I can assure you that you have nothing to fear from me, Eduardo. As a Jesuit warrior, you know that I am sworn to fight evil wherever it exists, but only through peaceful means. Although signs appear to point to your son, I agree with you that he has done nothing to warrant any premature speculation. Despite Rene’s chilling ruthlessness, we were all mistaken in our assumption that he was the embodiment of the Evil One. We don’t want to make the same assumption again, especially against someone who may be innocent.”
“It is not you that I fear, Marcus, but those under your control. Such witch hunts have happened in the past.”
“The modern Church is not in the business of bringing people to justice, my friend ... even evil ones. We leave that to God. As for those I have no control over, I can make no promises, but I will do everything within my power to make sure that you and your family remain safe. You have my sacred word on it.”
“Thank you. I will trust you in your word.”
A brief silence ensued before the pope spoke again. “There’s one other point of business I would like to mention, Eduardo. Although you are not a Catholic and ask for no absolution, I have offered a special papal blessing for your soul. I have asked God to forgive you for taking the life of your son Rene in an act meant to spare millions of people from suffering a horrible death at his hand. We were all in a war against Rene, and whether you realize it or not, you were one of God’s soldiers in that war. The world owes you a debt of gratitude. As far as your other son Adrian is concerned, only a handful of people know about the significance behind the appearance of the dark star or your connection as his father.”
“Are you referring to the passage in the code that states I am the father of the Dark One?”
“I’ve been thinking about that, Your Holiness. As you probably already know, I am not the boy’s biological father. His identity remains a mystery. Therefore I can tell you with the utmost certainty that the code is wrong. I have seen many doctors over the years, and they all tell me the same thing. I will never be the father of anyone. It’s a medical impossibility.”
The line went silent as the pontiff chose his next words with care. “As with any code, Eduardo, sometimes the literal meaning is lost in translation. Upon further examination by one of the Israeli cryptographers who helped in the original discovery of the code, the wordfatherhad been transcribed in error. The original word in the Torah from which it had been translated wasguardian, which was preceded by the worddark. Your name is also mentioned in conjunction with the wordsdark guardianin another section of the code, so when we took a look at that passage we found that the computer had once again transcribed the Hebrew words incorrectly, inserting the wordfatherinstead of the correct word ...guardian.
Eduardo felt his grasp on the phone begin to slip as the tiny room swayed with the motion of the train.
“Eduardo ... are you there?”
“Yes, Your Holiness ... I am here.”
“Last week we discovered that you are also mentioned as aguardianin conjunction with the nameAdrian. Do you mind if I ask you why you chose that particular name for your adopted son?”
“Colette and I thought it appropriate because of his extraordinary black hair.”
“Yes, I see. That would make sense.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Probably just a coincidence. A man of your education would have known the original meaning of the name.”
“Of course. The origin of the name is Latin, and translated it means ...the dark one.”CHAPTER 4
Abbas had purposefully strayed from the main thoroughfares to make it easier for him to spot anyone following as he steered the big Chevy through the hodgepodge of Istanbul’s outlying streets. An hour later, they had finally broken free from the grip of the city and were well on their way, deep into the heart of southeastern Anatolia to a location that lay within sight of the Syrian border.
Off to their right, Leo gazed through his window at an ancient ruin in the distance before turning his attention back inside the speeding vehicle. “How far is it to the site?”
Abbas slowed as a lumbering truck pulled in front of them. “About 480 kilometers ... a little over 300 miles, Your Eminence. I’m taking back roads to the coast as you requested, which means we’ll miss Ankara, but we’ll be seeing some of the most beautiful and historic scenery in all of Turkey. The bishop and I took this same highway when we were doing hisRevelationtour.”
“Yes, Cardinal,” Abbas laughed. “The road we’ll be using transits the area mentioned by the Apostle John when he wrote to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Most of the ancient cities mentioned in the Book of Revelation have disappeared, but Smyrna, which is now called Ismir, remains a great city on the Aegean coast. Then of course there’s Ephesus, which I told you about earlier, and there are the spectacular ruins at Pergamum in the Caicus Valley near Bergama. If you want to walk over the same ground where John and many of the other apostles walked two thousand years ago, you’ve come to the right place.”
“Unfortunately, I’m afraid we’ll have to save the Revelation tour for another trip,” Leo smiled, “but I’ll definitely hold you to your offer to show us around on our next visit. How long do you think it will take us to get to the site?”
“Eight ... possibly seven hours, the way I drive.” Abbas slowed for a mule that had wandered out into the road. “I’ve heard that you are a different kind of cardinal.”
“Oh? In what way?”
“Just that you are more of a regular guy and don’t go for all the formal stuff ... and that you have a girlfriend.”
Morelli broke into a sudden spasm of coughing as Abbas’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “I’m sorry ... did I say something wrong?”
It had been a minor culturalfaux pas, but different cultures had differing ways of getting to know strangers, and Leo was beginning to find that the people of Turkey were very open in their exchanges with newcomers when it came to inquiring about their personal lives.
“It’s a long story, Abbas,” Leo said, keeping his gaze out the side window.
“My apologies, Cardinal. I always go too far. My natural curiosity about people tends to race ahead of my ability to keep my mouth shut.”
“Probably why you chose a career in archaeology,” Morelli said quickly. “It’s a profession bound by curiosity.”
“Ah, there it is,” Abbas said, relieved to change the subject as he pulled to a dusty stop in front of a small store made from mud bricks and set back from the road under a cluster of gnarled olive trees. Jumping from the vehicle, he disappeared inside before returning moments later with a handful of small plastic containers filled with freshly made humus, a jar of olives, some cheese, and a paper bag overflowing withPide, a Turkish flatbread.
“Food for the road,” he said, jumping back into the driver’s seat. “I had to toss the sandwiches I brought with me. My daughter made them early this morning, but she’s only five and you never know what you’ll find inside. One time I found a dead frog covered in mayonnaise. For the past year, she’s been under the impression that she’s been keeping me alive with her culinary delights, and my wife and I agreed that I must keep up the charade. Even if I say I’m eating out, she still makes the sandwiches.”
“You’re a very lucky man to be blessed with a child like that,” Leo said, clapping Abbas on the shoulder before he stepped outside. Stretching his muscular, six-foot-three-inch frame, he ran his hands through his long, gray-streaked hair and stared out at the barren landscape. “Do they have a restroom around here?”
Abbas cast a host’s eye at their surroundings. “Around back. Very clean ... considering.”
“Thanks. I’ll be right back.”
As they waited for Leo, Abbas began sputtering a litany of apologies to Morelli for inquiring into the cardinal’s personal life.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Abbas,” Morelli said. “Leo’s a big boy, and he’s received more than his fair share of questions about what went on while he was on sabbatical in France. The pictures of him and Evita were spread out on the front pages of the tabloids after thepaparazzispotted them dining together in a small restaurant in Foix, but despite the rumors nothing improper happened between them when they were alone for a week in that remote mountain cabin.”
Abbas cast a suspicious eye. “A man and a woman in love ... alone in a cabin for a week?”
“Believe me, I know how it looks. They’re very close and they enjoyed each other’s company immensely, but they’re hardly teenagers, and both of them are fierce when it comes to matters of faith. You probably didn’t know this, but Evita is a Cathar. They have their own strict rules about sex before marriage. Not only that, but Cardinal Leo is a Jesuit who takes his holy vows very seriously, and the pope’s edict allowing priests to marry hasn’t been made official yet. The pope chose wisely when he made Leo his Secretary of State.”
“You mean to say that the man I just sent to an outhouse behind that grocery store is the second-in-command of the Catholic Church?”
“Yes.” Morelli was beginning to feel guilty for being amused at Abbas’s obvious discomfort. “Cardinal Leo is also one of the first in line to become pope if something should happen to Pope Michael, which should give you some indication of the importance of our mission. Only a man like Cardinal Leopold Amodeo, a man who has spoken with angels and remained true to his God, will have any chance at all in protecting us from whatever waits for us at the end of this road.”
Hopping back into the vehicle, Leo saw Abbas staring at him from the front seat. It seemed that the color had drained from the man’s face, along with his perpetual smile.CHAPTER 5
In the early morning hours, before the sun had climbed over the eastern hills to spread its warmth over the Greek island of Patmos, the Carmela glided in from the Aegean Sea to a darkened anchorage at Skala. Now, with the sun blazing overhead, Alex Pappas, the yacht’s captain, stood by the railing in front of the bridge, sipping his coffee and squinting at all the brilliant white painted houses that stair-stepped their way down the steep hillsides to the turquoise water lapping at the edge of the harbor.
Pappas was reveling in the fact that here, back in the land of his birth, he was considered to be a very important man. The seafaring heritage of his ancestors had bestowed upon him an invisible laurel that hovered above a head endowed with the same chiseled features familiar to anyone who had studied ancient Greek statues, and as the captain of a yacht the size of the Carmela, he had been granted a status envied by all those who captained smaller boats, for they were, by definition, lesser men in the eyes of a culture rooted in nautical mythology.
Tossing his lit cigarette overboard, he turned away from the water’s reflective glare and walked back inside the bridge to talk to his boss. Sitting in a raised chair in front of the navigation console, Lev Wasserman was talking on a satellite phone. “They’ve just left Istanbul. I’ll call you back when I hear from them again.”
Replacing the phone on the instrument console, Lev ran a pair of calloused hands through a mop of curly gray hair. “I don’t like being this far away from them, especially now.”
“Who were you talking to?”
“Danny Zamir. He has a few Mossad agents scattered around Turkey, but it would still take time for them to get to Leo and Morelli if they found themselves in a jam.”
“Why did they decide to go by themselves? We could have sent someone with them. Alon, Moshe, John ... there’s a lot of very capable people onboard. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“This is spiritual warfare, Alex. We’re no longer involved in a military campaign in the traditional sense of the word. Leo made that very clear to me when I objected to them going out there all alone. Besides, part of the puzzle remains hidden here in Patmos, and Leo and Morelli can’t be in two places at once. We have our work cut out for us here.”
“Will you be using the chopper?”
“No need.” Lev pointed through the large windows. “The cave lies just past a big white monastery on the other side of that large hill. The first group going ashore will be using the motorbikes we have stored below.”
“I’ll have the crew lower them down onto the dock.”
“Good. They’ll be leaving within the hour.”
The soft brown grass wavered against a pale cloudless sky that outlined the tops of the distant rolling hills. As the vehicle carrying the three men drew closer, they could sense it. Like an electric charge in the air, something intangible reached out and pulled at them. It was a force, pure and simple; a force that flowed over the land, calling out only to those who were attuned to its presence, for not all men had the ability to feel its subtle tug.
Taking a swig from a metal thermos filled with water, Abbas pointed to the horizon. “We’re almost there. This road passes between those two big hills, and the ruins are off to the right behind the larger round one.”
Straining to look ahead through the front window, Morelli saw a solitary mulberry tree on the summit of the potbelly-shaped hill, and as they got closer, he could see tattered strips of cloth hanging from its bare branches. “What’s up with that tree?” he asked.
“Oh, the little pieces of cloth.” Abbas shrugged. “It’s a wishing tree. The local farmers tie little strips of cloth to its branches for good luck.”
As the hill loomed larger in the windshield, Morelli kept staring at the tree, marveling at all of the pagan symbolism he had seen in this area of the world. Even in these modern times, the land they were passing through was filled with appeals to invisible deities. Turning his attention back inside the vehicle, he saw Leo reading passages from the New Testament on his new e-reader, a Christmas present from Evita. Morelli smiled to himself when he thought back to the time when Leo had sworn he would never own one ofthose things. He had been certain that, as the battery wore down, all of those beautiful books would be turned into electronic dust. But those fears had all changed when, still professing his love for paper, it soon became evident to Leo that no true scholar would be able to pass up the opportunity to carry around an entire library in their hip pocket.
“Leo ... we’re here.”
Looking up from the small gray screen, Leo surveyed the barren landscape. He could feel the difference. There was a palpable tension in the air as Abbas steered the vehicle around a curve and turned off, trading smooth pavement for a barely perceptible trail through the tall grass.
“Tell me about the priest, Abbas,” Leo said, bouncing in the back seat as the vehicle plowed over the uneven terrain.
“The one who died.”
“Oh ... that poor man. I don’t know much about him other than the fact that he died suddenly. No one else seemed to have been affected.”
“But he was a priest, correct?”
“Yes ... a Coptic priest.”
“Were there any other priests at the site?”
“Not that I know of, Eminence, but there could have been. Like I said, I wasn’t there, and Eduardo and his people were keeping everyone away. It seems that somehow the priest slipped through their security.”
Leo reclined in his seat, lost in thought once again as the vehicle rumbled around the hillside, until finally they topped a slight rise and stopped. Through the smeared windshield, he found himself looking out over an archaeological excavation of impressive size that surrounded several immense, megalithic structures made from towering blocks of stone.
As they looked down on the Stonehenge-like circles of stone that lay in a slight valley between two hills, it was evident that they weren’t alone. Several cars were parked in the grass, and down among the ruins they could see scattered clusters of young people wearing T-shirts and shorts going about the business of sifting for artifacts next to piles of freshly dug earth.
After switching off the motor, the three men remained seated inside, listening to the ticking of the engine as it cooled. Outside, a warm breeze ruffled the knee-high grass that ran up the side of the hill in a peaceful wave-like urging, yet no one inside the big Chevy seemed ready to accept its wavering invitation to step outside.
“Well, we can’t sit here all day,” Leo finally said, pushing the door open. Looking back inside, he saw Abbas’s eyes widen, triggering memories within himself of the fear he had seen in the eyes of others the year before when he had stepped outside a similar vehicle in the middle of a man-made plague.
Exiting the SUV, the musty smell of freshly dug earth filled the men’s nostrils as they skidded down a dusty embankment to a hastily-constructed boardwalk. Walking over the rickety boards, they approached a group of young men and women who were hunched over a newly dug trench that circled a limestone outcropping. Looking up from his work, a bearded man pushed a red bandana back over his matted hair and stood to greet them. “Hello there. You must be Cardinal Amodeo.”
Without answering, Leo cast a suspicious eye back at Abbas.
“Don’t look at me, Cardinal. I’ve told no one about your arrival.”
A voice behind them broke the uneasy silence that had descended over the group of young people. “I’m afraid the fault is all mine.”
The three men turned in unison to see a blond-haired man walking up behind them on the boardwalk.
“Javier!” Leo exclaimed.
“Hello Leo. I see you’ve brought your partner in crime.”
Morelli rushed forward. “Mendoza! How did you know we were coming?”
“It was the next logical move, Bishop. We knew you were bound to go after Eduardo, and we heard this is where he stopped and camped before he crossed over into Iraq. I’m offended you two didn’t call me sooner. After all, we’re all on the same team, and I am an anthropologist. You and the cardinal can’t do this alone.”
“This is no ordinary archaeological dig, Javier. We didn’t want to risk other lives.”
“Yes. We have no idea if his death is connected to this site or just a coincidence, but until we find out you need to pull your people out. Who are they by the way?”
“Graduate students mostly,” Mendoza frowned, “plus some security people from my government who are trying unsuccessfully to look like students.”
“Whoever they are, it’s not safe for them here,” Leo said. “There could be forces at work in this area that we don’t yet understand ... dark forces. These people may not be prepared for what could happen.”
“We’re well aware of that, Leo. My people are all volunteers, and they’ve been thoroughly briefed. Truth be told, none of us are prepared for what we might encounter, so that kind of levels the playing field.” Mendoza paused as his eyes drifted over the surrounding countryside. “By the way, the hills here have eyes, and by now Eduardo’s people have probably already reported back to him that we’re here. I suggest we make the best of it and work together so that we can finish up as quickly as possible.”
Leo’s chin lifted with a renewed vigor. “Why don’t you show us around? If, as you say, Eduardo already knows we’re here, then the damage is done. Any idea what he was looking for ... or if he found it?”
“Not a clue, Cardinal. By the way ... who’s your friend?”
“Oh ... sorry, Javier. This is Abbas Sadik. He’s a local archaeologist who’s been working with Morelli.” Leo turned to Abbas. “Abbas, this is Dr. Javier Mendoza. He’s a Spanish rogue who claims to be an anthropologist.”
Sizing each other up like a pair of boxers, the two men extended cautious handshakes. “Glad to have you onboard, Abbas,” Mendoza said. “We need a Muslim on the team, especially in this part of the world.”
“How do you know I’m a Muslim, Dr. Mendoza?”
Leo winked. “Welcome to our little team, Abbas. Dr. Mendoza may be an anthropologist, but he’s also a spy. He works for CNI, the Spanish version of the American CIA. He probably knew your entire family history before we arrived ... just like you probably knew his.”
Abbas grinned. “How long have you known about me, Cardinal?”
“Since Morelli briefed me in Rome while we were waiting for our flight to Istanbul. You work for MIT, the Turkish National Security Organization.”
“That’s true, Cardinal, and I’m proud to say that I am a true patriot of a country that has done much for me and my family. As you may already know, military service is compulsory here in Turkey ... just like it is in Israel. I come from a poor family, and when I left the military, MIT paid for my education. After I received my PhD in archaeology from Cambridge, I went to work for the Turkish Ministry of Antiquities, but in addition to my job of making sure that none of our historical treasures are smuggled out of the country, I am also tasked with the job of keeping an eye on visiting academicians. I guess you could say that I’m really more of a policeman, because I try not to dabble too much in international intrigue.”
Abbas paused as he glanced over at Morelli. “I can’t believe you never let on that you knew who I really worked for all these years. I hope you know that my friendship has always been genuine, Bishop.”
“Of course,” Morelli replied, “and part of that friendship was not letting on that I knew who you worked for. If I had ever mentioned that I knew you worked for MIT, you would have been forced to report it to your superiors, and they in turn would have been forced to replace you with another. I couldn’t afford to risk losing both a friend and one of the finest archaeologists I’ve ever worked with over some silly cloak and dagger nonsense. By the way, I have to confess that I once stole a coin I found here in Turkey.”
“Yes. I put it in my pocket one day after I found it beneath an ancient aqueduct. I forgot about it and walked right through customs with it. I kept meaning to send it back.” Morelli reached into his pocket and tossed the ancient Roman coin to Abbas, but instead of catching it, he let it fall to the ground. With his trademark grin, Abbas looked around and bent down to pick it up.
“Hey, look what I found. An ancient Roman coin just lying on the ground next to a megalithic temple. It will take years to find out how this thing ended up here.” The group burst out laughing as Abbas stuffed the coin into his pocket and smiled back at Morelli.
“Now that we have that out of the way,” Mendoza said, “why don’t you all follow me?” Trailing along behind Mendoza, the group approached the first monolithic circle as they moved deeper into a cordoned-off area connected by various wooden scaffolds, ladders, and walkways that extended throughout a site that stretched over twenty acres.
Entering the largest circle, Leo reached out and ran his hand over the smooth surface of one of the towering stone giants. Above his head, carvings of animals covered the gigantic block of stone, but strangely they all seemed to be well defined without the usual effects from erosion seen at other ancient sites. In fact, it looked almost as if they had just been carved.
“Has anyone noticed that these carvings look almost new, Javier?” Leo asked.
“A very astute observation, Cardinal. The reason they look like that is because they’ve been buried for almost twelve thousand years ... protected from the elements as it were. Whoever built this complex buried it soon after its construction.”
“But why would they do that? I mean, it must have taken years to build all of this, especially using the kinds of primitive tools they had back then.”
“Right again, Leo,” Mendoza continued, “which is why the sudden abandonment of this site is so puzzling. But what’s even more puzzling is the question of why it was built in the first place.”
“Have you found any evidence of a nearby settlement?” Morelli asked, poking around in the dirt next to one of the pillars.
“None yet. We haven’t had time to explore the surrounding countryside.”
Abbas kicked at the earth with his boot. “If the remains of a settlement still exist it will be much harder to find. Unless the dwellings of those who built this place were made from stone, finding them would require years of digging down through layers of the surrounding strata, looking for dark patterns that would indicate where rotted timbers once supported something like a primitive hut.”
“He’s right,” Mendoza said. “It took hundreds of years for those studying the pyramids to finally realize that all the small stone structures buried in the sand nearby were actually the homes of the builders. One thing we’ve been able to learn so far about this site is that the builders of these stone structures made bread, which means they probably grew some form of domesticated wheat.”
“How did you discover that?” Leo asked.
“Grinding stones. They’re all over the place. They used them to grind the wheat into flour.”
“So they grew their own wheat?”
“Not necessarily, Cardinal. Wild wheat also grew in this area, but there are indications that it was domesticated here. Dr. Diaz is on his way here to check out that part of the puzzle, and he’s brought an assistant to help him.”
“An assistant ... who?”
Mendoza’s smile reminded Leo of a mischievous child. “Evita’s with him, Leo.”
“Oh ... that would make sense.” Leo glanced up at the parking area, as if he expected to see her walking toward him through the dusty haze. “When will they be arriving?”
“They’re already here,” Mendoza said, his smile growing. “They’re busy getting settled into the house we rented in Sanliurfa. It’s large enough for all of us, so you’ll have a warm place to sleep tonight.”
Pulling a clean handkerchief from his pocket, Morelli looked out over the ruins and wiped the grit from his forehead. “Sounds good to me. I wasn’t looking forward to camping out here anyway. Too many snakes. By the way, has anyone heard from Lev? The Carmela was due to dock in Patmos yesterday.”
“Patmos?” Abbas’s eyes widened. “What’s the professor doing in Patmos?”
Morelli cast a quick glance at Leo before answering. “There may be something there that could help us in our search here.”
“Ah, the island where John wrote the Book of Revelation.” Abbas paused as he felt a shudder run down his spine. “I believe I see a picture beginning to form.”CHAPTER 6
For the rest of the afternoon the group combed the site, looking for clues as to why Eduardo had chosen to stop at this particular archaeological dig before heading across the Iraqi border to his new home in Babylon. So far, nothing had occurred to warrant the fear everyone had felt earlier when they first approached the area. It seemed the only one who had been affected by contact with the site had been the Coptic priest, and although Leo and Morelli were also priests, they had taken the precaution of blessing the site before entering.So far so good.
After observing a young student carefully brushing dirt from some ancient pottery shards, Leo climbed from a narrow excavation trench and walked over to where Morelli was standing. “I don’t know how we can continue this when we don’t even know what we’re looking for.”
“I know,” Morelli said. “It’s like waiting to be struck by lightning. This site is much larger than I imagined. It could take years of searching to discover what Eduardo was looking for, not to mention the fact that he may have already discovered it. There’s also the possibility that the object we seek is no object at all, but something else. Until we have something more concrete to go on, this search is an exercise in futility.”
“I agree, Anthony. We could be staring right at whatever it is we’re looking for and not recognize it.” Leo paused in the swirling orange haze created by the sun’s fading light as it began to settle over the hills to the west. Moistening his handkerchief with some bottled water, he wiped the fine grit from his face and shook the dust from his hair. “You know, Anthony, this place kind of reminds me of the chapel we discovered under the Vatican. Not in the physical sense of course, but in the fact that it may hold messages from the past that are meant for us now, in the present.”
“All ancient sites hold messages from the past, Leo, but I know what you mean. There’s something special about this place, but there are other equally special places like this scattered all over the region. If only we knew why he chose this spot and not one of the others.” Morelli paused, thinking. “Maybe someone else chose it for him.”
Both men thought for a moment as they looked out over the darkening vista that extended all the way to the Syrian border. In the distance, they could see lights from homes across the border switching on in the gloaming to beat back the approaching darkness as men trudged home from the fields to eat supper with their families. As the silent peace settled over the area, Leo noticed that several of the students had gathered behind them.
“Uh ... Cardinal Leo, could we speak with you for a moment?” a thin young man asked.
Looking back at the group of students, Leo was suddenly reminded of the years he had spent teaching history at Boston College. “Yes ... of course. What can I do for you?”
“Well, sir,” the young man continued, looking back at the others, “we were wondering if you could tell us about the code.”
“I take it you’re talking about the code in the Bible.”
“Yes, sir,” the student smiled. “That’s the one. We’d all love to hear the story from someone who’s actually experienced it.”
Leo felt a surge of excitement at the prospect of being able to engage young minds once again. “It would be my pleasure. Come on ... gather around.”
Leo paused as more students climbed from trenches and made their way over to join the group. “Let me see. Where do I begin? Do any of you know who Professor Lev Wasserman is?”
“He’s a famous Israeli archaeologist!” a girl with frizzy red hair called out.
“That’s right,” Leo smiled. “But in addition to holding a PhD in archaeology, he’s also a world-class mathematician and one of the world’s leading experts in group theory, a field of mathematics that underlies quantum physics. A few years ago, he was reading about the Genius of Vilna, an eighteenth-century Jewish sage in Lithuania who predicted 9/11 to the day and spoke about the possibility of a code being embedded within the Torah. Lev became fascinated with the subject and learned that, throughout history, many Bible scholars had been trying to prove that there was a secret code in the Old Testament. He convinced a group of scientists at the university in Jerusalem that they could find it using modern code-breaking software, and to their surprise, they did. Their work has been replicated by the code breakers at the National Security Administration in the United States using their most powerful computers, and their paper on the subject has passed academic peer review and has been published in leading scientific journals.”
“Doesn’t this code have the power to predict the future?” the red-haired girl asked.
“It’s complicated.” Leo lifted one foot up on a rock and leaned forward. “The first evidence of the encoding was discovered in thePentateuch, the original five books of the Old Testament as they were handed down to Moses ... otherwise known as the Torah. The code only exists in Hebrew, because that was the original language of the Bible as it was first written. Evidently, sixty years ago a rabbi from Eastern Europe noticed that if he skipped fifty letters, and then another fifty, and then another fifty after that, the word Torah was spelled out at the beginning of the book of Genesis. He then used that same skip sequence again and spelled out the word Torah in the Book of Exodus. To his amazement, the word Torah was also embedded at the beginning of the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But that was as far as he got.”
A student in the back of the group raised his hand. “What happened?”
“Nothing until the invention of the modern computer,” Leo explained. “Lev and his team found additional hidden messages by using computers to alter the sequencing before scanning the pages both horizontally and vertically, like a crossword puzzle. That’s when they found words grouped together on the same page that mentioned historical events that occurred after the Bible was written. For instance, words likeairplaneandWright brothersappeared together with phrases likethey will flyandfirst flight at Kitty Hawk.
Leo paused as he felt the rush of joy he had always experienced when students were transfixed by his words. “To me the code is like God whispering in our ears,” he continued. “To date, Lev and his team have discovered passages referring to things like both World Wars, the Holocaust, men landing on the moon, 9/11, the Gulf War, even the exact date of the collision of the Shoemaker-Levi comet with Jupiter. All of these events were encoded thousands of years ago in the Old Testament. Allowing for all the mathematical variations, there’s no limitation to the amount of information that may be encoded within the Bible.”
“You’ll have to excuse me, Cardinal,” the underfed-looking boy exclaimed, “but all of this sounds a little fantastical to me.”
Leo nodded. “That’s what I thought until I heard that Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest minds to ever grace this planet, believed there was a hidden code in the Bible. He even learned Hebrew and spent most of his life trying to find it, but he lacked the one essential tool that would have led him to its discovery—a computer. Think of the Bible as a cryptogram sent to us by God himself ... a cryptogram with a series of time locks that could not be opened until certain events came to pass. Obviously, one of these events is the invention of the computer. This one leap in technology has enabled scientists and cryptographers who’ve been working on the code to discover hidden messages placed there thousands of years ago by an intelligence greater than any that exists here on Earth. I’m convinced that there’s another Bible within the Bible. It’s like a massive puzzle in layers, similar to a three-dimensional hologram. Some believe the Bible itself is a computer program left to us by the Almighty, and there are an infinite number of combinations and permutations yet to be discovered. Even with all of our computers and code-breaking programs, no one could have encoded the Bible the way it was done thousands of years ago.”
“Just how much information is there?” a petite, doe-eyed girl asked.
“All of our past and all of our future. The name of every person who has lived before us, who is living now, and who is yet to be born. All of our greatest historical events, plagues, disasters, wars and future wars. All are encoded in the Old Testament.”
The red-haired girl twisted her lips as she looked up at Leo. “Sounds impossible, Cardinal.”
“Yes it does, but you’d better be prepared to argue with some pretty knowledgeable people who have done the research and proved its existence with a 99.998 percent probability. A group of renowned scientists who worked at the NSA actually set out to disprove the theory of the code, but instead, what they found sent chills up their spines. They all saw the hand of God at work.”
The thin young man stood and pulled at his scraggly beard. “Thank you, Cardinal. I think I can speak for all of us when I say it’s been an honor meeting you. I have just one more question.”
“Go ahead. I’m enjoying this.”
“Have you thought about using the code to locate whatever it is you’re searching for out here?”
“We have, but the code has been like a black hole when it comes to details about this area. One of the things people misunderstand is that sometimes you have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it in the code. I guess that’s God’s way of keeping us from knowing the future and trying to become godlike ourselves.”
Turning away from the group, Leo saw Morelli grinning at him. “I can tell you miss your teaching days, Leo.”
“That I do, old friend. They make me think, and that last question made me wonder why we haven’t thought to speak to the villagers who worked here for Eduardo.”
“I guess I’m getting old.” Morelli slapped his forehead. “That’s probably one of the first things we should have done. Abbas said the workers were all members of an extended Kurdish family who live up the road in the small village of Orencik. We can go there tomorrow.”
Looking at his watch, Leo nodded his head. “Tomorrow sounds good. I don’t see any point in spending any more time here today. Where did Mendoza get off too?”
“I’m right behind you,” Mendoza called out. “I heard what you just said, and I agree. We need a new plan and it’s getting late. Why don’t you follow us back into town? I think we could all use a shower and some hot food. I always think better on a full stomach.”
Dusting themselves off, the entire group trudged back to their cars, and soon the small caravan was headed back down the D400 highway toward the ancient city of Sanliurfa forty miles away. With its hot dry summers and cool wet winters, the city had been known by many names throughout history. Most locals still referred to it by the older name—Urfa, the name it had gone by since Byzantine days until it was changed in 1984 to Sanliurfa, meaningGlorious Urfa. Situated on a wide flat plain between the Syrian border and the Euphrates River, Urfa was said to be the biblical city of Ur of the Chaldeans—the birthplace of the prophet Abraham and possibly Job, although many historians place the city of Ur in southern Iraq. It had also once been calledEdessaby the Greeks, home of the first holy Christian icon, a handkerchief on which Jesus wiped his face.
As with most Turkish cities the romantic old section of town was centered on an ancient bazaar where Arab and Turkish villagers dressed in traditional garb arrived every morning to sell fresh produce and other handmade wares. Exotic cooking smells drifted through the quarter, wafting through open windows, and as the line of vehicles entered the city and passed through the bazaar quarter, the occupants saw harried waiters carrying trays piled high with food to low-lying tables where they spread everything out on newspapers to be eaten with fingers. It was a far cry from the modern air-conditioned restaurants and apartment buildings that lined broad leafy avenues just a few streets away.
In this milieu of antiquity mixed with modernity, the line of vehicles continued on, passing through narrow streets into a quieter part of the city filled with traditional mud brick homes built around enclosed central courtyards that contained dripping stone fountains next to tiled urns filled with flowers. These little oases of domesticity provided a quiet respite away from the heat and noise of the streets outside, bringing a sigh of relief to the dust-covered group when they finally rolled to a stop and entered the large three-story house Mendoza had rented for their stay in the city.
After being shown to their rooms, Leo headed straight for the shower. Adjusting the temperature of the water to a level just below scalding, he immersed himself in the pounding stream for a full five minutes, and after lathering up, he could actually see the fine, orange-colored grit flowing from his body and circling down through the drain. When he finally felt clean, he inched the water temperature a few degrees cooler and rinsed off before stepping out and wiping the wet sand from his ears with a hand towel. It was a stark reminder of why he preferred doing his research in the comfort of a library, far from the heat and dust of the archaeological digs that Morelli always found so fascinating.
After pulling on a clean white dress shirt and a pair of gray slacks, he walked from his room out into an airy, red-tiled hallway and stopped to peer out over a cast iron railing into the shadowed greenery of the central courtyard below. Following the sound of voices tinged with laughter, he descended a set of narrow, white-washed stairs that curved downward in a tunnel-like spiral, until finally he stepped out into an enclosed space of towering white walls highlighted by subdued yellow lighting.
At the far end of the room, large oriental tapestries hung above a cave-like alcove lined with silken, multi-colored pillows that formed a wide seating area, and a fresh breeze on his face brought his attention to a row of Moroccan-inspired arches draped in white gossamer curtains that flowed in and out into the courtyard beyond, as if the room had lungs.
It felt as if he had stepped into another world—an ancient, magical, breathtaking respite from a long day filled with uncertainty, and he found himself wanting a drink, any drink, just as long as it was cold and made his nose feel numb after a few sips.
A gentle hand found his neck, and when he turned, he saw a familiar pair of liquid brown eyes staring up at him.
Evita Vargas giggled. “Hello, my love.”
“Evita!” Leo reached out and took her in his arms. Though it had only been a few months, it seemed like it had been years since he had last seen her. He felt lightheaded—a man past middle age, once again experiencing the schoolboy pangs of love usually reserved for the young. The air smelled sweeter, and there was a faint hint of music in the air that only he seemed to hear whenever she was around.
“Come on, dinner is waiting,” she said, leading him by the hand through the tall billowy curtains out into the courtyard where, under a star-filled sky, flickering candles painted dancing yellow patterns down the length of a long, linen-covered table. After they took their seats next to the others, a servant carrying a large tray began handing out ice-filled glasses containing a clear, sparkling beverage topped with wedges of lime and sprigs of green mint leaves.
“What’s this?” Leo asked.
“It’s a mojito,” Evita winked. “It’s a Cuban drink made from white rum, sugar, sparkling water, mint, lime ... all the yummy things you like. It was Hemingway’s favorite cocktail. I had a feeling you might need something with a little Latin influence this evening after digging around all day in a 12,000 year old megalithic temple.”
Stroking Evita’s long black hair, Leo exhaled slowly and sipped his drink. He felt totally satisfied to be here in this place at this time, living in the moment and not wanting to think about the next day as his nose grew slightly numb—a signal that the mojito was having the desired effect.
As trays of food began to flow from the kitchen, overpowering smells of cooking reminded Leo that he had not eaten for hours. Soon the table was filled with steaming ceramic dishes overflowing withMidye dolmasi, mussels stuffed with spiced rice and served with lemon. These were followed by several large serving bowls swimming withlevek pilakisi, a Turkish seafood stew of simmering sea bass, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onion, and garlic.
Looking down the table, Leo saw Dr. Raul Diaz, his face highlighted by a flickering candle as he sat locked in an animated discussion with Morelli. Catching the Spanish scientist’s eye, Leo lifted his glass in his direction and smiled. With a blank expression, the doctor returned the liquid salute with a glass of red wine before resuming his apparent battle of wits with Morelli. As usual, Diaz was displaying his disdain for social niceties, but since he was one of the world’s leading experts in molecular biology, most people overlooked this one flaw in his behavior.
Mendoza had been right. They needed help from the Spanish team—all of them, for even though all of the Israeli members of the Bible Code Team were onboard the Carmela in the nearby Aegean Sea, they needed more boots on the ground here in Turkey. Somehow Mendoza and his team had managed to arrive just in the nick of time, and Leo was glad they were there.
Standing at the end of the table, Mendoza tapped on his glass. “Cardinal, if you would be so kind as to do the honors.”
“Oh ... yes, of course.” As the unwelcome signal traveled down his tired legs and urged his muscles to move, Leo stood with a grunt and made the sign of the cross over those gathered around the table.“Let us pray. Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from your bounty. We ask that you watch over those who have gathered here together in your name, and that you open our eyes, for our purpose here has yet to be revealed. We also beseech you to guide us out of the darkness, for we are blind to your wishes, and it is only by your light that we will walk down the true path you have set before us. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
Resuming his seat across from Abbas, Leo could hear the man muttering the words,Bizmillah ar-Rahman,ar-Raheem. It was a traditional blessing all Muslims said individually before beginning a meal.
“I have to say,” Leo said, shaking out his napkin, “that it’s very heartening to see a group of people from so many different faiths breaking bread together around the same table.”
“It helps when you’re with a group that’s united against a common enemy, Cardinal,” Abbas added. “No matter how profound our ideological differences may be, I think most of us understand that we must place our petty squabbles aside and stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the coming darkness ... a darkness I fear may soon envelop the entire world. If we could all only learn to embrace our differences, a united mankind could be a very powerful force against any threat.”
Leo smiled through the paraffin-infused smoke given off by the candles. “I believe your words match those spoken to us by the Holy Father the day before we left Rome.”
“I’ve heard that the pope is a very wise man, and that his battles against the forces of darkness are legendary. It’s unfortunate that the political and religious rhetoric we’ve been bombarded with on a daily basis seems to advocate violence as the only solution to problems that have plagued humanity for literally thousands of years. If people could just stop for a moment and emulate our little gathering here tonight, our little planet might be able to step back from the brink of a very deep abyss.”
Mendoza retrieved a bottle of Spanish wine from a wooden case and set it on the table. “Unfortunately, politics and religion have always resembled blood sports in my view. My way or the highway! Death to the unbelievers!” Mendoza raised his glass in a mock salute. “As a matter of fact, using sports as an analogy isn’t so farfetched,” he continued. “Just throw on some different-colored jerseys and you have a soccer stadium full of people primed to fight one another in the name of team spirit. Every year, all around the world, people die in post-game rioting just because their favorite team lost. It’s all very tribal, and if you can’t expect people to come together for something as benign as a soccer game without killing one another, then good luck in bringing warring religions together around a campfire and expecting them to singKumbaya. With all the increasing religious tensions that have been building up over the past few years, world peace continues to remain an insurmountable goal that’s dangled before our eyes in a cruel taunt.”
“What about you, Cardinal?” Abbas said. “What are your thoughts on all of this?”
“Well, I’ve always said that if you want to solve a problem you have to go after the root cause, but when you’re dealing with a problem that’s become so global, things tend to get a little confused in the fog of differing world viewpoints. It could be that we’re finally beginning to see some of the darker after-effects of the information age, especially now that we can all disagree with one another at the speed of light from behind the cloak of anonymity provided by the internet. Who knows? But there is one common denominator I think we can all agree on. It seems that most of the unrest we’re seeing now is centered on the Middle East.”
“I agree,” Diaz said. “Who could have foreseen that a bunch of ignorant nomadic sheepherders would have been able to penetrate America’s defenses and mount such a vicious and deadly attack on U.S. soil—an attack that even the military powers of Germany and Japan were unable to pull off in WWII.”
Abbas took a sip of orange-and-cinnamon-laced tea and stared up into the star-filled sky before his dark eyes focused in on Diaz. “Unfortunately, some of those ignorant nomadic sheepherders you refer to were smart enough to turn your own technology against you.”
“I meant no offense, Abbas,” Diaz responded in an uncharacteristic show of empathy, “but I’m a practical man with little patience for political correctness, which in my opinion only serves to get in the way of honest dialogue. I was merely stating a fact. For years now, vast sums of money from oil have been flowing into the tribal hands of a group of people whose minds are stuck in the 14thcentury. Their newfound wealth has given them the ability to force their beliefs on large numbers of people by funding the radical elements within their religion, and we all know what religion that is.”
“You’re referring to Islam, of course,” Abbas said, “but there have been wealthy Muslims all along, Doctor, and they didn’t let money pervert their religion into something unrecognizable to the rest of us. Before oil, the sultans of old were some of the wealthiest people on the planet due to the spice trade. The word Arab is synonymous with trade, because they’ve been some of the most successful traders in the history of the world. This recent trend toward violence against the west using religion as an excuse is an aberration of our faith, and those who are doing it are about to lead us all down a very dark path. They’ve created some very fertile ground for a very destructive future that has the ring of Armageddon to it.”
Mendoza rubbed his temples before reaching for his glass of wine. “Which begs the point of why Eduardo chose to move to Iraq of all places.”
“Wasn’t there something in the Book of Revelation about Babylon becoming the center of the world after the Antichrist appears on the scene?” Evita asked. “Maybe that’s where we should be looking for answers.”
“I’ve heard that the Antichrist would sit on the throne in Rome.” Mendoza winked at Leo.
“Yes, some have made that interpretation,” Leo said, ignoring his friends playful jab, “but I have to say that I’m not one of those who take everything I read in that book literally. Many esteemed biblical scholars have come up with some vastly differing views of what John was trying to say in his cryptic writings. Regardless, it makes no sense for Eduardo to take his family and move to Babylon at this point. If his son is really who we think he is, then he’s still just a teenager ... hardly an age for someone to be taken seriously when they step onto the world stage.”
“Maybe they’re getting a head start by setting up their power base there now,” Evita ventured.
“Who knows,” Leo continued. “That’s certainly one possibility to consider. But Iraq is still a very unstable piece of real estate, and any foreigner would almost certainly be a target for extremists right now, especially if they’re not Muslims.”
Abbas’s eyes narrowed as he peered over his tea at Leo. “Being a Muslim doesn’t necessarily guarantee your safety there, Cardinal. As a matter of fact, it may even make it more dangerous, especially if, like me, you’re a Sunni Muslim. For years, Saddam and his Sunni ruling class dominated all aspects of Iraqi life, creating fierce enemies within the Shiite majority. Now that he’s gone, a huge power vacuum exists within the country. The war has opened the door to extremists, and it seems like Muslims all over the region are more intent on killing one another right now than they are on attacking the west.”
“Which makes it even more puzzling as to why Eduardo has decided to move there now,” Leo continued. “Unless he knows something we don’t, he and his family are sitting ducks out there all by themselves. The American military has finally pulled all of their troops out of the country, which means there’s only a small private security force left to protect him and his family.”
Abbas spread the buttery mussels on his plate and squeezed a lemon wedge over the fleshy meat. “Are you really that naïve, Cardinal?”
Leo blinked hard at the remark. “Naïve? In what way?”
“Do you really think the crusader army has abandoned Iraq?”
“Crusaders!” Diaz’s eyes flashed in unrestrained anger from his end of the table. “I find it difficult to believe that a progressive Muslim like you, with all of your education and so-called understanding of Christianity, could refer to the American army as a bunch of crusaders. That’s extremist rhetoric.”
“Not really, Doctor, especially when you look at the big picture from an historical point of view.” Abbas’s tone remained calm and measured. “I happen to be one of those people who believe we can all live together in peace, but I’m also a realist, and it doesn’t take a strategic genius to see a plan developing ... one that has probably been in the works since the last Crusader knight rode off into the sunset over the mountains of Turkey after the last Crusade.”
“Ok, Mr. Sadik ... let’s hear it,” Diaz said, frowning.
Abbas stirred his tea before continuing. “OK ... here goes. Before 9/11, most Americans, not to mention the rest of the world, looked upon Islam with about the same passing interest that they gave to the sun coming up every day. But after the terrorist attacks, America found herself at war with a religion ... something that had never happened before in her short but glorious history. America wasn’t attacked by a country; she was attacked by a religion ... a concept so unimaginable that many Americans had a hard time trying to comprehend what had just happened.”
“You’re right about that,” Morelli said. “I’m still trying to come to grips with it.”
“You may find it hard to believe, Bishop, but there are many of us in the Muslim world who are on your side, because almost overnight, Bin Laden and his merry group of terrorists had turned a large part of the world against our religion. What he did was so unimaginably stupid that many of us wondered about his sanity. It was almost as if he was sowing the seeds for the destruction of his own faith ... a faith he claimed to be defending. You don’t go around poking a sleeping dragon for no good reason, especially when the only reward you will receive will be a fiery death when it awakens, which brings me back to the point I was making when I referred to the Americans as crusaders. Just think about it for a moment. Why did the Americans spend billions of dollars building the largest and most fortified American embassy in the world right in the middle of Bagdad before making a big show of leaving? I mean, everyone knows they still have quick-reaction Special Forces teams scattered in secure bases all over the country with stockpiles of men and supplies sitting just across the border in Kuwait. Add that to the fact that they still rule the skies and you can see that they have no intention of leaving the region any time soon.”
“I think we can all agree that there’s a very good reason for a continued U.S. presence in the area,” Leo said, leaning forward on the table. “The country still has a long way to go, and right across the border you have a country like Iran that is becoming increasingly aggressive in its quest for nuclear weapons.”
“Exactly, Cardinal,” Abbas agreed, shoving his plate away. “Please keep in mind that all of this talk is just theory, but some see a larger goal in mind. It’s true that people who claimed to be radical Islamic terrorists attacked America, but they were based in Afghanistan, and many of them were either Saudis or Egyptians. Why then go after Iraq? Hussein was a ruthless dictator, but there are equally ruthless dictators and regimes around the world, so why hasn’t America gone after them? It was common knowledge that Saddam actually kept the terrorists from operating in his country. Most of them were Shiite’s after all, and he was a Sunni like me. Everyone knew he hated the Shiites, and that helped to keep the Shiite radicals in Iran out of Iraq. Also, as proven after the fact, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, yet America still invaded. Why? Because they needed a base in the Middle East, that’s why.”
“And why would they need something like that?” Diaz prodded.
“So they could take out Iran. A lot of people have suspected that Iran has been the real target all along because they’re the world’s greatest exporter of international terrorism and have been a thorn in the side of the West ever since the Ayatollah and his theocratic regime came into power. By taking down Iraq, America opened the door to Iranian aggression, and the Iranians have fallen right into the trap by behaving just as the American intelligence community predicted they would. They behaved stupidly and began threatening Israel, and this gives the U.S. and their allies a perfect excuse to invade. The Crusaders have returned once again carrying a different flag, and just like before, they have stirred up a hornet’s nest.”
Leo’s attention was drawn to Abbas’s theories with a mixture of curiosity and concern. “I hate to disagree with you, Abbas, but I believe the hornet’s nest existed before America became involved. Rather than lay the blame on some vast CIA conspiracy, I would suggest that the U.S. was only responding to the surprise attacks made by radical Islamic terrorists on American soil.”
“But that’s just my point, Cardinal. I have my own theory that both sides have played right into the hands of someone else who is dealing the cards. I don’t believe America or its allies understand just who it is they’re really fighting against, and neither do their enemies. Personally, I believe we’re all in a war together against an evil that’s greater than any of us realize, and it’s about to lead the entire world to the brink of a very dark abyss.”
“After the terrorist attacks against America, the world became a religious powder keg, and what better way for the Antichrist to light the fuse for Armageddon than to put a modern day crusader army back into the Middle East surrounded by enemies. Already Russia, the bear to the north, has sided with Iran ... an event, if I’m not mistaken, that was foretold in Revelation. And now, with Iran reaching out to become a nuclear power, Israel is poised to strike. Try for a moment to project forward just a little to see what’s about to happen. What seemed unimaginable only a few years ago is now happening, and anyone who tries to expose a very cunning but evil sleight of hand is at grave risk.”
“He could be right,” Mendoza said, nodding his head. “Twenty years ago, if someone would have told me that the West would invade Iraq and begin building a military infrastructure right in the center of the Islamic world, I would have told them they were crazy. Doomsday theorists who made those kinds of claims were laughed at. I remember one night in Madrid a few years back. We were all having a few drinks at a Tapas bar and listening to an American man sitting at the next table. He was going on to his friends about how the world was moving toward Armageddon and that soon all the pieces would fall into place in the Middle East. We all felt sorry for the guy. I mean, personally I thought he had been mesmerized by all those radio talk-show hosts in America that dominate the airwaves and keep truckers awake at night with their conspiracy theories. I know ... I listened to them one night when I was taking a road trip across the U. S. a few years back. Some of their theories don’t seem so farfetched now.”
Evita kept her eyes focused on Abbas. She was taking in everything he said, and it was obvious by the expression on her face that she didn’t like what she was hearing. “So, what you’re saying is that there’s a darker force at work behind all of these recent events that fits right in with biblical prophecy, especially when it comes to predicting Armageddon.”
“Possibly,” Abbas answered, “but that’s for you to decide, for it is your Book of Revelation that makes these predictions. I only look to the signs around me, and right now they seem to lead to Babylon.”
The relaxed mood around the table had vanished in the wake of a discussion none of them saw coming. Good points had been made on both sides, but it was becoming evident that Eduardo’s move to Babylon at this point in history was probably no coincidence, making it even more vital that they find out why he and his wife and son had traveled to the ruins of some long forgotten civilization in Turkey.
“Have you had a chance yet to speak to the Kurdish workers Eduardo hired when he was there?” Leo asked Abbas.
“Yes. I’ve made arrangements for us to meet with them in Orencik tomorrow.”
Morelli picked at the last mussel on his plate. “I seem to remember you mentioning something about that town the last time we were in this area.”
“Yes, Bishop,” Abbas replied. “You remember ... I said it was surrounded by some suspicious-looking mounds you might want to check out someday.”
“Sounds familiar, but I thought you called it by a different name.”
“A lot of cities and towns here in Turkey have been renamed, but I prefer to use the old names out of respect for local tradition. The locals still refer to Orencik by its older name ...Karaharabe.”
“Karaharabe.Hmmm ... what does it mean?”
“The last time I was there, one of the villagers told me that the ancient name meantBlack Ruin. My guess is that’s one of the reasons the government decided to rename it. They probably thought the old name didn’t sound too appealing. When I was talking to the village elder, I noticed that my questions seemed to stir some emotion in him, but when I asked him if they had discovered an ancient black ruin in the area, he insisted that it was probably nothing more than a myth and never really existed in the first place.”
Abbas paused for a moment, his eyes darting nervously between Leo and Morelli. “There’s something else I need to tell you. When I was making arrangements with one of the Kurdish workers for our meeting with them tomorrow, he mentioned that the Coptic priest who died had been seen exploring some mounds outside of Orencik on the same day he drove to the site Eduardo was searching.”
A sudden silence descended over the table as Leo downed the last of his mojito. “How early can we get started tomorrow, Abbas?”
“As soon as the sun comes up, Cardinal. Why?”
“Because we’re moving our search to Orencik. Something tells me Eduardo was looking in the wrong place.”CHAPTER 7
As the line of vehicles climbed into the rocky hills that cradled the mud-splattered village of Orencik, Leo and the others could see right away that this wasn’t the kind of place that inspired tourists to dive for their cameras. Most of the houses were in a sad state of disrepair, while the rest had collapsed into piles of mud brick after the last rumble deep in the ground had shaken this earthquake-prone region. In short, the entire area reeked of poverty.
Surrounding the village, miles of cultivated fields were delineated by small streams, their meandering paths marked by the only trees that remained standing in an otherwise treeless landscape, and the rutted dirt roads leading into the village made it rough going for the vehicles as they steered around a herd of sheep and passed a small, domed mosque with a single minaret. It was a stark reminder that they were in a land dominated by a single religion that could be either welcoming or hostile to outsiders, and only time would tell what kind of reception they would receive once they entered the village.
Over the cracked tin roofs of leaning houses that matched the color of the earth, Leo could see several rounded mounds in the distance—mounds that seemed out of place in the predominant geology of the surrounding countryside. By now he had been hanging around archaeologists long enough to recognize the signs. To most laymen, the mounds looked just like natural hills covered in flowing brown grass; a place to picnic while your children rolled down their gently sloping sides, but to an archaeologist, it was like having a large neon sign floating overhead, flashing the words:dig here—ancient civilization hidden below.
Rolling to a stop along a rutted street that led into the town square, the cautious group walked toward the ever-present bazaar filled with covered wooden stalls displaying everything from fresh vegetables and hanging slabs of mystery meat, to things like jars of pickled snakes drifting in a yellowish, foul-smelling liquid. In broken English, a toothless merchant advised them that the snake jars contained a medicinal cure for a local ailment he prayed none of them would ever catch. Thanking him for his concern, everyone in the group nodded their heads as they stared at the putrid contents, for the merchant was obviously offering a last resort to those who had given up all hope.
Pushing their way through colorfully dressed throngs of people who cast silent, vacant stares in their direction, the group ended up walking into a side street darkened by shadows cast by the towering mud-colored buildings that rose on either side. Coming to a short, blue painted door, they knocked and were instantly greeted by a stooping servant who motioned the group into a surprisingly resplendent home filled with ancient statuary and shelves lined with golden trinkets from the past.
Across the room, washing his hands in a large porcelain bowl, was the man they had come to see. Carefully wiping the water from his forearms with a green hand towel, the man turned and walked toward a circle of tall purple cushions that surrounded a low table. Bowing slightly, he spread his arms in an invitation for them to sit as the stooped servant arrived with an intricately engraved silver tray containing small cups and a long-stemmed metal pot filled with steaming Turkish coffee.
Following the requisite introductions, Abbas began translating for the man, telling Leo and the others that their host was the leader of a clan-like group of local Kurdish workers who specialized in excavating ancient sites. They were the local equivalent of a labor union, Abbas explained, and he winked as he told them of how the men of the village hired themselves out to dig for the steady stream of archaeologists who flowed through the region every summer.
Sitting cross-legged on a cushion that stood a little taller than the others, the stoic man barely moved. Even his eyes were barely visible through a pair of heavy brown creases set deep within a weathered face. After exchanging a few more pleasantries, Abbas entered into an animated discussion with the man, asking him if he could lead them to the ruin the village was named after. After several minutes of back-and-forth discussion in Arabic, Abbas exhaled in a show of exasperation. “He says they won’t do it.”
“Ask him why not,” Morelli said.
The old man stared back with a look of resignation on his face, but without waiting for Abbas to translate, he answered Morelli’s question in Arabic.
“He says that his people have been digging up archaeological sites in Turkey for generations,” Abbas continued, “but that it’s forbidden to touch the hills around here. He said that, even though it’s obvious to them that the area surrounding their village is surrounded by ancient ruins that may hold treasures of tremendous value, they will not dig there.”
“But why?” Leo asked. “Is it for religious reasons?”
Stroking his long white beard, the old man gazed around the table before looking to Abbas and speaking in Arabic once again.
“He says that it is unwise to disturb anything the ancients buried here, especially the Black Ruin.” Abbas paused for a moment and sipped his coffee in the polite dance of local custom. “He also said something else. Apparently, all those who have stumbled upon it have died.”
Leo leaned forward and smiled at the man. “Yet he has claimed in the past that no such ruin exists.”
The old man’s eyes remained fixed.
“You speak English, don’t you, sir?” Leo said.
The old man stirred, his eyes cat-like in their unflinching stare. “Yes, Cardinal, I speak English. It is a necessity in my trade, as I deal with many English speakers in my line of work.”
“So why the pretense with us?”
“Because I knew that you would be coming here to ask about the Black Ruin, and I wanted to keep our discussion short.”
“How did you know?”
“I know many things. You will soon learn that there are very few secrets in this part of the world.”
Leo tried to smile, but something about the man’s demeanor made him wary. “At this point, sir, all we’re doing is having a discussion. What harm can that bring?”
“Discussions sometime lead to actions, Cardinal, and in this case, I must not allow that to happen.”
“You know where the Black Ruin is, don’t you?”
The old man’s expression remained frozen. “I’ve never heard an outsider use that name before, but even if I knew where the Black Ruin was I would never reveal its location.”
“Even if I told you that it may hold something that could affect the future of the entire world?”
“Especially if it held something that important, Cardinal. As you know, some things are better left undisturbed. May I ask what it is you are seeking?”
“At this point we have no idea, but we do know that others are also looking for it ... others whose intentions are not yet clear. There must be something of great importance there, which means we can’t allow it to fall into the wrong hands.”
Leo detected a quick flash of fire in the old man’s eyes. “Youcannot allow it, Cardinal? It is not up to you. This is our land. I have no doubt that what you say is true, because for thousands of years people have been looking for something in this area, and for thousands of years we, like our ancestors before us, have been the guardians of whatever lies beyond those hills.”
“Then you do know where it is?”
“No one knows, Cardinal. We have only seen what has happened to those who have accidently stumbled upon it. Why have you come here? Why would a man wish to rush toward his own destruction? Is that why you and your friends have traveled all this way ... to die?
“Like the Coptic priest?”
“Yes, Cardinal ... like that poor unfortunate man. I tell you the truth when I say that we have no idea where he went. Somehow he must have stumbled upon something that caused his illness, but none of that matters now, because like all of the others who wandered out into the hills looking for something, he died a horrible death. I don’t want to be responsible for leading anyone else to the same fate.”
The old man stood—the meeting obviously at an end.
Reaching out, Leo grasped the man’s gnarled hand, the product of years spent digging in the hard earth. “Thank you, sir, for agreeing to meet with us. You’ve been a very gracious host.”
“Please, Eminence, do not thank me. I can see that you are a very intelligent man, but like other intelligent men, you suffer from an unquenchable thirst for knowledge ... a thirst that can sometimes lead to poisoned waters. Heed my words well, Cardinal. Your eyes will not be opened, but rather closed, for it is death that awaits you if you continue in this search.”
Looking into the weathered slits that framed the man’s golden eyes, Leo sensed wisdom tinged with fearful warning. There was nothing hostile in the unblinking gaze, but if one looked deep enough there was a look of sorrowful resignation—a resignation born of countless encounters with others who had knocked on the man’s blue door. Each had come seeking directions to their own deaths, believing that they and they alone would be the ones to solve the riddle of a strange ruin buried in the nearby hills, but despite the old man’s pleas, none had listened, and as they walked out into the peaceful-looking countryside surrounding the village, the only truth they had discovered lay in the silence of death that had followed a period of great suffering.
With the blue door closing behind them, the group walked back down the narrow street toward their parked cars. They had been shaken by their encounter with the old man, who by his words and manner had confirmed the presence of a mysterious ruin surrounded by ancient legends that linked it with some sort of death curse, and someone or something had made him and his ancestors its guardians for thousands of years.CHAPTER 8
Dressed in an open white cotton shirt and khaki shorts, Lev Wasserman sat in front of a computer console in the yacht’s communication center, his tanned and calloused feet slipping in and out of a pair of well-worn flip-flops as he peered into a blue-tinged screen. Sitting beside him in the darkened room was the team’s chief cryptographer, Daniel Meir, who had just returned from his honeymoon in Italy with his new bride, Sarah Adams. The door was blocked open, allowing the sea breeze to filter in, yet both men were sweating in the humidity-charged island environment as the yacht’s engineer struggled below decks to repair the boat’s air conditioning system.
Pushing his glasses up on top of his head, Lev placed his face close to the screen. “What do you think this means?”
Daniel punched a key and zoomed in on an enlarged section from a page in Genesis. The phrase,it awaits the Dark One,ran across the top.
“That’s all?It awaits the Dark One?”
“There’s nothing else on the page that makes any sense, Professor.”
“I checked three times. Nothing.”
“What about the cave here in Patmos? Have we found anything there yet?”
“Ariella and John are due back any minute. Alon and Nava were following behind on motor scooters for backup. They wanted to look like a bunch of tourists.”
“Good. I’m going down to my cabin to catch a quick nap. Wake me if you discover anything new.”
“Will do, Professor.”
As Lev turned to leave, a flash traffic alarm signaled an incoming call on the satellite phone.
“What now?” Picking up the phone, Lev listened for a few moments before mumbling a quick goodbye and sliding back down into his chair.
“What’s wrong?” Daniel asked. “You look a little pale, Professor.”
“That was Danny Zamir. It seems he just found out their communications section picked up a satellite call made to the Vatican three weeks before Christmas.”
“What’s so strange about that?”
“The caller was Eduardo Acerbi.”
“You’re kidding! Acerbi called the Vatican?”
“Apparently. The call was placed the day after he disappeared from his house in Foix.”
“Do they know who he spoke to or what the call was about?”
“No. Both phones had military grade encryption software installed, but they were able to identify the fact that the caller was Acerbi and that he was calling from his private railway car. They just don’t know what was said or who he was talking to at the Vatican.”
“And Zamir is just now finding out about this?”
“With everything else that was going on in the world at the time, and with the situation in Iran heating up over the past few months, a single phone call to the Vatican sat at the bottom of a pile of messages on some analyst’s desk until he had time to read it and saw the name of the caller.”
Through the open door, the two men could hear the sound of motorbikes on the dock below.
“Sounds like our people are back from the cave,” Daniel said. “I’m dying to know what they found.”
Lev bolted from his chair. “So am I. Why don’t we go find out?”
The two men descended the mahogany-paneled interior stairway and stepped out under the blue-and white-striped awning covering the yacht’s main deck. Leaning over the railing, they could see Ariella and John dismounting their small motor scooters, followed by Alon and Nava who had just arrived behind them.
Lev smiled when he saw the hulking figure of Alon hunched over the frame of a tiny motorbike that was bending under his weight. It was a miracle that the little machine had been able to carry the huge man up the steep inclines of the surrounding hills, but Patmos had been a place long steeped in the history of miracles, so anything was possible here.
“Welcome back!” Lev shouted below. “You must be thirsty.”
“We’re dying,” Ariella said. “We ran out of water an hour ago.”
“Come on up. We’ve got some cold lemonade.”
“Sounds marvelous. Be right there.” Ariella hefted her small backpack over her shoulder as the four climbed the teak stairs to the main deck before plopping down in canvas chairs.
Sitting across from her, Daniel leaned forward and smiled. “Well?”
“Did we find anything ... is that what you’re fishing for?” Ariella frowned as she quickly downed a full glass of lemonade and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “We came up empty-handed.”
“But the code, Ariella. The coordinates lead to that particular cave. There’s something there, and it’s been there since John wrote the Book of Revelation in a cave that’s almost within spitting distance from the cave you were searching today.”
“We went over every inch of that cave,” Alon said, rinsing his head under a deck hose and letting the cool water drip from his hair. “Given the time frame involved, whatever we’re looking for was probably covered over years ago by layers of dirt, which means we’ll have to dig to find it. A project like that will take time, and it will definitely draw attention to our little expedition.”
“What about the actual cave John lived in when he wrote the book?” Nava ventured. “It seems to me like that would be the most logical place to look.”
“That big white monastery on the side of the hill is built around the original cave,” Lev said. “It’s become a shrine visited by thousands of tourists every year. The dirt floor has been paved over, and tapestries cover the walls. Any evidence of writing has either been erased by time or covered over by those who had no idea what they were doing.”
“Or they thought it was just ancient graffiti,” Nava said. “Not exactly a modern phenomenon. When Alon and I were traveling through France a few years ago we were standing inside Notre Dame taking pictures. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked over at one of the pillars and saw graffiti dating back to the year 1402 scratched into the stone. I mean, it was just a couple of names circled by a heart, but it was really kind of cool. I hate to say it because I don’t like graffiti, but I actually enjoyed looking at some of the old names scratched into that pillar more than I did some of the paintings we saw in the Louvre.”
“That’s because it triggered an emotional response stronger than the art you were looking at,” Lev said. “Looking at words carved in the 15thcentury by some lovestruck teenager can have a profound effect on anyone capable of conjuring visions of the past.”
Nava pushed her short black hair from her eyes and looked out over the harbor. “We’re facing the same problem Leo and Morelli are dealing with in Turkey. We don’t know what we’re looking for. Whatever it is could be in the form of some kind of graffiti, like in the cathedral, or it could be on a scroll or something buried in a box.”
“If it’s buried, we’ll probably find it in a sealed clay jar,” Ariella said. “That’s what they used in those days to bury anything they wanted to preserve ... like they did with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place.”
“But the code definitely referenced something left behind in that particular cave here in Patmos,” Daniel said, pulling at his short beard.
“The floor is mostly soft sand,” Ariella continued, “so maybe we could do a little fast digging at the base of the walls just to see if we can expose any old writing. I don’t think I need to remind anyone here that time is running out. We need to find whatever it is we were sent here to find, and we need to do it soon ... because Leo is counting on us.”CHAPTER 9
Eduardo Acerbi walked slowly down a long hallway that stretched from one end of his enormous house to the other. He felt rather lost in the immense space after spending the past forty years in a small French farmhouse, where his only visitors had been the books that arrived on his doorstep courtesy of UPS. Feeling slightly out of breath, he stopped for a moment and leaned against a marble wall.
After taking a few deep breaths, he continued down the hallway and descended a winding stairway that ended in a foyer beneath an immense crystal chandelier. Picking up a few unobtrusive guards who began walking behind him as he explored the many corridors that ran throughout the ground floor of the palace, he looked back over his shoulder and smiled. “Why are you following me?”
“Orders, Mr. Acerbi.”
“Orders? Orders from who?”
“From Mrs. Acerbi, sir.” The guards exchanged glances. “She’s very protective of you, sir. We’ve been given orders to accompany you wherever you go.”
“That’s absurd. This palace sits behind tall walls surrounded by one of the finest security forces in the world. I don’t need protection inside my own house.”
“Yes, sir.” The two guards backed away as Acerbi’s eyes narrowed in anger. Turning around, he walked toward the front entrance and burst into the security control room. “Where’s your commander?”
The guards sitting in front of the security monitors were speechless, and as Acerbi took a step forward he saw one of the men reach for a control knob in front of a monitor labeledSubterranean Computer Area 9. Instantly the screen went dark, but not before Acerbi had seen the image of a towering black sphere inside a space filled with men wearing white protective suits over their clothing.
“Good morning, Mr. Acerbi,” a young officer said, rising from his desk. “How can we help you today?”
“I understand my wife has given orders that I am to be followed around in my own house. I can understand the reason for the patrols outside, but I want this inside nonsense stopped immediately!”
“Those orders were issued by Mrs. Acerbi for your protection, sir. Frankly, she’s worried about your health.”
“Well, since I’m still the boss around here, I suggest you take your orders from me or start worrying about the health of your jobs.”
The officer quickly stood at attention. “Yes, sir. It won’t happen again. I’ll have our captain inform Mrs. Acerbi.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll inform her myself. Now, turn off all of those cameras right now and don’t turn them on again until I tell you to. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir ... but ...
“We’ll be left without a means to observe the area.”
“Use your eyes, young man. I don’t believe in cameras.”
“Yes, sir.” The officer walked to the center console and flicked a switch, and right away Acerbi saw all of the monitors go black.
“That’s better. Carry on.” Acerbi turned and ran right into a dark-looking man with a beard.
“Good morning, Mr. Acerbi.” The man spoke in a halting, Russian accent. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Who in the hell are you?”
Unlike the others, the man seemed unfazed by Acerbi’s anger. “My name is Ilia Sokolov. I’m the director of the Acerbi Corporation’s new computer division. We’re installing some of our latest equipment for you here in Babylon. Maybe we can have dinner together some evening.”
“Maybe. You’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Sokolov, but I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
With that, Eduardo slammed the door behind him and leaned against the wall. Sweat poured down his face as he felt his hands begin to tremble.Computer Area 9? A gigantic black sphere! A strange man with a Russian accent in charge of his computer division?What in the world was going on? Acerbi had to think. He had to find his son. Climbing the stairway, he headed down a long hallway to Adrian’s room and knocked on the door. After a brief wait, the door swung open.
“Father!” The smiling teen rushed forward and embraced the old man as if he hadn’t seen him for years. “Have you come to see the new computer games mother just bought for me?”
“Yes. Let’s have a look.” Eduardo watched, and as the computer-generated graphics jumped from the screen with a realism that was almost shocking to a man who was raised playing with nothing more than erector sets and tinker toys, he could see the vivid colors from the computer screen reflecting in his son’s golden brown eyes. “Why don’t we go for a little walk?”
“A walk? Are we going to the ruins of Babylon again today?”
“No, I just feel like some fresh air.”
“Sure.” Adrian switched off his computer screen and grabbed his smart phone before following his father outside into the blast furnace of the desert and the watered greenery of the manicured grounds surrounding the palace.
“Do you like it here, Adrian?”
The boy looked puzzled for a second. “I love it here, Father. For some reason, I feel more at home here than I did in France. The people here seem really friendly, and I love the food. Sometimes the internet goes down, but your people usually have it up again within a few minutes. Why do you ask, Father?”
“I just wanted to make sure that you’re happy here. Sometimes moving can be stressful, especially for a teenager.”
“It’s no big deal, Father ... really. I didn’t have all that many friends back in France. In fact, I don’t think there was any one particular person I ever felt very close to. I guess I’ve never had what you could call a best friend or anything like that, but that’s OK. I kind of like being off to myself ... except for you and mom of course. I love being with you.”
“I’ve noticed that about you.” Eduardo smiled at his son and rested a bent hand on the youngster’s shoulder. “At our age, your mother and I aren’t going to be around forever. You need to start making friends your own age.”
Eduardo felt the boy stiffen as he looked down at the ground and turned to hide an expression of anguish. His body shook, and then suddenly he reached out and grabbed his father and held on to him without letting go. He had suddenly become like a small child—one fearful of what might lie beyond the safety of his immediate family. To him, the world was an alien landscape strewn with the unknown. He wanted to stop time forever and make things stay just as they were, because he could feel something deep within, something foreign to him that was struggling like a drowning swimmer, and when it surfaced, it would push its rescuer back beneath the swirling current as it reveled in a new world of air and light. Somehow the boy could sense that Eduardo Acerbi was that rescuer, and he wanted to remain close.
“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to upset you. Unfortunately for both of us, it’s a fact of life that your mother and I are getting older ... older than many parents who have a son your age. I’ve made arrangements for you to be well cared for ...
“I don’t want to talk about it, Father. I can’t bear to think of anything happening to you.”
Eduardo looked down and saw tears flowing down the boy’s face.Hardly the response one would expect from the Antichrist, he thought. Surely the signs were wrong. Some horrible, bumbling cosmic mistake had been made, and soon those who had claimed to know the truth would realize their error. This was a child of love. He embraced everyone around him, and his father had never seen him do one cruel thing in his entire life. Eduardo would pull out all the stops if anyone ever tried to lay a hand on the boy—or he would die trying.
Looking over his shoulder, he saw the ever-present guards following behind at a discreet distance, their automatic weapons at the ready.Could these men be trusted if the time ever came for them to lay down their lives for his son?Colette had assured him they were the best, for she had been the one responsible for screening everyone hired to guard the family, and she had been relentless in her quest to obtain the best. When it came to protecting her family, her energy was limitless, and those that didn’t measure up to her expectations soon found themselves out of a job.
“What are you two doing out here in this heat?” Father and son turned to see Colette marching from the house with a frown on her face.
“Father wanted to go for a walk.”
“It’s 110 degrees out here, Eduardo. This heat isn’t good for someone who’s spent the past forty years in the shadow of the Pyrenees. Why don’t you two go for a swim? It’s almost lunch time. I’ll have some Cokes and sandwiches sent out to the poolside cabana.”
“Sounds delicious, my dear. I’ll just go change into my swimming trunks and ... Eduardo froze. He had just seen something—something he couldn’t explain. His wife’s form had wavered before his eyes, and for a split second he thought he had seen a dark, winged creature standing before him, occupying the space where Colette had been standing just seconds before.
The old man stepped back, for in that instant he knew that the creature had recognized his fear. Suddenly he stumbled forward.
“Father!” Adrian screamed.
Eduardo’s face began to turn a dark shade of purple as small flecks of white foam dribbled from the side of his mouth. Rushing to his side, Adrian and the guards gently lowered him to the ground. Grasping at the air, he tried to mouth a few words, but it was obvious from the frozen look in his eyes that he was unable to speak and that his body was no longer responding to his commands.
“Someone call an ambulance!” Adrian yelled to the guards.
“It’s on the way, sir,” a guard said, bending over to shade Eduardo from the blistering sun.
Kneeling at his side, Collette took his hand and stroked his head as he stared up into a cloudless Babylonian sky. Trapped in a body that refused to obey the signals from his brain, Eduardo wondered if his time had come. The shadow of death was upon him, and like a worn seam in old fabric, he could almost feel his soul tearing loose from his body until suddenly, something jerked him back into the world of the living.Someone or something wasn’t ready for him to die just yet.Even though he couldn’t move, he was still alive, and he was aware of everything going on around him.
Releasing Eduardo’s hand, Collette stood over the limp form of her husband’s body lying awkwardly on the ground halfway on and halfway off the sidewalk. He was looking up at her with a pleading stare, and as he watched, he saw her image blur again for a split-second as a faint smile edged at the corners of her mouth, for the emotional response of joy was a strange sensation for a demon. Colette was no longer Colette. She had been lured by her dreams to the ruins in Turkey, where the demon had been waiting to take over her body. The time for Adrian’s transition was fast approaching, and the Evil One was beginning to sow his dark seeds.CHAPTER 10
The house in Sanliurfa seemed unusually quiet. Lying in bed beneath a quilted comforter, Leo stared up at the ceiling and tried to decide on a new course of action. One thing was clear. They would be going back to Orencik to explore the area for themselves, with or without the help of the village elder and his men.
A knock on the door from one of the household staff vaporized his thoughts. “There’s a telephone message for you, Cardinal.”
Leo tossed his sheets aside. “Did the caller leave a name?”
“It was from the Vatican, sir. They want you to call them on your satellite phone.”
“Thank you.” Leo struggled from under the covers and reached for the satellite phone next to his bed. He had forgotten to purchase an adapter for his battery charger that was compatible with the Turkish electrical system, so he had been leaving the phone off to conserve power.
After switching on the slate-gray phone and waiting for the green light signaling satellite acquisition, he punched in the number for the main switchboard at the Vatican.
A shy-sounding female voice answered. “Hello, Cardinal.”
Leo immediately recognized the voice on the other end of the line. It was that of a young nun Leo had met only once when he had toured the switchboard office at the Vatican so that he could put faces behind those he talked to on a daily basis; an attention to detail that had made Leo so invaluable to the pope.
“I was told I just received a call.”
“Yes you did, sir,” the young nun giggled. “The Holy Father has been trying to reach you. Hang on ... I’ll put you through. He’s waiting.”
“Leopold ... I’m glad they were able to find you so quickly. How are things going in Turkey?”
“As well as can be expected given the information we have to go on. I was planning on calling you tonight with an update. We’re beginning to think Eduardo was looking in the wrong spot for whatever it was he was looking for.”
There was a long silence at the other end of the line.
“Yes ... I’m still here, Cardinal. I’m afraid I have some disturbing news for you. Eduardo Acerbi suffered an apparent stroke today at his home in Babylon.”
“Eduardo ... a stroke?”
“Not too surprising actually, considering his age. We must be sure to keep him in our prayers.” The pope paused again, always a sign to others that he was choosing his next words carefully. “I must tell you something else, Leopold ... something I probably should have told you sooner. Eduardo called me when you were still hiding out in the mountain cabins before Christmas.”
“Excuse me, Your Holiness. Did you just say Eduardo called you?”
“He did ... on the day he left France for Turkey. He and my father were friends.”
Leo gripped the phone, his green eyes staring off into space.The pope’s father and Eduardo Acerbi had been friends?The silence now came from Leo’s end of the line.
“Why have you never mentioned this to me before, Your Holiness?”
“At the time, any connection between myself and Acerbi would only have made things more complicated. The fact that my father knew Eduardo was nothing more than pure coincidence. They were just business acquaintances, but with everything that was going on at the time, people would have seen conspiracies around every corner. I wanted your mind to be clear ... without doubt. I was as surprised as everyone else when he suddenly surfaced last year after his disappearance forty years ago. I honestly thought he was dead like everyone else. I only met him a few times when I was a child.”
“Why did he call you?”
“To be honest, I believe he was seeking some kind of absolution for having to take the life of his son, Rene, although he denied that was the reason. He said he was calling to make a plea for his other son, Adrian. He seems convinced that the boy is not who we think he is, and he wanted us to call off the dogs, so to speak.”
“I guess that would make sense, Your Holiness, especially since Adrian appears to be nothing like Rene. Personally, I’m having a hard time believing it myself. I think we’ll know more when we hear from Lev Wasserman and his team in Patmos. They’re following up on a particularly interesting lead they discovered in the code.”
“Watch your back while you’re in Turkey, Cardinal. I have a bad feeling about all of this, especially with the timing of Eduardo’s stroke. Would you like me to send Francois with some of his Swiss Guards?”
“No, I think our original plan of keeping a low profile is still the way to go. The Carmela is due to arrive here tomorrow with the rest of the team. If it looks like we’ll need any additional backup I’ll give Francois a call.”
“That’s your decision, Cardinal. Just don’t wait until it’s too late.”
“I’ll be careful, Marcus. Thank you for calling. It’s good to hear a friendly voice out here in a strange land.”
“Keep me updated on your progress, Leopold. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
Leo found himself staring straight ahead, still clutching the phone in his hand when the line went dead and the phone erupted in a series of annoying beeps. To Leo, it seemed that life was full of beeps. Beeps to remind us when the phone was off the hook, beeps reminding us to fasten our seat belts, beeps when things were backing up. Maybe whatever they were looking for would erupt in a series of beeps when they found it. The thought made Leo smile as he laid the phone down and switched it off.
He remained sitting at the edge of the bed, thinking back to his brief meeting with Eduardo at the farmhouse in Foix the year before. Leo had felt a genuine fondness for the old man and had wanted to speak to him again about the site in Turkey, but for some reason Eduardo had refused to answer his calls. Now, with news of his stroke, it seemed as though Leo’s questions might never be answered.
Standing, Leo stretched before heading for the shower. It was almost time for supper, and he could only imagine the effect this news would have on the others as he toweled himself dry and slipped on a black dress shirt and a pair of tan slacks.
Unlike the night before when everyone had gathered around a long table in the courtyard, small groups of people were scattered in small alcoves around the central courtyard. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Leo peered behind gossamer curtains as he walked past the separate alcoves, finally spotting Mendoza sitting with Evita and Dr. Diaz in a corner space filled with candlelight.
“Ah ... Leo. You’re starting to behave like a Spaniard with your little siestas.”
“I wish I could sleep, but at least I have time to think while I lie there trying to drift off.” Leo paused to watch the moving shapes cast by flickering candles against the stark white walls. “I just received a call from Pope Michael. Eduardo Acerbi suffered a paralyzing stroke today at his home in Babylon.”
“We know,” Evita said, patting the cushioned seat beside her. “Come, sit ... have a glass of wine with us.”
“We received a call from the Madrid station chief an hour ago.”
Grasping the offered wineglass by the stem, Leo collapsed down into the deep cushions that lined the wall next to Evita. Taking a long sip, his mind was gripped by thoughts of what might be lying in wait for them in the hills a few miles away as a slight breeze pushed the gossamer curtains deeper into the room, hinting at forces beyond. Surely, he thought, the same breeze that drove the curtains inward was linked together with other winds that circled the Earth, and while a simple breeze could be a presence barely felt, at other times it could be fierce, as in a brutal storm that created great havoc and left unimaginable carnage in its wake. Was the force that awaited them in the hills outside Orencik just a breeze, or was it a full-blown storm? Was it benign, lying just beneath the surface, or was it fierce, ready to spring forth across the land to crush anything in its path? Whatever it was, they would soon find out, because he and his team were about to enter the eye of a potential maelstrom.
Running his fingers through his thick, gray-tinged hair, he was happy to be in the company of people he trusted and loved. It reminded him of his youth in rural Pennsylvania when he would sit with his father and uncles on Sunday afternoons before they all headed back down into the coal mines early the next morning. Up in the fresh air of the rolling green countryside, all was peaceful and calm, while down below, beneath thousands of feet of solid rock, black dust swirled around loud machinery, waiting for that one spark that could ignite an underground inferno.
Setting his empty wineglass on the table, Leo leaned back in his cushioned nest and stretched. “Before we proceed, I think we need to meet with Lev and the rest of the team onboard the Carmela. We have no idea what we’re facing out there in those hills, and I want to spend some time with Daniel going over as much of the Bible code as possible before we continue. Somewhere there is a clue to what we are facing, and we’d be fools to rush in without being better prepared.”
“I agree with Leo,” Mendoza said. “I think we’re on the right track by focusing our search in a different area, and there’s no sense in rushing things, especially when we’re facing something that could potentially be very deadly.”
“Also, our presence here is obviously no longer a secret,” Leo admitted. “So I’ve decided to call the Carmela and ask Nava to pick us up in the chopper tomorrow. I believe the time has come for us to meet with Lev.”
Evita leaned in close and spoke softly. “Who will you be taking with you?”
“You, of course ... plus Morelli and Javier.”
“That’s four. The chopper only holds three passengers.”
“Their new helicopter is larger. It holds six.”
Evita smoothed a wisp of long black hair from her face as her eyes met with his. “I need to speak with you alone, Leo.”
Taking the hint, Mendoza and Diaz both rose. “I think we’ll grab some food and meet you two back here in a few minutes,” Mendoza said, downing the remainder of his wine.
After they left, Evita looked down at the tile floor without speaking as the tears began to flow. “Do you still love me, Leo?”
Stunned by the question, Leo reached out and touched her arm, only to have her move away as she wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand.
“Of course I still love you!” he said. “Why would you ask such a question? What’s wrong?”
“Because I happen to know the pope has given you his permission to marry, yet you still haven’t asked me. You ask if something is wrong. Well let me ask you ... is it?”
“It hasn’t been made official yet. I was waiting ...
“The official announcement doesn’t preclude your asking, Leo. I thought at least you would have brought the subject up by now.”
“I’ve been forced into a delicate balancing act here, Evita. I had planned on giving you a ring when I ask you to marry me, but I can’t be seen shopping for an engagement ring until the Vatican formally announces the pope’s decision. I wanted it to be a surprise away from all the intrigue we’ve been living with lately.”
“But that’s just my point, Leo. In your position there will always be intrigue, and everything you do is dictated by the Vatican while I sit in the shadows like some kept woman until everything isofficial.”
Leo reached for the bottle of wine and refilled their glasses. “I’m sorry. I had no idea you felt this way.”
“That’s the other part of the problem, Leo. You’re so wrapped up in events that you don’t have time for us. Don’t get me wrong ... you’re an important man with important problems, but I won’t be put on the back burner indefinitely.”
“But you’re with me now. You’re just as involved in all of this as I am ... we’re in it together.”
“Together means being man and wife.” Evita took a deep breath as the tears began to flow again. “I think I need some time alone to think things out.”
“Just what exactly are you saying?”
“That I need time to myself for awhile. We’ve been thrust together in a situation that forces us to cling to one another for comfort in the face of a terrible threat. I don’t want it to be like that. I want us to be free to live our lives out of the shadows away from all the drama we’ve been forced to endure for the past few months. Maybe then we’ll both be able to see things more clearly.”
“Now it’s my time to ask,” Leo said, taking her by the hand. “I have to admit that I’m a little rusty when it comes to matters of romance, but are you still in love with me?”
“Yes ... oh yes. The problem isn’t you, my love. It’s your position, and I’m feeling a little confused and overwhelmed right now.” Removing her hand from his, she stood and faced the curtains. “I wanted to tell you before dinner that I’m flying back to Spain in the morning. I need to get away from this place. Something’s not right. I can feel it. Maybe I just need a few days in Madrid alone in my apartment with my books.”
Leo followed the strong curve of her back with his eyes, knowing that she had obviously thought this through before telling him of her decision to leave. She wasn’t the type of woman to create drama to gain attention.
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know yet. I hope you find what you’re looking for on Patmos. I’ll call you from Madrid.” Without waiting for him to reply, she disappeared through the billowing curtains, leaving a bewildered and saddened Leo alone with his thoughts.CHAPTER 11
The Carmela’s tiny landing pad grew larger as Nava set her new helicopter down on a big blue H painted inside a white circle on the top deck. As soon as the helicopter’s rear door slid open, Leo and the others were greeted with a blast of humid sea air mixed with the smell of jet fuel as they made their way down a narrow set of stairs behind the bridge to the yacht’s high tech communications room.
“Leo!” Lev Wasserman exclaimed, jumping from his seat. Looking over the Cardinal’s shoulder, he spotted Morelli and Mendoza. “Anthony ... Javier! It’s good to see you two safely back where you belong. We’ve been worried sick about you out there in that awful place ... we’ve heard rumors about that part of the country.”
“Unfortunately the rumors are true, but our work remains unfinished,” Mendoza responded.
“Then you’ll be returning?”
“We have no other choice, Professor.”
“And where’s the lovely Evita?”
“She flew back to Spain this morning,” Leo said, ignoring the puzzled stares. “Family matter.”
“I’m sure it’s only temporary,” Lev said, backing away from the subject. “Let me catch you all up to speed on what we’ve been doing here in Patmos. Daniel found some coordinates in the code that led us to a specific cave, and we’re hoping it has some connection to the site in Turkey. If so, we may be able to find out what Eduardo was searching for. Also, there’s something else. We’ve come across some information that may confirm your suspicions that Eduardo was looking in the wrong place.”
“In the code?” Mendoza asked.
“No, this time we’re using some good, old-fashioned detective work. We already know that the Turkish workers he hired believed he left without finding anything, and a few nights ago, in a bar down the street from the house you are staying in, one of them began to talk after a few drinks with one of Danny Zamir’s men.”
Leo’s eyes narrowed. “One of Danny’s men?”
“Yeah, he’s been keeping an eye on you at my request,” Lev winked. “Anyway, the worker said that something very interesting was buried in the hills outside the Turkish village of Orencik, and the villagers there have been, shall we say, less than cooperative in opening up about it for some reason.”
“We know,” Leo frowned. “We visited with the village elder yesterday and were basically shown the door.”
“Sounds like you’re one step ahead of me,” Lev shrugged. “What did you find out?”
“They’re afraid,” Morelli said. “It’s nothing more than simple fear. I’ve seen it before on other digs in this part of the world. Some places have ancient curses attached to them, and this one seems to have the mother of all curses hanging over it.”
“He may have saved your lives. The worker who spoke to Zamir’s man told him that people who went wandering around the hills outside their village usually didn’t come back.”
A shaft of light fell over the group as a bearded young man with long brown hair opened the door and stepped into the darkened communications room. Wearing khaki shorts and a loose-fitting white shirt that seemed one size too large, Daniel Meir closed the door and stood facing the new arrivals. “Thank God they fixed the air conditioning. I heard the chopper land. I figured it was you guys. Did you tell Leo how we discovered the cave?”
“I haven’t had time. Why don’t you do the honors?”
“You’re not talking about the same cave John wrote Revelation in, are you?” Leo asked.
“No,” Daniel replied, reaching forward to flick on a computer screen. “That was our first inclination, but we found the coordinates of another cave in the code. Here, I think you’ll find this interesting.”
Crowding around, they all saw a page from Genesis flash up on the screen. At the top of the page they saw the wordPatmoswhich was followed by the phrasecave of the sign, and at the bottom of the page were some numbers they had guessed were geographical coordinates.
“We followed these coordinates a few days ago and discovered a hidden cave concealed behind some tall boulders and thick underbrush.”
“Cave of the sign?” Morelli scratched his head as he looked around at the others. “That’s pretty cryptic. Any idea what it means?”
“We have no idea.” Daniel’s responses were usually monosyllabic bursts; a reminder to others that they were dealing with a man who lived in a world of mathematics and secret codes—a world where the spoken word was seen as a tiresome necessity when he was forced to separate himself from his work to speak to other people.
“Do you think it might be possible that John wrote something else around the same time he wrote Revelation?” Morelli asked. “Something he left behind in a different location to be discovered later on?”
“That’s an intriguing possibility, Bishop,” Daniel replied, pushing his horn-rimmed glasses up into his thick brown hair. “But like I said, at this point we just don’t know. The coordinates you’re looking at are the ones that led us to the cave here on Patmos, but I found something else on another page just before you landed.”
Daniel punched a few more keys on the keyboard and a new page scrolled across the screen. Highlighted in green and circled in red, the wordsbirthplaceoverlapped another phrase—final transition.
Morelli threw his hands up in the air. “That certainly clears things up.”
“It could indicate that the cave we found was the birthplace of someone ... or something,” Lev said, “however we’re not sure these words are even connected to the cave here on Patmos, much less the site in Turkey.”
“What’s your gut feeling, Lev?” Leo asked. “Anything stirring in that psychic brain of yours?”
Lev cast a downward glance as he pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket and stuck the unlit roll of tobacco in his mouth. “I’m afraid my little psychic voice has remained silent since that day in the chapel under the Vatican. As you may recall, Leo, I had no such visions last year when we were being pursued by Rene Acerbi. It appears that either my little psychic well has gone dry or I’m being blocked for some reason. I’ve never fully understood that part of me, and as a man who’s dwelt in the worlds of both mathematics and archaeology for most of my life, I’m as lost as anyone else on the subject. When it comes to things like psychic visions, we’re leaving the world of science behind and entering an area that’s never been fully explored.”
“This is all very strange,” Morelli said. “Something’s not right.”
Lev lit a match and fired up his cigar. “What’s on your mind, Bishop?”
“Well, the only thing I’ve ever experienced in the psychic realm was the group dreams we were all experiencing last year ... which by the way have stopped. Has anyone else noticed?”
Morelli had nailed it. No one had mentioned it, but the group dreams that had come to those who had been mentioned aschosenin the Bible code had all stopped. Before, when they had all been facing a supernatural threat, it was the group dreams that had united them, making it possible to identify one another as members of the same team so to speak. But where the dreams had once been a unifying force, there was now a gaping silence, and it was making them feel vulnerable.
Mulling Morelli’s words over in his mind, Leo continued staring at the screen. “I believe we need to have a look at that cave, and we need to do it soon.”
“Do you know how to ride a motorbike, Cardinal?” Lev asked.
“That’s how I get around Rome ... much to the dismay of the pope.”
“Good. Let’s all meet down on the dock in fifteen minutes.”
Under the intense rays of the sun, the group wove through the dense traffic in the port town ofSkalabefore heading up into the surrounding hills on their tiny, multi-colored motor scooters. Curving through the center of the island, the warm, salty air brushed Leo’s face as they sped past a Greek restaurant and inhaled the aroma of garlic-and-lemon-infused cooking flowing from the exhaust fans at the side of the building. Leo’s stomach groaned with hunger, and as they headed up the hill toward the promise of a sweaty afternoon digging in the dirt, he found himself wishing that he was here on vacation with Evita instead.
Holding onto the handlebars of the tiny scooter, he missed her arms wrapped around him and imagined them stopping together at that little café he had just passed, where they could sit outside under the blue-and-white-striped awning with a glass of wine, enjoying the sea breeze as they tried out new dishes. Maybe someday he would be able to live like everyone else, but today was not that day.
Reaching the top of the hill, they passed the monastery built over the cave where John had written the Book of Revelation. Thoughts of Evita continued to flood his mind, but he had to force himself to stay focused— to keep reminding himself that this was no island joy ride.Why was this proving to be so difficult for him?Deep down inside, Cardinal Leopold Amodeo felt lost, and he had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Coming here had been necessary, but he was convinced the real truth lay back in Turkey— in the hills surrounding that village with the dusty streets and lopsided houses. Things definitely weren’t right back there in that place.
Rounding a long curve at the bottom of the hill, Alon turned off the road onto a dirt trail and headed toward a wall of solid brush that fronted several large boulders at the base of the hill. Throttling the engine of the small motor scooter, Leo could see that they were following a narrow donkey path that had probably been here since the time John had lived among these hills as an old man; when Patmos had once been a place of banishment during the Roman period instead of a place for tourists to sip their wine under striped awnings on lazy, sun-filled afternoons.
At the bottom of a cliff, they stopped in a shady hollow and parked their scooters before setting out for the cave. Alon and Nava led the way, followed by Lev, John and Ariella, Leo, and Bishop Morelli. Bringing up the rear was Javier Mendoza, who had forced them to wait another twenty minutes back in town while the Carmela’s crew lowered another scooter to the dock because his Spanish pride would not allow him to ride sitting behind another man on one of the tiny vehicles.
Pushing through the thick brush, they followed a rocky incline that turned sharply to the left, revealing the darkened entrance to a cave that had probably remained hidden for centuries. Forging ahead, Alon switched on a light attached to a headband and plunged into the darkness.
The cave was slightly larger than Leo had been led to believe, with tall, drippy-looking ceilings hanging over a smooth dirt floor that looked as if it had been swept clean every day, although judging by the amount of brush they had found covering the entrance, the thought that someone was actually taking care of the cave seemed a remote possibility. Above their heads they saw soot marks on the ceiling, indicating that the cave had once been inhabited, but according to Morelli, the stains were at least a thousand years old, if not older.
“Well, where do we start?” Leo asked. He was feeling uncharacteristically impatient, and although the temperature inside the cave was cooler than outside, he was already beginning to perspire. As a former tenured professor of history at Boston College before his sudden rise within the Church, he understood Morelli’s love for archaeology, but Leo disliked field work, preferring instead to haunt ancient libraries in search of long-forgotten wisdom rather than dig in the earth for oldpottery shards, a term he had used to describe most of Morelli’s finds.
Scanning the walls, Morelli lifted his floppy canvas hat and ran a pudgy hand through a patch of thinning red hair. “You were right, Ariella. There’s no evidence of writing on these walls. I imagine this cave was once used by sheep herders when the weather was bad, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of habitation by people who predate the history of writing. There’s no painted handprints or drawings of animals, which were very popular to many cave dwellers in this area of the world. This is a strange cave ... it’s almost too clean.”
John dropped his backpack and studied the soft dirt floor. “Should we start digging down along the walls Bishop?”
“That would be my suggestion, but be very careful. If there’s anything here it’s been covered over by the sands of time and we don’t want to destroy anything with our digging.”
Grabbing a shovel, Alon went to work along the north wall, and soon everyone else was digging away, trying to be as careful as possible to prevent the blades of their shovels from scraping any writing they might find on the walls. Two hours later, the sweaty group was looking at a narrow trench that had been dug three feet down into the dirt along the twisting rock walls. There was nothing there.
“I just don’t get it,” Lev said. “I’m sure the numbers we discovered in the code were coordinates, and they led us right here ... to this very spot. There’s got to be something here.”
“Well, I’m not seeing it, Father,” Ariella said, leaving a dirt-tinged trail of sweat across her forehead as she pushed the hair out of her eyes. “Maybe we can get some graduate students back at the University in Jerusalem to do a complete excavation while we all go to the site in Turkey. They could call us if they find anything.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Morelli said. “We could kill two birds with one stone. We need to find what Eduardo was looking for in Turkey instead of poking around a cave here on Patmos. I have a feeling there’s a time element to all of this, and now that Eduardo’s out of commission, I feel an even greater urgency.”
“I agree with your premise, Anthony,” Leo said, “but I still think there’s something here ... something that could very well help us in Turkey. I’d hate to walk away with the answer lying right beneath our feet.”
Lev leaned on his shovel. “Leo’s right. This is too important to leave to a bunch of graduate students. We have to keep digging.”
Lifting themselves to their feet, they all began to dig again. For another hour, as sweat poured into their eyes, they kept digging, until the muffled clunk of Alon’s shovel against something solid caused them to stop.
“What was that?” Ariella asked.
“Probably another rock,” Alon said, peering down into the dusty trench. “I’ve been hitting them all day.”
Morelli peered into the hole. “Didn’t sound like a rock.”
Crowding around behind Alon, they all stared down at the spot in silence. Archaeologists everywhere knew that clunks in the earth usually meant nothing at all—but what if? Most were all treasure hunters at heart, driven by the hope that something old and wonderful was lying just beneath their feet.
Slowly, Morelli and Ariella took over, digging down carefully with hand spades until they could just make out the fractured outline of a clay jar.
“Definitely not a rock,” Morelli said, his eyes suddenly gleaming.
They continued on, brushing away the dirt with a painter’s brush until finally an entire clay jar lay exposed in the hard-packed earth.
After a few final brush strokes, Ariella could see that the opening in the neck of the jar had been sealed with wax. Slowly, with hands all around, they lifted the jar from the spot where it had probably been lying for almost two thousand years and set it on the dirt floor.
“This is wonderful!” Morelli exclaimed. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams ... much better than any writing found on a wall.”
“Don’t get too excited, Bishop,” Alon said. “Those sheep herders you were talking about might have just left a jar of wine behind.”
“No. The fracture lines are clean. There’s no staining to indicate that there was ever any wine in this jar. Ordinarily, I would take this jar back to the ship and spend days opening it up, but we don’t have the time.”
Pulling out a pocket knife, Morelli winced, for he was about to go against everything he had ever been taught as an archaeologist. He was preparing to violate an ancient artifact with a pocket knife—an act that placed him in the same category with those who desecrated ancient sites for profit. Working as carefully as he could, he cut around the edges of the wax and gently lifted the crumbling plug from the mouth of the jar. When he was finished, he bent down on both knees and shined a flashlight inside before letting out a gasp.
“What is it?” Ariella asked. Her eyes were as wide as anyone had ever seen them.
“You won’t believe this.” Morelli sat up and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “It’s a scroll!”
The cave seemed to breathe as nine sets of lungs exhaled in unison. “We’ve got to be very careful,” Morelli said, hovering over the jar, for he knew his next decision could well decide if the scroll would remain intact or become an unrecognizable pile of dust on the cave floor.
Working methodically, he inched the blade of his pocket knife into the fractured side of the jar and, with Ariella’s help, they lifted out the largest piece of broken clay, exposing the scroll. On first inspection, it appeared to be made from cloth and not from papyrus, which was more malleable but less strong. Holding his breath, Morelli felt lightheaded. Perspiration began to drip from his forehead and his hands began to shake as he reached down and prodded an object that hadn’t been exposed to air for almost two thousand years. It felt soft, not hard, which was good, and it had never been tied, which was even better.
Lifting it out, he laid it on the soft sand and carefully began to roll it open. Once again the cave seemed to come alive and breathe on its own when everyone let out a collective gasp. Morelli’s eyes widened as he made the sign of the cross, for they were looking at the unmistakable image of a jackal lying on a crude stone floor surrounded by towering columns of stone. The jackal appeared to be lying in a pool of blood that was oozing from an open incision in the animal’s womb—like a caesarian section, and rising out of the jackal’s open ribcage, two identical black snakes could be seen slithering from the bloody incision.
A sudden shiver ran down Ariella’s spine as she looked down at the image. “That’s truly grotesque. What do you think it means?”
Pushing in next to his daughter, Lev ran his trembling hands over the cloth and closed his eyes as a vision formed in his mind. “Rene and Adrian.” He blurted the two names out, as if he couldn’t say them fast enough.
“What did you say, Father?”
“The two snakes represent Rene and Adrian Acerbi. This is a depiction of their birth.”
John’s eyes were now as wide as Ariella’s. “I don’t understand. I mean ... how do you know?”
“Across the top of the page we decoded in Genesis, we found the wordsbirthplaceandmother of the two. This scroll was left to us as a sign ...the cave of the sign. It’s the depiction of an unnatural birth occurring within a circle of stone monoliths, and Eduardo was excavating a site full of stone monoliths in Turkey. It’s the birthplace of his two adopted sons, and whoever left this scroll here knew exactly where that birthplace was and who was born there.”
“But why leave the scroll hidden here?”
“All I can say at this point is that this area is filled with prophetic messages from the past, and they may have been left for those of us who are living now, in what could well be the end times. Remember, the code is like a time lock. It reveals certain things at certain times. We may not be having group dreams like we did in the past, but we’re still God’s chosen ones, and this was left for us. I’m sure of it. The only question is,why?”
Ariella began to feel real fear take hold of her as she stood and looked at her father. “Their mother was ajackal? I’m sorry, Father, but I’m having a hard time believing any of this. It’s like a bad movie.”
“I don’t blame you, little one, but just like in the Negev Desert, I have a feeling we’re being led, and time is growing short.”
“And I have a feeling we need to get back to Turkey as soon as possible,” Leo said, turning away from the image of the dead jackal and the two snakes. He stumbled out into the sunshine and sat on a rock. Now at least they had something to go on, but if the two boys were born at some mysterious site in Turkey, what was the reason? And even more importantly—where did they come from?CHAPTER 12
After making an overnight passage across the Adriatic Sea, the Carmela slid past the fabled island of Rhodes into the Mediterranean and glided into the picturesque yacht harbor in Antakya. Better known in ancient times as Antioch, the city held great historical significance for the Christian world, for it was here that the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians. An old cave-church in the city was known as Saint Peter’s grotto, and even though it had been Saint Luke who had started it, it was named after Peter because it had once served as his headquarters during the early days of the Church.
Located in a valley surrounded by mountains that produced some of the finest green marble in the world, the city was founded in 330 BC after the death of Alexander the Great. Because of its strategic location on the way to the Holy Land, Antioch soon became the third largest city in the Roman Empire and played a major role later on during the Crusades before falling into a state of decline after a series of devastating earthquakes.
Today the city is known to many throughout the region as a place of spells, miracles, and spirits; a sign to some of the members of the Bible Code Team that they had once again been thrust into a milieu of intrigue surrounded by a dark mystery—a mystery that could very well determine the fate of every living soul on the planet.
From the bridge, the yacht’s captain spotted Dr. Diaz. He was standing in front of a yellow school bus on the dock next to a curly-haired man, and they were waving at him. Tossing his lit cigarette overboard, he turned and walked back into the wheelhouse and down to the communications room.
“Were you guys expecting a school bus?”
Leo and Lev looked up from their computer screens with blank stares. “No. Abbas was supposed to pick us up in the Suburban.”
Alex shrugged. “Well, you two might want to come topside and see this for yourselves.”
Stepping out onto the main deck, they found both Diaz and Abbas collapsed in deck chairs.
“My SUV broke down five miles out of town,” Abbas said. “Can we have some water?” The man was practically panting as Lev motioned to a crewmember behind the bar. By now Morelli and Mendoza had joined them as Diaz wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief that was already soaked. “We walked for miles in the heat until the driver of that school bus stopped and gave us a ride.”
“Where did he go?” Lev asked.
“We gave him a hundred bucks,” Diaz said, “He’s calling his wife from the harbormaster’s office to tell her of his good fortune.”
Abbas finished downing his second glass of ice water and set the glass on the table. “I can’t believe it. That vehicle is practically brand new. I had it checked out before we left Istanbul ... like I always do before a long trip. The mechanic changed the oil and said everything was working perfectly. It’s being towed to a mechanic’s shop here in town, but there’s no telling when it will be fixed.”
Looking out over the harbor, Leo’s green eyes followed the outline of the shore to the mountains in the distance. He shivered with the thought that something out there had sensed their arrival. He could almost feel the energy. It was pulsating and throbbing—growing stronger the closer they got, and as any student of physics can tell you, no force wants to be stopped. Whatever force lay within the Dark Ruin was not only strong, but it was also resistant to change. It was obdurate ... a stubborn obstacle to anyone who would try to alter its course, a course that had been set at the dawn of mankind.
In Leo’s mind, there was no doubt that the force they were facing was evil, and that any attempt to alter its course would be as fruitless as trying to sandbag a raging river that was already cresting its banks. Like the force of unleashed water that washes away the rich, loamy topsoil that was created by an unrestrained flood sometime in the past, evil builds and evil destroys, and it always stands in the way of those trying to alter its course. It hums and vibrates to those who are attuned to it, and Cardinal Leopold Amodeo was feeling the vibration of a darkening power that was deeper than any he had ever experienced before, and it had sensed their presence.
“What do you want to do, Leo?” Lev asked, shaking the cardinal from his reverie. “We don’t have time to wait for the car to be fixed. Sanliurfa is only a little over a hundred miles from here. Maybe we should take the chopper.”
Morelli nodded to Lev before taking Leo by the arm and leading him over to the railing along the stern. “Something else is bothering you, Leo. What is it?”
“Is it just me, Anthony, or are you also starting to sense something else at work here?”
“I was wondering if you felt it too, Leo. Every time we set out to explore the area around Orencik, something always seems to get in our way. First it was the reluctant villagers. Now a new vehicle that suddenly stops running for no apparent reason. I mean ... sure ... it could be a coincidence, but I don’t think so, and neither do you. I only pray the chopper doesn’t have any problems. You know as well as I do that they tend to drop like a rock when things stop working right.”
Leo pondered Morelli’s last comment with a growing sense of dread. “I’m wondering if that school bus driver would like to make a little more cash.”
“Let’s go talk to Lev.”
An hour and forty-five minutes later, a world-famous Israeli millionaire mathematician, the Vatican’s second-in-command, a world-class archaeologist, and two of Spain’s top scientists were all sitting on plastic-covered seats behind Alon and Abbas as they all peered through the fingerprint-smeared windows of an old yellow school bus that was descending from a mountain pass into the city of Sanliurfa.
With the sun just setting off to their right, they entered the city and turned down the street leading to the house Mendoza had rented and stopped. The street was filled with dense black smoke infused with red light flashing from a line of fire engines, and as they peered at a flickering orange glow at the end of the block, a policeman stepped in front of the bus and blocked their way forward.
The driver held up his hands to the flashlight-wielding cop and the two gestured back and forth until the officer finally boarded the bus and made it clear that they would have to turn around and detour the area. After the policeman hopped out and the driver began backing up, Abbas walked to the front of the bus and stood beside the driver. “What gives?”
“Didn’t you say you were all staying at number 35 at the end of the block?”
“Yeah ... number 35 ... why?”
“Well, you won’t be staying there tonight, because that policeman just told me it caught fire right before we arrived.”
Once again, Leo could feel the vibration. It was getting stronger and more violent. The Dark Ruin had sensed their closeness, and once again it was resisting.
“Is there somewhere else you’d like me to take you?” the driver asked. “I have to start heading back home. I’ll barely get any sleep as it is before I start my route tomorrow.”
“Of course, you’ve already been more than generous with your time.” Abbas pulled out his wallet and pushed a few extra bills into the driver’s hand. “There’s a hotel on the highway that leads to the airport. Could you drop us off there?”
“No problem, sir. I know the place.” Grinding gears reverberated under the floor of the bus as the driver began heading back through the center of a brightly lit city full of life. Against a backdrop of overflowing sidewalk cafes, small cars and tiny motor scooters whizzed around the slow-moving bus on their way to the center of the city. The urban scene was surreal in its regularity compared to the fear that was gripping those huddled in the back of the bus, for all around them life was going on as usual while someone or something was pulling out all the stops to keep them from reaching their destination.
After checking his pockets for extra ammunition, Alon moved from one side of the bus to the other, looking out the windows to see if anyone was following them. “Someone or something is sending us a message, and we need to forget about looking for a hotel and start thinking about getting off this highway and away from this city.”
“Alon’s right,” Lev whispered to the others. “We’d be sitting ducks if we checked into a hotel around here, and camping in the area is pretty much out of the question now. Besides, all of our camping gear just went up in flames.”
In the front of the bus, they saw Abbas holding his cell phone and speaking to the driver just before the bus turned off the main highway and headed down a paved side road.
“Did anyone follow us, Professor?” Abbas shouted.
Lev peered through the rear window at the darkened road behind them. “Nothing yet. Mind if I ask what you’re up to?”
“I just called my headquarters. There’s a Turkish military barracks at the end of this road. We’ll stay there tonight, and in the morning a detachment of Turkish Special Forces will escort us to Orencik. Tomorrow we go see what’s in those hills.”CHAPTER 13
With the rising sun in their eyes, a long line of brown military trucks was greeted by hostile stares from the villagers as they pulled off the highway and began rolling through the narrow dusty streets of Orencik. While some nervous townspeople began shuttering their windows against the rising dust kicked up by the military convoy, others, mostly children, ran outside to look skyward at a V-shaped formation of helicopters that was swooping in from the south, skimming over the city at rooftop level and shaking even more dust from the ancient hand-hewn timbers that supported the village’s leaning mud houses.
Many in the village began to flee into the fields, because along with the dust and the noise from the rumbling trucks came great suspicion. The Kurdish people who lived in this village had never seen so many soldiers before, and their sudden arrival reminded them of a time when Saddam’s army had swooped in and sprayed an entire Kurdish village in Iraq with a biological weapon that had killed everyone in its path.
Squeezed between Abbas and Lev Wasserman in one of the lead trucks, Leo looked out at all the fearful faces staring back at him through mud-streaked windows. “We need to pay another visit to the village elder. If we could somehow gain his trust, his help could prove invaluable. Besides, no one else knows this area the same way these people do, and right now they look scared to death.”
“You think he’s going to be more cooperative just because the army is with us?” Lev asked.
“Maybe. At least he’ll know we’re serious and that we’re not going away.”
“It’s worth a try, Cardinal,” Abbas said, “but personally I think the most you’ll hear from him ishave a nice daybefore he slams the door in your face.”
The Turkish sergeant driving the big truck suddenly slammed on the brakes, throwing the vehicle into a sliding stop. An old man wearing a turban and dressed in flowing, multi-colored robes had just stepped into the middle of the road followed by a group of stoic-looking men who stood with their arms folded in defiance only inches from the front bumper.
Abbas peered through the window at the approaching group. “It seems the elder has decided to come to us, Cardinal.”
“Good. Let’s see what he has to say.” Leo and Lev jumped from the truck, followed by Abbas and the driver, who was less than pleased at the men who had just blocked their path. The crackle of military radio chatter accompanied the quick arrival of a Turkish Army Special Forces colonel accompanied by a large contingent of well-armed soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues.
Facing the old man, the colonel’s face was contorted with rage. “What’s the meaning of this? You could have been killed! Clear this street immediately or I’ll have my men clear it for you.”
The old man blinked back at the short officer, apparently unfazed by the man’s outrage. “I am sorry for the inconvenience, sir, but I knew of no other way to warn you of the danger ahead.”
“Danger? What danger? What are you talking about, old man?”
“This man is the village elder,” Leo said, stepping forward. “We spoke with him a few days ago, and I believe he could be of great help to us. Would you mind if I had a few words with him?”
The Turkish colonel swatted the end of a thin riding crop against the side of one of his high leather boots as he looked up at the tall cardinal. “Of course, sir. My orders are to assist you, but please keep in mind that we are in this dusty hell hole to make sure nothing happens to you.” The colonel looked up at the buildings lining both sides of the narrow street ahead. “I don’t like this position. My men are sitting ducks here. Keep your discussion brief.”
With that, the officer turned and tromped back to his vehicle, leaving a circle of armed soldiers standing around Leo and Abbas with their weapons pointing outward.
Leo smiled down at the village elder. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We were actually on our way to see you.”
“I knew you would return, Cardinal, but you must believe me when I tell you that all of these soldiers will be useless to you when you come face-to-face with what you seek out there in those hills.”
Leo’s calm demeanor was beginning to crack as he frowned down at the man. “And just what exactly am I seeking, sir, because to be honest, I have no idea why we are here other than the fact that certain signs have led us to this location. You, on the other hand, seem to have great knowledge of what may be lying in wait for us, and as much as my gut tells me to turn around right now, we are not going away. Regardless of the outcome, we are compelled to see what’s out there, and right now you are our best chance for coming out of this alive.”
The old man stood erect, his eyes narrowing with an expression of resignation mixed with fierce determination. “I have no influence with what lies beyond, Cardinal, but I see that you are an honorable man. We will take you to the area and point you and your people in the right direction, but that is as far as we will go. From that point on, you and those who are foolish enough to accompany you will be on your own.”
“That’s good enough for us,” Abbas said, his face a mask of grim determination. “Would you care to ride with us?”
“No. We will meet you at the western edge of town in fifteen minutes. From there we will walk.” The old man then turned and led his group of bearded followers back into the hodgepodge warren of narrow streets before disappearing from sight.
“What’s the verdict?”
Leo looked back to see the Turkish colonel standing behind them. “He’ll meet us in fifteen minutes at the western edge of the village. From there he’ll walk us in.”
“Walk us in to where, Cardinal?”
“I have no idea, but it can’t be far. You and your men can remain behind if you’d like. I don’t see any need for you to risk your men by accompanying us any farther.”
“I have my orders, Cardinal. Where you go, I go. Just what kind of danger are you expecting?”
“The danger we face in the hills is spiritual, Colonel. Unless we encounter some kind of human resistance, I’m afraid your weapons will be useless.”
Leo could see the colonel’s face grow pale before he turned and motioned for his men to get back into their trucks.
Exactly fifteen minutes later, the village elder and his Kurdish entourage were waiting for Leo at the base of a grassy hill. After a few perfunctory greetings, the mixed group set off over the hill, followed by a flanking platoon of Turkish Special Forces troops who looked less than enthusiastic about escorting a Catholic cardinal and a group of academics into a barren wilderness.
As soon as they reached the top of the hill, Leo waited for Morelli to catch up before pointing out the endless rows of similar undulating hills reaching as far as the eye could see in every direction. “Where have you been, Bishop?”
“I got stuck riding in the last truck. You guys almost forgot me this morning.”
“Sorry about that, Anthony. I’m feeling a little distracted today for some reason.”
“Join the club. Looks like the village elder there is getting ahead of us.”
Looking back over his shoulder at Leo, the old man motioned them forward with a gnarled walking stick as he and his followers headed for the next hill in line.
Walking beside Leo, the Turkish colonel signaled for his men to spread out. “You know, Cardinal, if these people are so afraid of something out here in these hills, don’t you find it a little strange that they didn’t just draw you a map and stay home?”
“I’m beginning to find everything about this place strange, Colonel.”
For the first time since they had met, Leo saw the tough-acting officer smile. Reaching out, the colonel extended his hand. “My name is Bartu ... Bartu Demir. I’m very pleased to meet you, Cardinal Amodeo. I apologize for coming off so strong back in the village. Getting all warm and fuzzy with newcomers doesn’t exactly come easily to someone in my profession, especially when you’ve been tasked with keeping them alive at all costs, which means that in the process I could lose men who have become like brothers to me over the years.”
“I understand, Colonel. Unfortunately, acting warm and fuzzy toward newcomers happens to be a big part of my job description ... one I don’t always relish. Wearing this Roman collar can sometimes be a magnet for some very strange people.” Leo paused as he looked at the colonel’s pencil-thin moustache. “You remind me of another colonel I once knew ... an American chopper pilot.”
“Does he still fly, or do the higher-ups have him chained to a desk?”
The expression that crossed Leo’s face answered the colonel’s question.
“Oh ... I see.” Demir nodded. “My condolences, Your Eminence.”
“I was flying in the chopper next to his when it was hit,” Leo said, looking straight ahead.
“You have the eyes of a soldier, Cardinal.”
“A soldier of the cross, Colonel. However, lately I find myself spending more and more time with real soldiers.”
Demir’s first impression of Leo had just taken a swift 180 degree turn. Instead of feeling resentment at having to babysit yet another pompous official with high-placed connections, he was beginning to sense that he was in the presence of a very different sort of man—a man who not only respected the beliefs of others, but looked like he would also fight ceaselessly in their defense.
Up ahead, at the top of the next hill, the old man and the small group of villagers stopped. “This is as far as we go,” the old man said. “From here you’re on your own.”
Looking out over the surrounding countryside, Leo and the others could see nothing but wavering brown grass covering a rounded treeless vista. Not a single bird could be seen circling overhead, and even a whisper could be carried by the breeze to the next hilltop.
“There’s nothing here,” Leo replied. “Nothing but rolling hills as far as the eye can see.”
The old man began moving back down the hillside in the direction of the village before stopping and pointing toward the horizon. “It’s there, Cardinal ... just over the next hill. There’s a slight depression on the other side that would go unnoticed to the untrained eye, but the archaeologists with you will recognize the signs.”
“Signs? What kinds of signs?”
Planting his twisted walking stick in the soft earth, the old man frowned. “You’ll see, Cardinal ... you’ll see.” A few minutes later, he and his followers were gone after disappearing through the tall grass at the base of the hill.
Morelli placed his hands on his hips and stared out at the bleak, windswept landscape. “Well, he was a lot of help. He might as well have just stayed in town and pointed in this direction.
“I think he was still holding out hope we would change our minds,” Leo said, “because he said that once we were in the area of the ruin there would be no turning back.”
“I thought he said no one knew where this so-called dark ruin was located.”
“Obviously he was lying to protect us. I have a feeling the village elders have been guarding a secret in these hills for a very long time now. It’s almost like they’ve made a pact with whatever’s out here in order to keep it away from them.”
Alon clicked the safety off his new 9mm Sig pistol and looked across the space that separated them from the next hill. “Why don’t we go see what’s got everyone so scared?”
Cautiously, the group climbed up the next hill and stopped. To their amazement, they found themselves staring at a crater that resembled a small volcanic vent usually found scattered near extinct volcanoes—but the geologic maps they were using showed no evidence of any ancient volcanoes in this region of Turkey. This surprising feature created a natural walled-off area inside the hill that would have been virtually invisible to anyone walking around the outside of the hill.
Jagged black rock could be seen poking up through the tall brown grass that covered the edges of the crater—another marker for volcanic activity in an area where no such activity was said to have occurred. Exchanging glances, they gingerly stepped closer and peered down into the bottom of the crater, and there, lying in plain view, was the thing they had all come to see.
Rising toward the sky they saw a circle of dark shapes standing on a raised area that was strangely devoid of any vegetation. The shapes were huge, and they reminded Leo of the megalithic stone circles they had seen at the other site, only these stone giants were at least twice as high.
Demir let out a low whistle. “What is that?”
“I have no idea, Colonel,” Leo said. “Why don’t we go have a look?”
Feeling like a sky diver preparing to jump from a perfectly good airplane, Leo led the others as they began their sliding descent down the rocky sides to the bottom of the crater. Grabbing loose tufts of brown grass, they tried to slow their descent as loose rocks tumbled down beside them, until finally they found themselves standing on level terrain in the seemingly airless and stagnant world at the bottom of the crater. Before them, a raised stone platform supported a ring of carved blocks of stone that towered above their heads, and they were black, as if they had been burned.
“This is fantastic!” Morelli exclaimed. “These columns must be thousands of years old, but it looks like there’s been a very hot fire here sometime in the past. This has to be the Dark Ruin. I mean ... look at the charred surfaces ... and there are carvings of animals I’ve never seen before.” Morelli was already scrambling up onto the stone platform surrounding the pillars when suddenly a red mist began to form across the bottom of the crater.
Looking back at Demir and the Turkish soldiers, Leo held up his hand. “Uh ... Anthony ... I think you need to back away from there.”
In his haste to explore, Morelli had barely noticed the reddish haze now surrounding him. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know ... but ... The satellite phone attached to Leo’s belt began to buzz.Now what?Keeping his eyes on Morelli, Leo lifted the phone and placed it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Get out of there! Get out of there right now!”
The static on the other end was making it difficult for Leo to hear as he held the phone to his ear. “Who is this?”
“This is Eduardo Acerbi, Cardinal, and you and your friends have only a few minutes to live unless you get out of there right now!”
“Where are you?”
“We don’t have time to talk. I’ll call you back in a few minutes ... now run!” The line suddenly went dead.
Looking back toward the raised area, Leo saw that Morelli’s next few steps would place him right in the center of the space. “Anthony! Stop! Don’t go any farther.”
Morelli froze as he jerked his head back toward Leo. “What is it?”
“We’ve got to get out of here!”
“Yes ... right now!”
“Who was that on the phone?”
“Eduardo Acerbi ... and he knows where we are.”
“Acerbi? That’s impossible! The man just had a stroke.”
“Apparently he’s recovered enough to talk. I recognized the voice. We need to move away from here ... now!”
Turning away from the towering blocks of stone, Morelli’s eyes grew wide as he ran through the reddish haze. Looking at Leo, he jumped from the platform and began to run just as everyone else started clambering back up the sloping sides of the mist-covered crater.
Most soldiers who have seen combat will all agree that time seems to bend in strange ways when an individual is suddenly faced with his or her own mortality, and this was just what Leo and Morelli were experiencing in their slow-motion race up the sides of the crater. Half-way up, they felt a series of tremors in the earth which caused them to look back down over their shoulders. The Dark Ruin was now completely covered in the thick red mist, and as they continued to scramble up the steep rocky sides of the crater, they saw several large boulders break loose from the rim in a heaving cloud of dust before beginning a downward plunge straight for them.
Moving sideways in a frantic, crab-like motion, Leo ducked as one of the tumbling giants flew over his head and crashed down behind him with a thud that rippled the ground in all directions. The Earth heaved once again before suddenly growing quiet, but in the abrupt silence they heard a sound that made the hair stand out on the back of their necks. Growing steadily, they could all hear the muffled sound of laughter. It seemed to be echoing all around them and came from everywhere and nowhere all at once, as if it were trying to pass from one dimension into another like a stranger’s shadowy finger pushing against a gossamer curtain late at night, looking for someone inside. No one present had ever experienced anything like it before, even when they had all battled demons in the Negev Desert. This was something new, and for the first time since they had set out for this place, Leo felt real fear. “Run!”
Reaching the overhanging edge of the crater, the Turkish soldiers swirled around to aim their guns down toward the red mist and whatever lay inside as everyone rolled over the lip of the crater and half ran and half fell down the grassy incline, until finally they came to an out-of-breath stop at the top of the next hill. The sound of laughter had disappeared, replaced instead by the sound of flapping wings.
Leo cocked his head and listened. The sound reminded him of a flock of large birds flying just overhead, but there were no birds anywhere to be seen. Frozen with fear, they continued to listen and watch, spellbound, until finally the flapping stopped and the Earth heaved one last time before all was quiet again. Like steam from a kettle meeting cooler air, the strange happenings of the past few minutes had evaporated just as suddenly as they had begun, and in the quiet aftermath no one had any doubt that a sudden phone call had just saved all of their lives.
For some reason, Leo’s fear also seemed to evaporate. He felt like a twenty-year-old again, energized by what he had just experienced. Whatever lay buried beneath that hill possessed a cosmic malevolence so violent that its presence had triggered an equal and opposite force within him, making him more acutely aware of the forces at play in a celestial realm that was invisible to those who haven’t been invited. Whatever it was, the mere presence of two men of God had set it off before they had even had a chance to make real contact. This was nothing like the entity they had encountered in the Negev Desert or in the Chapel under the Vatican, and Leo knew that whatever it was, it was much, much worse— if there could be such a thing.
Leo’s satellite phone rang once again, jarring everyone’s already frazzled nerves. “Hello?”
“I see you made it out alive, Cardinal. It’s good to hear your voice.”
“Is this really you, Eduardo?”
Leo heard a faint chuckle on the other end of the line. “Yes, Cardinal. I guess you could say I’ve made a miraculous recovery. I’ll explain everything to you when we meet.”
“Where are you?”
“Yes, and this call never happened. I’ll explain everything soon. I want you to send two of your most trusted people to meet with me in person. Don’t come yourself ... you’re being watched.”
“I’ll call you with instructions tonight when you’re safely away from there.” The line suddenly went dead again. Leo looked around and found Colonel Demir sitting among his men, gazing over at the hill they had just retreated from. His men were strangely quiet. The easy banter usually traded back and forth between elite soldiers after the adrenaline rush of potential combat was absent, replaced instead with the quiet introspection that comes to those who’ve been exposed to something they can’t explain.
“Colonel, could you have one of your choppers fly us to our boat in Antioch?”
“Of course, Cardinal.” The colonel rose to his feet and brushed the dirt from his hands as he scanned the sky. “I have three birds in the air circling just out of sight.”
“Good. Would you ask them to meet us at the edge of town?” Leo paused for a moment. “Oh, and Colonel, make sure your people stay away from that hill. Whatever’s over there doesn’t want to be disturbed, and I can promise you your weapons will be useless against it.”
“Our weapons ... useless?” Leo could see the color draining from Demir’s rugged face once again. “What the hell’s over there, Cardinal?”
“I’m not sure yet, but I think it’s safe to say the wordhellis most appropriate. No matter what happens, you must keep your men away. Whatever’s over there has probably been there for thousands of years, and it’s very powerful. Somehow it sensed our presence, which means it’s even more dangerous because there’s an intelligence attached to it. We don’t want to rush into anything until we know what we’re facing.”
“What about posting guards?”
“Just stay away for now, Colonel. It’s not going anywhere. I’m not sure of the boundaries, but at this point I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who gets too close to that hill could be in mortal danger.”
With the sweat of fear and exertion staining the collar of his uniform, the colonel swiveled in his knee-high boots and began barking out orders to his men just as an exhausted Lev Wasserman finished climbing the last few feet to the top of the hill and collapsed in the tall grass.
“What now, Leo?”
“I just asked the colonel if he could spare one of his choppers to fly us back to the Carmela. Things are beginning to spin out of control here in Turkey. Our cover is blown and there are threats coming at us from every direction. I believe our best course of action is leave until we have a better handle on just what it is we’re facing.”
Reaching into his front shirt pocket, Lev produced a half-smoked cigar and lit it with a match. “I agree, Leo. I think I’ve had enough of this place for awhile.”
As soon as the Turkish chopper landed on the dock next to the Carmela, the group onboard scrambled aboard the yacht to decide their next course of action. Crowded together with the rest of the team in the main salon, they all sat drinking coffee, transfixed by Leo’s description of the supernatural events that had occurred in the hills outside Orencik.
Listening to his story, Ariella shivered. “Reminds me of the Negev Desert. Do you think we’ve stumbled onto another site similar to the one we found out there?”
“I don’t think so,” Leo said. “This place seems different somehow.”
“How so?” John asked.
Leo set his cup on the table. “I’m not sure. It’s just different. Think about when you were back on your parent’s ranch in New Mexico, John. You said you used to ride up into the mountains and sit among the ruins of the ancient cliff dwellers. Did you notice any differences?”
“Yeah, all the time. Some were built by different tribes, and the construction was similar, but there were subtle differences in things like the shapes of doorways and the way they laid out the rooms.”
“Exactly. That’s the way I feel about the site in Orencik. It has a different feel about it from the site we discovered in the Negev Desert.”
Walking into the salon, a young crewmember handed a satellite phone to Leo. “Excuse me, Cardinal, but there’s a call for you. The caller said you were expecting it.”
Leo stood with the phone and walked out onto the back deck. After a few moments, Leo returned and resumed his place on a couch facing the others. “That was Eduardo Acerbi. He’s in Paris. He wants to meet with two members of the Bible Code Team in two days, and he specifically requested John and Ariella. He refused to give any other details over the phone except for one ... a meeting place.”
“I think Alon and Moshe would be better choices,” Lev said. “This is a field mission, and John and Ariella aren’t ready yet.”
“He said it has to be them or the meeting is off.”
Lev rose from his seat, his face beet red. “Then it’s off. Since when does Eduardo Acerbi dictate orders to us?”
“Please, Father,” Ariella said. “Let us go. You said the same thing when it was my time to go into the Israeli Army for my mandatory service. I survived then and I’ll survive this now. You have to let us fly from the nest sometime.”
“She’s right, sir,” John said. “We’re all equal members of the same team.”
“Why did he specifically request them, Leo? Did it occur to anyone here that it could be a trap meant to lure us all out in the open for some kind of rescue effort if they become hostages?”
“He doesn’t need to lure us out, Lev. He already knows where we are. He’s afraid of something ... very afraid. I could hear it in his voice. He said he wouldn’t be able to call us again, because after today his calls would no longer be secure ... even with his encrypted software. He specifically told me not to come because I was being watched, as are you. Apparently, the comings and goings of John and Ariella are of no concern to whoever is watching us for the very reason you mentioned earlier. They’re not considered to be field agents.”
“He said we’re being watched?” Lev stood and began to pace. “Who the hell is watching us?”
“I have no idea,” Leo said. “Eduardo hung up before I had a chance to ask.”
The voice of Alex Pappas could be heard up on the bridge shouting orders to release the lines from the dock as the floor beneath their feet shuddered with the startup of the engines two decks below.
“We need to decide now, Lev,” Leo continued. “Eduardo said he has to meet with John and Ariella in two days. After that all bets are off.”
“Why the urgency?”
“Needless to say he was very cryptic, but he kept insisting that they had to arrive in Paris within the next forty-eight hours, because after that it won’t be safe for them to fly.”
“It won’t be safe to fly! What on earth’s going on? I still think I should send Alon and Moshe to meet him.”
Leo gulped the remainder of his coffee. “I agree that Eduardo is a master of subterfuge, but I trust him ... and I have a feeling you do too, Lev.”
“But we’re talking about my only daughter, Cardinal.”
“That’s true, but the man just saved our lives, so I think he deserves some credit.”
Lev walked out onto the back deck and lit a cigar as he watched the deckhands preparing to cast off. After a few moments of staring down at a dock full of people, any of which could be watching them, he walked back into the salon and poured a tall glass of wine. “Have Nava fire up the chopper so she can fly John and Ariella to Istanbul, but I want them to take the train instead of flying to Paris just in case. They should make it in time.”
Lev peered through his cigar smoke at the surprised-looking faces staring back at him. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
As John and Ariella ran down to their stateroom to pack a few things for their trip to Paris, Lev nodded to Alon. “I need to speak with you in private.”
As the two men walked to the railing outside on the main deck, the yacht eased away from the dock and entered the Mediterranean, where Alex Pappas shoved the throttles to full speed and headed for Israel. Up on the top deck, Nava could be seen preparing the chopper for its flight to Istanbul.CHAPTER 14
PARIS – TWO DAYS LATER
Paris in springtime. It seemed a cruel dichotomy to John and Ariella that the reason for their visit to the city of lights was rooted in darkness. After making the two day train trip from Istanbul into Paris, they were practically sleepwalking when they crowded into an early morning RER subway train for a quick trip into one of the most affluent sections of the city—the 7tharrondissement.
Exiting a crowded metro station filled with well-dressed Parisians, they were immediately assaulted by the sights and smells that drifted from the bustling Rue Cler street market. Continuing on without pausing to eat, they weaved their way along a crowded sidewalk to a wide intersection where five different streets came together in a blur of speeding Paris traffic that flowed with all the determination of a raging river. Across the street lay the famed Champ-de-Mars, the park-like setting that ran from the Seine all the way to theEcole Militaire, the same French military school Napoleon had attended. From there they could see the lattice-like beams of the Eiffel Tower rising into a cloudless sky. It was a sight that made most newcomers stop and stare for a moment, no matter how worldly they tried to appear.
Standing on tiptoes, Ariella sniffed the warming air. She could see trees everywhere. They lined the boulevards and filled the parks, and spaced along a wide path that separated the cars from the pedestrians, little patches of earth allowed the trees to grow and thrive in an otherwise paved urban environment. Small green leaves had recently repopulated the barren, stick-like branches that had clattered against closed Parisian windows during the darkened months of winter. Their leafy birth had been a visible sign to the city that the seasons were a constant, and that warmth had triumphed over cold once again—a metaphor for life over death as the creeping, green-tinted shade covered Parisian streets everywhere, shielding them from a summer sun that would soon make an appearance and give rise to complaints of heat instead of cold.
Always the philosopher, John watched the mass of humanity walking beneath the verdant canopy, seemingly oblivious to all the new green life sprouting just above their heads. He wondered if trees and humans shared any of the same feelings. Like trees, did humans sometimes lose their leaves? Is that what depression and mental illness were all about? Did people sometimes lose their leaves until some invisible force lifted them from the all-enveloping darkness and welcomed them back into a world filled with promise and light?
Like most people, he knew there was some correlation between the dreariness of winter and the seeming euphoria of springtime. Like children released to the freedom of a playground, people flooded outdoors in search of uninhibited fun, preferably under a clear blue sky near a body of water where they could escape the buzzing heat of the sun while floating in the cooling embrace of a slow-moving stream.
“Where are we supposed to go?” Ariella asked, shaking John from his philosophic reverie.
“Lev said Eduardo would meet us somewhere on the grounds of thePalais de Chaillot. We’re to go there and wait. Eduardo will find us.”
Ariella stopped to brush the long brown hair out of her eyes. “You do realize that we don’t even know what he looks like. The only pictures we have of him are over forty years old. We should have brought Alon. At least he’s seen him recently.”
“Like Lev said, Eduardo will find us. Come on, Ariella. We’ve only got thirty minutes to get there. After that all bets are off, and I don’t want to face your father if we miss him.”
The two began jogging through the park, crossing gravelly areas crowded with tour buses and souvenir stands, until finally they found themselves passing beneath one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Looking up, the immense size of the Eiffel Tower was almost shocking in its scale as it soared over their heads, but they had little time to admire its beauty as they crossed the Seine on thePont d’Iena, until finally they found themselves standing in front of theTrocaderofountains, staring up at a massive curved building situated at the top of a small hill surrounded by magnificent gardens.
“Is this it?” Ariella asked.
“Yes,” John said. “That large building is thePalais de Chaillot.There’s a famous terrace up there that would make a perfect place for him to spot us, plus it will give us a better view of the area.”
The two took off walking at a fast pace toward the curved wings of a massive neoclassical building constructed for the 1937 World’s Fair. From the wide expanse of the terrace, one could see over theTrocaderogardens to the Eiffel Tower just across the river. Countless photographs of the tower had been taken from this storied terrace, and John had been right. It provided the best spot for them to see and be seen.
Looking out over the city, John felt himself being jostled by a large group of Japanese tourists crowding forward to snap pictures of the tower from this perspective. To those uninitiated in the Japanese method of moving en masse through a crowd, there was nothing offensive in their actions. The constant jostling and bumping was a way of life in Japan. Over time they had developed their own special rules of etiquette for such situations; an etiquette that seemed rude to westerners who always took offense at the bumping and pushing encountered in a small land with little space. On a visit to Tokyo once, John had been waiting for a train, and as the doors opened he found himself being pushed from behind into the waiting car. To the Japanese, this pushing was actually considered polite and helpful, and they were mystified at why American tourists always became so indignant after receiving a gentle push meant to help.
After the Japanese group had passed, John and Ariella found themselves standing alone, looking all around for a man neither of them had ever met. The time for their meeting had now come and gone and no one appeared interested in the young couple standing all alone on the terrace.
“What’s that?” Ariella asked.
“There’s a metal tube sticking out of your back pocket.” Ariella reached down and pulled what appeared to be a metal cigar tube from John’s pocket. “Smoking cigars now?”
“That’s not mine. Let’s see it.” Ariella handed the tube to John, and as they both stared at it, it finally dawned on them that someone had just shoved the object into John’s pocket while they had been distracted by the wave of Japanese tourists.”
“Open it,” Ariella said.
“What if it’s a bomb?”
“Really ... a bomb, John?”
Looking sheepish, John unscrewed the end of the metal tube and withdrew a piece of paper.
“Well ... what does it say?”
“It looks like Eduardo is leading us to a different location. I should have figured that he would want to see if we were being followed before he showed himself.”
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t speak French, John ... remember?”
“It’s an old cemetery in the 20tharrondissement.”
“Yes. It’s actually one of the most visited cemeteries in the world. Literally hundreds of famous people are buried there. Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas ... Moliére; it’s even the last resting place for Jim Morrison of the Doors.”
“I still don’t understand. Why has he chosen a cemetery?”
“I have no idea, Ariella, but we need to get going. He’s given us only forty-five minutes to get there.”
Once again, the two were running—running down the stairs of the nearest metro station to connect with a subway car that would whiz them to their destination. Inside the station, John purchased a book of ten tickets before they headed out onto the platform. Now, with nothing to do, the waiting was the hardest part. Ariella remained calm, looking up and down the tracks, while John began to fidget, looking at all the faces around them for anyone who seemed unusually interested in their presence.
The muted roar from a dark tunnel heralded the arrival of a train, and in the whoosh of air that preceded its arrival, John strained to make out the number. It was the number 12, one of the trains that traveled line number 2 to thePhilippe Augustemetro station that exited next to the cemetery’s main entrance. As soon as the train stopped, John and Ariella hopped onboard, followed by a hunched man wearing a light suit and a hat pulled low over his forehead. Taking their seats, John’s eyes followed the man as he passed by and took a seat a few rows down. He seemed innocent enough, and because of his obvious age, he was certainly no threat. But there was something in his lingering glance that had set alarm bells off in John’s head.
“What are you thinking, John?” Ariella asked. “You havethatlook.”
“The man in the light suit who just walked by and sat down behind us. Can you tell me what he’s doing?”
Pulling a nail file from her purse, Ariella dropped it on the floor and bent down to pick it up. As soon as she had it in her grasp, she looked up quickly and saw that the man was staring directly at her. Her sudden glance had caught him by surprise, causing his head to swivel around so quickly that it was obvious he didn’t want her to see he was looking in their direction.
“He’s watching us.”
“Let’s move to another car.”
Slowly, the two rose from their seats, making a show of stretching and looking around, as if they were unsure of where they wanted to be. Instead of walking away from the man, John decided to walk past him in an effort to make it appear they weren’t trying to avoid him. With the train rocking back and forth, they inched their way past as the man feigned indifference by staring out the window. Maybe he really wasn’t interested in them, but the stakes made it impossible for them to take that chance, especially now that they were so close to the man they had come all this way to meet.
After stepping into the next car, they stopped and peered through the smudged windows of the sliding doors between cars, waiting for the man to make his move. He remained seated, never turning his head as he peered through the window at the flashing tunnel lights.
“He doesn’t seem too interested in us now,” Ariella said.
“We won’t know for sure until we stop. If he follows us then we’ll have to shake him somehow before we meet up with Eduardo.”
Accompanied by the screech of brakes, the train slowed as it entered the brightly lit subway station across the street from the cemetery. As soon as the train stopped and the doors whooshed open, John took a final look back into the next car. The man was gone!
Surprised by his sudden disappearance, they waited as long as they could before stepping out onto the platform just as the doors slid shut behind them.Where had the man gone?
With no time left to wait, they began to move. The exit to the street above was only twenty yards away, so as they walked their eyes scanned the crowd for the man in the light suit, but he was still nowhere to be seen.Maybe he had changed seats and remained on the train.Wherever he had gone, at least he was not following them, which meant they were free to head for the cemetery and their meeting with Eduardo.
As soon as they were out in the open, they donned their sunglasses and followed along behind a group of tourists headed toward the main entrance. Once inside the cemetery’s tall gray walls, Ariella was surprised by the subdued, park-like beauty of the place. Trees were everywhere, providing shade for overflowing rows of towering stone monuments separated by cobblestone paths as wide as most Parisian streets. It was like nothing Ariella had ever seen before. Unlike the stark, concrete cemeteries that crowded the hillsides in Jerusalem, or the rolling green lawns seen in their American counterparts, this place was in a class of its own.
Although the majority of the current residents in this city of the dead had been buried below ground, their graves were marked by stunning sculptures that caused those wandering through the forest of memorials to gaze upon the scene in wonderment, as if they were in a museum. Covering one tomb, they saw the life-size carving of a man and wife, lying together and holding hands with their dog lying at their feet to signify that their cherished pet was entombed with them. Farther down, they spotted the life-size bronze casting of a man dressed in late 19thcentury period clothing, lying flat with his eyes closed—his top hat lying on its side beside him. The scene was especially bizarre considering the fact that the casting represented the way the man, a journalist by the name of Victor Noir, had been found lying in the street after he had been shot by Pierre Bonaparte, a cousin of Napoleon III. The cemetery was full of such sights. It was so special, in fact, that many Parisians came there for Sunday picnics far from the heat and bustle of the city of the living that lay just outside its gates.
Looking over their shoulders for the man in the light suit, they continued along a cobblestoned path and over a slight rise. With the sun’s rays filtering through the trees and passing between the tall monuments, the smoky shafts of light created moving patterns on their clothing as they moved deeper into the cemetery away from the crowds. Alone now, the two stopped to get their bearings.
“It looks like I picked the perfect day for us to meet in this beautiful spot,” a voice called behind them.
Startled, the two froze as they stared between two monuments. Turning their heads slightly, they spotted a figure cloaked in shadow.
John moved quickly to place Ariella behind him. “Mr. Acerbi?”
Stepping into the sunlight, the man in the light suit extended a wrinkled hand. “Please, call me Eduardo. And this must be Lev’s beautiful daughter, Ariella.”
Moving around John, Ariella examined the man’s suit. “You were following us on the train.”
“Yes, that was me. I had to make sure you weren’t being followed. We have a lot to discuss today. Why don’t we walk together? I know a lovely little spot.”
“Mind if I ask you a question first, sir?” John asked.
“Please, be my guest. We’ll have no secrets between us this day.”
“Why did you choose this cemetery for our meeting?”
“I’m surprised by your question, Mr. Lowe,” Eduardo said, referring to John by his last name. “Especially coming from a young man who’s spent the past two years learning tactics from some of the best tacticians in the world.”
A glance in Ariella’s direction revealed John’s sudden discomfort. “I guess I’m still learning.”
“Then please, consider this just another lesson from an old man who likes to think of himself as a student of tactics, and the lessons I’ve learned over time have served me well in the world of business ... an endeavor much like combat.” Eduardo smiled as he walked between John and Ariella, holding onto both of them by their arms as if they were his grandchildren. “This cemetery provides literally thousands of hiding places, not to mention several avenues of escape. Spies have held clandestine meetings here for years for that very same reason.”
John glanced around at the thousands of tombs. “Yes, of course. I can see that now.”
Walking together with Eduardo, John and Ariella were slowly beginning to fall under the same spell the old man had woven over Leo and Lev the first time they had met in his small farmhouse in Foix. Instead of the titan of business they had expected, they were looking at a fatherly gentleman who seemed genuinely interested in the feelings of others, and they found it impossible not to like him.
“We heard you had a stroke,” Ariella said.
“A little bit of play-acting, my dear.” Eduardo released their arms as they reached a park bench. Sitting together, he smiled over at the two young people like they were long-lost relatives. “I actually collapsed in my garden, but I never suffered a stroke. I had what the doctors call a little warning sign ... a trans ischemic attack, which in layman’s terms means that the blood flow was temporarily blocked from my brain and I fainted. For a moment I thought I was dying ... that my time had finally come. But on the ride to the hospital I slowly began to regain my strength, and by the time I arrived in the emergency room in Bagdad I felt fine. It was then that a plan began to hatch in my mind ... a plan to escape from Iraq and make everyone think I was close to death.”
“But why would you do that?”
“It was a very necessary ploy to have me flown to my doctors here in Paris.”
“But that still doesn’t answer my question, sir. I mean, why didn’t you just hop in one of your corporate jets and fly here without having to pretend you were ill?”
“Because, young lady ... if I had appeared to be in control of all of my faculties, I would never have made it out of Babylon alive.”CHAPTER 15
Alon Lavi checked his pistol one more time before shoving it into his waistband and stepping from behind one of the many tall monuments in the cemetery. Along with a four-man team of Mossad agents, he had been tailing John and Ariella through the streets of Paris ever since their arrival, and they had just made the decision to get closer, thus providing greater protection in case something went wrong.The Israelis always had a backup plan.
Walking quietly behind a row of stone tombs, the men were now in position to spot any threat to John and Ariella as they sat talking with Eduardo. Now that they had finally made contact with him, Alon and his highly-trained team knew their mission was moving into its most critical phase.
Moving in as close as he dared, Alon could just make out the profile of a man he had met only once, but right away he knew that the man doing the talking was Eduardo Acerbi and not some imposter sent to draw Lev’s daughter and son-in-law into some kind of trap.
“Why don’t we invite Alon and his team to join us?” Eduardo asked, his eyes reflecting a smoky shaft of light that had penetrated the tree cover above.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow you, Mr. Acerbi,” John said. “We’ve come alone ... just as you asked.”
“I don’t mean to offend you, young man, but are you really naïve enough to believe that Lev Wasserman would send his only daughter into a potential trap without some serious backup?”
“We’re telling you the truth, Mr. Acerbi,” Ariella added. “You wanted to meet with us alone, and we’ve honored that request.”
Acerbi slowly rose to his feet, tottering briefly before running a blue-veined hand along the back of the green painted park bench in an effort to steady himself. “You and your team can come out now, Mr. Lavi.”
Behind the nearest tomb, Alon froze. Just like before, in his small house in Foix, Eduardo Acerbi was aware of everything that was going on around him. Speaking quietly into his radio, Alon quickly advised the other team members to hold their positions as he stepped forward and walked toward the park bench.
“Ah, there you are,” Eduardo said. “It’s good to see you again, my friend.”
“And you too, Mr. Acerbi. Sorry about this ... orders.”
Jumping up from the bench, Ariella looked on in disbelief. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Acerbi. John and I knew nothing about this.”
“And I believe you my dear, but you must know it was the smart move. As much as he wanted to trust me, your father is incapable of letting his guard down, especially when it comes to protecting those he loves. He also knew that you and John had to believe you were alone, because people ... especially people like me, have a sense about such things. I too have eyes all around me, and they spotted Alon and his team when they arrived at the airport in the middle of the night.”
Alon’s face turned ashen. “How did you ...
“Like I said, Mr. Lavi, I have a core group of trusted individuals looking out for me, although at this moment I am truly alone except for the three of you and the men still concealed behind those tombs over there.”
“What do we do now?” John asked, peering at the wrinkled furrows around Eduardo’s eyes.
“Well, first of all, I know that the Carmela is on her way to Israel. And by now, word has reached my home in Babylon that I am perfectly well, which means there are men on the way here to kill me as we speak.”
“Kill you!” Ariella said, her voice rising a full octave. “But why ... who? I mean, are we talking about terrorists?”
“For now, let’s just say that I am standing in the way of a very powerful enemy ... an enemy that will stop at nothing until every member of the Bible Code Team is dead. By now they’ve most certainly discovered that I possess information that poses a grave threat to their plans, which means I am also one of their prime targets.” Eduardo paused to stare at the lengthening shadows settling across the park bench. After a moment, he looked up at all the blank faces staring back at him. “I’m afraid the enemy I speak of has been close to me for many years now, so you must believe me when I say that time is growing short.”
John sat back down on the bench and looked around. “I can’t believe all of this. We’ve got to get to the airport and get you on the next flight to Israel.”
“I can guarantee you the plane would never reach its destination.”
“How do you know that?”
“Those who seek to destroy me have very long arms.”
“What about your security people?” Alon inquired. “Thoseeyesyou spoke of earlier. Where are they now?”
The old man smiled as he continued to support his frail body against the bench. “I’m afraid they are only eyes ... they have no weapons.”
“No weapons! What kind of security force has no weapons?”
“Cathars, Mr. Lavi ... Cathars. They’ve been my guardian angels ever since I arrived here in France, and even without guns they are more powerful than any security force on the face of the Earth, because they see everything around them. It is a trait they have inherited after spending seven hundred years watching what goes on around them to keep from suffering the same fate as their ancestors. But now I find myself having to call on you for my continued protection. The world is facing a grave threat and I feel it is my duty to sound the alarm. To that end I need men around me who can do more than just watch. That’s why I called.”
Alon stood still for a moment as he looked deep into Acerbi’s eyes. “Just tell us what you want us to do, Mr. Acerbi, and we’ll make it happen.”
“Just get me to the coast of Normandy ... and pray that those who wish to stop us haven’t already discovered where we are.”CHAPTER 16
THE VILLA IN ISRAEL
The mood onboard the Carmela was tense as the yacht turned into the channel leading to the harbor at Caesarea. Constructed in 22 BC by Herod the Great on top of an old Phoenician port, the seafloor around the harbor was littered with historical treasures, making it a World Heritage site. However, because of Lev’s connections within the higher echelons of the Israeli intelligence community, the Carmela was the only boat allowed to dock there.
Once the huge blue and white yacht had been secured to the dock, Lev and the rest of the team carried their sea bags down the gangplank and jumped into a couple of parked Land Rovers for the short twenty mile drive to Lev’s villa by the sea. Shortly before Ariella had been born, Lev Wasserman and his late wife, Carmela, had purchased two hundred acres along a section of the coast known as the Israeli Riviera, and it was there that they had built a small farming cooperative safe from the constant threat of terrorist bombings that had plagued Israel’s cities for so many years.
Turning off the main highway that paralleled the sea, everyone squinted in the sun’s reflective glare as it bounced off the sugar-white sand dunes that separated the villa from the sea. Standing three stories high, the imposing Mediterranean-style structure was set back from the beach, connected to the sea by a rickety boardwalk that ran through the dunes to the edge of a sparkling blue swimming pool surrounded by palm trees curved toward the land by the ever-present sea breeze.
People of various ages could be seen walking the property, the most noticeable being the young men and women of the villa’s security force dressed in olive-colored shirts and matching shorts. From the beachfront to the gatehouse to the fields, these dedicated young people could be seen everywhere, patrolling the property with radios and automatic weapons slung over their shoulders in an effort to protect their families from those who would see them driven from the land.
Scattered around the property, twenty smaller houses were tucked in among the vineyards, orchards, and planted fields that made up the farm. These single-family dwellings were used mostly by professors and graduate students who lived there free of charge in exchange for providing security, growing the community’s food, and taking care of the villa. In short, the entire compound was very much like a communal kibbutz—an environment Lev had been raised in and preferred over life in the city.
After stopping briefly at the gatehouse, the vehicles passed beneath an overhanging sign displaying both a Christian Cross and the Star of David before heading up a paved road to a circular driveway that fronted the villa. Stepping from the car, Leo looked back at the brown cross and blue star mounted over the gate—a subtle reminder to those who entered that the villa was home to both Christians and Jews alike, for all of the members of the Bible Code Team, including Lev Wasserman, were Christians, while some of those who lived on the compound were Jews.
Walking up behind Leo, Lev stopped to follow the cardinal’s gaze. “I remember the first time I brought you here, Cardinal. You were still just a priest then, and you and John had just escaped from those rogue Vatican security men in Rome. You two looked like two lost sheep when I picked you up at the airport.”
“We were two lost sheep, Lev ... until you took us under your protective wing. Without your help I wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
“Yes, those were interesting times.”
Leo squinted up at the sun. “I have a feeling our most interesting times lie ahead.” The two men headed for the house and made their way with the others down to the underground communications center located beneath the villa. Loaded with powerful computers and high-tech communications equipment in a glassed-in space that resembled a NASA command bunker, the underground center was the living, breathing heart of the Bible Code Team.
Entering behind Lev, Daniel and a petite girl with long blond hair crossed the room. “Ah, Daniel, I see you’ve brought your new bride down into the lion’s den.”
Sarah walked up to Lev and kissed him on the cheek. “Hello, Professor.”
“What have you been up to while your genius husband has been away?”
“I’ve been decorating our new house ... the small one next to John and Ariella’s. I’ve also been learning about wine-making. I love working in the vineyards here.”
“Good, we need more talented winemakers on the compound.” Lev eyed a moody and distracted-looking Daniel as he laid his laptop on the table and flipped it open. “What’s eating at you, my boy?”
“I was just listening to the radio. A suicide bomber just took out a pizza place in downtown Tel Aviv. When’s it all going to stop? I mean, can you honestly picture a lasting peace with religious zealots who use violence to convince people that theirs is a religion of peace? I can’t ... at least not in my lifetime. The chasm between the Islamic radicals and the rest of the world is just too deep. There’s something wrong with those people that no amount of talk will ever put right.”
“The wordsdivine interventioncome to mind,” Leo interjected, pulling up a chair beside Daniel.
“God’s will, Cardinal? Do you really think some kind of divine intervention will save us from crazy people who are willing to strap explosives to their bodies and walk into a shopping center full of women and children? They’re just suicidal criminals who were probably losers to begin with and wanted to gain some kind of notoriety before they checked out.”
The room fell silent as Daniel took a few deep breaths and adjusted his glasses. Usually engrossed in his work, he was the embodiment of the classic academic. He was a man so focused and so driven, that all outside distractions usually failed to pass through his invisible shell, and this sudden outburst from him was out of character for a man who barely spoke above a whisper.
“Have we heard anything from Paris yet?” Lev asked, breaking the awkward silence.
Daniel ran his hands through his hair as he glanced around the room. “I just spoke to Alon. He only had a few seconds to talk, but he said that they had made contact with Eduardo and were on their way out of the city.”
“Did he say where they were going?”
“He didn’t want to broadcast their position, even over our encrypted network, but he said Ariella and John are fine.” Daniel managed a smile. “In fact, Alon told me they would both make good field agents with a little more training.”
Lev drummed his fingers nervously on the table next to his computer screen. “I’ve lived that kind of life before and it’s not what I want for my daughter and her new husband. I never should have allowed them to go.”
“The birds have to fly from the nest sometime,” Morelli said. “They said so themselves. It’s their time now. We’re all soldiers in a spiritual war ... and that means everyone.”
Lev frowned as he stared down at a silent phone lying on a long glass table. “I’m dying to know what Eduardo is up to.”
“I’ll try to get through to them one more time, Professor,” Daniel said, “but it seems that their phones are all turned off.”
Daniel paused as he glanced at Sarah before looking over at Lev. “I’m afraid I have some more unwelcome news for you, Professor. I’m leaving.”
“Leaving? But that’s impossible. We need you now!”
“I’m afraid it’s out of my hands, Lev. I’ve been drafted back into the Israeli military ... unit 8200. It’s the Israeli equivalent of the National Security Administration in the United States.”
“Did they say when you have to report?”
“They’re sending a chopper for me in an hour. Something big is going on.”CHAPTER 17
Adrian was pacing the floor of his room, frantic that he had not heard any news about his father since he had been airlifted to a Paris hospital following his apparent stroke. Peering from his second-story window, he could see guards with dogs patrolling the grounds below, and to make matters worse, his mother Colette had grown strangely quiet since his father had left.
Over the past few days, a growing sense of rage had begun to replace the uncertainty and fear that had crept into his dreams and enveloped his every waking moment. It was a new sensation to a boy who had only felt joy in a simple life spent with parents who loved him. For all he knew, his father could be dead by now.Why was everyone refusing to talk about it?Maybe he was already dead and they were trying to shield him from the truth.But why?He would have to be told sooner or later. One way or another, he had to find out. He had a right to know ... and he was going to exercise that right.
At least he had his computer—his only link with the outside world, and nothing had been mentioned in the press about his father’s death. For now, the only news of his father’s stroke had been replaced instead with stories about how the Acerbi empire was now being controlled by his mother and her hand-picked cadre of top echelon executives; men of fierce determination who had been his father’s closest associates and had his best interests at heart when they made decisions in his name. The Acerbi fortune had to be protected at all costs until Eduardo regained his place at the head of the financial table, but if he was unable to return, the burden of control would fall to Colette until Adrian came of age.
But things were different now that his father was out of the house. Vehicles full of strangers came and went at all hours of the day and night while Adrian had been kept away from entire sections of the palace.Why would they do that?
Infuriated by circumstances and the inability to see his father, Adrian threw open the door to his room and began running through the palace. He would have his answers today, no matter how many toes he had to step on, including those of his mother.
Bounding down a long winding staircase two steps at a time, he ran down a long hallway beneath huge crystal chandeliers that seemed to be floating above every open space in the cavernous palace. The echoes of his running footsteps over the marble floors announced his presence to the sleepy security men stationed around every corner, and a few even tried to stop him to ask him if he needed anything, but the look in his eyes made them shrink back in fear, for they saw something in his glance they had never seen before.If looks could kill.
All around the compound radios crackled with the news that the young Acerbi was on the move and that he was in no mood to be trifled with. Running through a banquet-sized dining room, Adrian burst through the doors to a bustling kitchen, only to find his mother bending over a simmering pot of one of her famous stews. For a moment everything looked normal, his mother the picture of domesticity, but it was all an illusion carefully orchestrated to placate him—he was now sure of it. He had never been so sure of anything in his life.
His father had told him that there was a time for waiting and watching, and then there was a time for action. Now was the time for action. Something inside the young man had snapped. His questions would be answered now ... or there would be hell to pay. He felt powerful, as if there were an electric charge coursing through his body. Colors suddenly seemed more vibrant and he could hear the muted whispers of staff members standing hundreds of feet away down the hall and even in other rooms. He could hear everything. It was unnerving. He held his hands over his ears in an attempt to drown out the voices, but it was no use. The room was spinning and his breathing was coming in short, shallow gasps as the sweat began to roll down his face.What was happening to him?
“Adrian! What are you doing?” It was his mother’s voice, but it seemed far away even though she was standing right in front of him.
“I want to see my father, and I want to see him now!”
Colette stood frozen in place next to the steaming pot of stew. Her eyes narrowed with a sudden flash of realization. Adrian’s time was fast approaching, but these changes were coming too soon. Something was wrong. Was this his human side, the normal angst of a sixteen-year-old, or was something else trying to break free before it was time? She had to do something. Or rather—the thing inside her did!
“Come now, son, stop shouting.” Her eyes flashed as she pointed to a chair. “Sit and eat.”
“No, Mother. I want to see my father, and if you won’t take me to him then I’ll call the airport and order our pilots to fly me to Paris on the corporate jet.”
“It is your father who has forbidden us to leave this place, my son. I am only following his wishes. The last thing he would want is for you to fly to Paris by yourself. He has some of the finest doctors in the world caring for him. There’s nothing you can do for him there.”
“At least I can be there for him. I can look into his eyes and speak to him ... let him know I am there.” Adrian pierced his mother with a questioning stare. “Why aren’t we there, Mother? Why aren’tyouthere? Father needs family around him now. There’s something you’re not telling me, and if I don’t get the answers I want to hear in the next few minutes, I’m leaving for Paris to see for myself.”
“Come now ... calm yourself. That’s impossible.”
“No, Mother. You seem to be calm enough for both of us. I have to say that I find it very strange that you seem so detached from the whole situation. There’s something you’re not telling me, and you have exactly one minute to do so before I walk out that door and drive myself to the airport.”
“Take him to his room and guard the door.”
Adrian spun around to see two armed guards standing behind him. “What are you doing, Mother?” Adrian began to back away, then turned and started to run. He made it as far as the kitchen door before he was quickly subdued by the two hulking guards who gently lead him away as his mother looked on passively. Looking back over his shoulder as he was being led away, he shouted at the top of his lungs. “You’re not my mother!”CHAPTER 18
The storm-tossed seas off the coast of Normandy greeted the two black Peugeot SUV’s as they drove through the French town ofAvranchesand headed west toward the mouth of theCouesnon River. Driving along the windswept shoreline, John and Ariella looked out across the glistening tidal flats at the misty signature of Mont Saint-Michel and the fabled monastery that had sat upon its granite perch, separated from the mainland by the sea for over a thousand years.
“Is this it, Mr. Acerbi?” Alon asked as the SUV’s rolled to a stop.
“Yes. Come ... we don’t have much time.”
Led by the Israeli security team and followed by John and Ariella, Alon and Eduardo stepped from the back seat of the lead vehicle into a heavy rain that was blowing sideways off a turbulent sea. Leaning into the storm, they turned their collars up against the salt spray and slid down a sandy embankment before making their way across the rippled sand toward a stone causeway, the only link between the distant monastery and the French mainland.
After checking the road behind them one final time to see if they had been followed, the group stopped at the end of the causeway and stared out across tidal flats that hid pockets of quicksand famous for trapping those who were unaware of the rapidly rising tides that swept in from the sea every day.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” Alon said. “The tide is coming in and the waves are already starting to wash over the center of the causeway.”
“We have no choice, Mr. Lavi,” Eduardo shouted over a wind that had begun to howl. “We have to go, and we have to go now!”
“Then we’ll have to go fast, sir. Do you think you can make it?”
Eduardo looked up at Alon’s hulking form and smiled. “If not, I’ll ride piggyback.”
Alon grinned back. “OK, sir ... let’s go.”
Without waiting, the group leaned into the wind and began trudging across the causeway into the building maelstrom. In the driving rain, the outline of the island faded from view just as a tall wave slammed against the side of the causeway and foamed over the smooth stone. A few seconds passed before the causeway drained, allowing the drenched and shivering group to continue their slow and agonizing pace to the halfway point of no return. Unable to go on without assistance, Eduardo leaned against Alon as they made their way forward into the swirling mist, until finally they could see the shrouded image of the monastery rising above their heads, its turrets now beacons that guided them through the arched stone entranceway where they collapsed behind the thick protective walls surrounding the main gate.
“Is everyone here?” Alon asked, wiping the salt water from his eyes.
“I count eight heads, sir,” a security man answered.
“Good. We need to get out of this weather and find some dry clothes.”
“We have everything you need,”a voice called out. Peering up toward the main gate, the group saw a tall man walking straight toward them, his white robes flowing out behind him. It was Pope Michael, and he was smiling.
Led by the pope and his accompanying entourage of solemn-looking monks and Swiss Guards, the dripping group shivered in their wet clothes as they made their way up a winding ramp and through a grated portcullis into a grassy courtyard filled with trees. Finally separated from the howling winds, the sudden peace of the garden-like scene lay in stark contrast to the storm raging outside the thick walls of the soaring medieval structure.
Wringing the water from her hair, Ariella stared up at the tall figure of the pope. “Is that who I think it is?”
“Yes,” John answered. “That’s Pope Michael himself. The only question is ... what is he doing here?”
Followed by at least a dozen monks, the pope opened a small wooden door and motioned for the group to follow. Once inside, they continued down a darkened hallway to a large circular area that was surrounded by massive columns and contained a shallow stone pool that resembled a Roman bath.
The pope pointed across the steam rising from the clear, greenish water. “Through those doors on the other side of the pool you will find showers with hot water. There are also dry clothes inside the lockers against the wall. Please ... make yourselves at home. Once you are warm and dry we will talk.” With that, the pope and his entourage turned and disappeared down another hall as the group circled the pool and entered an area that resembled a health club locker room. Immediately, John pulled off his drenched sweater and began ringing the seawater out over a drain in the floor. “Well, that was certainly a surprise.”
“He’s not much for words, is he?” Alon ventured.
“He is a man who carries a great burden,” Eduardo said, taking a seat on a long wooden bench. Looking up at Ariella, he smiled. “I believe we should let the lady go first.”
Ariella placed her hands on her hips and frowned. “It looks like the showers are all private, and you’re turning blue, Mr. Acerbi. We need to get you into a hot shower right now.”
Reluctantly, Eduardo struggled to his feet and they all made their way into individual shower rooms where the steaming water began to bring the feeling back to their numbed skin. Thirty minutes later, dressed in the black monk’s robes they had found hanging in the lockers, the now-warm group was rounded up by a silent monk who led them up a steep stairwell to an arched hallway where more wooden benches lined the walls outside the abbot’s study. Moments later, another monk opened a thick wooden door and motioned to Eduardo. “His Holiness would like to speak with you now, sir.”
For another thirty minutes the group outside sat in the hallway and stared at the stone walls.
“I sure would like to know what they’re talking about in there,” John said, his eyes fixed on the ancient wooden door.
“So would I, little brother,” Alon answered. He had called John little brother ever since their days together in the Negev Desert when the hulking Israeli commando had taken John under his wing. “I feel a little silly carrying a pistol under these monk’s robes.”
One of the Israeli security men smiled. “This is the strangest mission I’ve ever been on. I mean, you have a Catholic pope meeting with a Cathar billionaire, and a Jewish security team guarding a group of Christians. It doesn’t get much stranger than that.”
“Yeah,” Alon laughed. “Throw in some Hindus and Buddhists and we could really have a party.”
Everyone burst out laughing until a monk poked his head through the door and held his finger to his lips.
“What’s with those guys?” Ariella asked. “I feel like we’re all back in grade school.”
“You’re in the monastery’s cloister,” John whispered. “They frown on loud talking and laughing.”
“Oh ... sorry.”
“I think we can forgive you this once,” Pope Michael’s voice boomed from the doorway as he exited the abbot’s study with Eduardo Acerbi at his side.
“Good evening, Your Holiness,” John said, trying to keep from tripping over his long monk’s robes. “It’s a great honor to see you again.”
“The honor is all mine, John. Cardinal Leo has had great things to say about you and your lovely wife, Ariella.” The pope paused for a moment and studied the mystified faces staring back at him. “I suppose you’re all wondering why Mr. Acerbi has asked you to deliver him to an isolated monastery surrounded by water.”
“The question had occurred,” Alon smiled.
“I promise you all of your questions will be answered in due time. Until then, dinner is being served downstairs, and I’m sure all of you could use some hot food right about now. I’ll join you in a few minutes after I change.”
After being led back downstairs by the same unsmiling monk through a maze of corridors, the group entered a beamed dining room lined with beautiful stained glass windows and seated themselves around a long wooden table filled with steaming platters of food. After a few welcome sips of warming wine, the pope entered dressed in a black sweater and jeans and took his seat at the head of the table.
“First of all,” the pope began, “I want to thank all of you for making sure Mr. Acerbi made it here safely. I know all of you have a lot of questions, and I assure you that they will be answered once we’re in a secure location.”
“I thought this was the secure location,” Alon said.
“No, I’m afraid this is just a way station,” Eduardo answered. “Now that Pope Michael is with us, we’ll be boarding a nuclear submarine in a few hours before the sun comes up.”
Alon practically dropped his fork. “Did you just saynuclear submarine?”
“Yes, Mr. Lavi. It will be transporting us to the secure location I was speaking of. Unfortunately, you will all have to trust me a little while longer, because what I have to say cannot be discussed until we reach our destination. At this point all I can tell you is that Pope Michael and I both agree that the world is now entering the first stages of a war.”
“A war!” Ariella’s eyes grew wide. “What kind of war?”
“A war that will soon cover the entire world, my dear.”
Alon stared open-mouthed across the table. “If I didn’t know better, I would think you were talking about World War III, Mr. Acerbi.”
“No, my friend, I’m afraid I’m taking about something much worse. Now, would anyone like some more wine?”CHAPTER 19
Sitting in the underground communication center beneath the villa, the lack of communication from the team on the ground in France was becoming almost unbearable for Leo and Lev. It had been over twenty-four hours since they had heard anything, and every imaginable scenario was running through their minds. The satellite phones they used contained the most secure encrypted software in the world, yet John and Ariella weren’t using them for some reason. Either they were playing it very smart, or something had gone terribly wrong.
“I just called Danny Zamir at Israeli Intelligence Command,” Lev said to Leo. “He’s looking into it. He says the agents he sent with Alon haven’t reported in either. He’s just as stumped as we are. He didn’t want to say it, but I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was worried. If we don’t hear anything in the next twelve hours I’m flying to Paris with a team of my own to find my daughter.”
“Excuse me, Professor.”
Lev looked up to see a pretty young woman from the villa’s security force standing in the doorway.
“Yes, come in my dear. What is it?”
“There’s a priest at the gatehouse. He says he’s from the Vatican and asked to speak to you and the cardinal right away.”
“Have the security people escort him to the house,” Lev said, casting a puzzled glance in Leo’s direction. The two men quickly made their way upstairs just as three youthful members of the villa’s security force arrived with a muscular-looking priest who was carrying a sealed envelope in his hands.
“Who are you?” Leo asked.
“My name is Father Alberto, and I have an urgent dispatch from the Holy Father.” The priest handed a sealed envelope to Leo. After removing the wax seal, Leo opened the envelope and read the short letter inside before turning to Lev with a bewildered look on his face. “Come with me. We need to speak in private.”
Lev’s short legs barely kept up with the tall cardinal as they made their way outside behind the villa. “Our people in France are at Mont Saint-Michel with Pope Michael. They’re all safe.”
“Thank God!” Lev looked like he was about to cry. “What in the world are they doing in a French monastery with the pope?”
“According to this, in a few hours the world press is going to break the news that the pope is missing. Apparently he’s discovered a plot against him within the curia and was forced to go into hiding. Although he didn’t say so, I believe he fears for my safety as well because he also wants me to disappear so that I can’t be summoned back to the Vatican to take his place. He wants the priest who delivered this letter to remain here at the villa as your guest while Bishop Morelli returns to Rome to keep an eye on things.”
Lev’s face was turning pale. “What in the world is going on, Leo?”
“Believe me, I have no idea. I think we need to pump thepriestwho just delivered this letter for more information.” Leo folded the paper and walked back into the villa to confront the large priest. “Who else knows about this?”
“Knows about what, Your Eminence?”
“Have you read this letter?”
“My orders were only to deliver that envelope, which was sealed.” The man remained rigid as he looked Leo right in the eye. “I was sworn to secrecy before they shoved me into an Italian fighter jet. It was quite a ride ...
“A fighter jet?” Leo’s eyes widened. “I’m sure it was quite a ride. Was there anything else?”
“No, Your Eminence ... just that letter.”
Leo tried to manage a tight smile. “Would you like something to eat ... you must be starved by now.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but the pilot of the jet is waiting to take me back.”
“Unfortunately you won’t be returning anytime soon. The Holy Father wants you to remain here as our guest for awhile.”
The priest looked confused as he bowed his head slightly. “Whatever you say, Cardinal.”
“Oh, and one more thing, Father Alberto. Just who was it exactly at the Vatican who swore you to secrecy?”
“Francois Leander, the head of the Swiss Guard. He said to tell you that he sends his regards.”
“Thank you. You’re not a priest, are you, Alberto?”
The young man’s face turned crimson. “No, sir. I’m not supposed to tell anyone ... orders from Francois. But he said if you asked I was to tell the truth. I’m a soldier in the Swiss Guard.”
Leo smiled as he patted the man on the shoulder. “Thank you, Alberto. Might as well make yourself at home. We’ll find you a room upstairs, and the kitchen is down this hall.” Leo nodded to Lev before the two men headed back out to the pool area behind the villa.
“Do you believe his story?” Lev asked, picking up a secure phone from behind the counter at the poolside bar.
“Yes. He used the correct code words. Who are you calling?”
“Danny Zamir. I want him to check on that man’s story. I also want him to figure out a way to get us to France as soon as possible.”
Leo shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare bouncing off the turquoise water beyond the dunes. “I think you’ll find that the young man is telling the truth. Like I said, he used the correct code words.”
“Codes can be broken, Leo ... in case you haven’t noticed by now.”
“True, but I’ve been around the Vatican long enough to know a Swiss Guard when I see one. That guy has Swiss Guard written all over him. I’m sure his story will check out.”
“I hope you’re right.” Lev held up his hand to indicate that he was listening to a voice on the other end of the line. “Hello, Danny?”
“Lev, I figured you’d be calling in a few minutes. I’ll be landing there in two minutes. Hang up now.” The line went dead.
“Something’s up,” Lev said, scanning the western sky. “Zamir didn’t want to talk on the phone ... even a secure one.”
Seconds later, they heard the unmistakable sound of chopper blades beating through the air as a dot on the horizon grew into a large gray helicopter that quickly settled in a cloud of dust between the dunes and the villa. Against the whine of the heated turbines winding down, a balding man wearing a white dress shirt and gray slacks hopped from the chopper and walked straight toward the poolside bar. It was Danny Zamir, the legendary head of the Mossad, and he was walking with a purpose.
“It seems like you’re getting a lot of attention today, Professor,” Zamir said, setting his heavy frame down on one of the spindly bar stools.
Lev opened a bottle of Israeli beer and set it on the bar in front of Zamir. “It’s good to see you, Danny.”
“You too, old friend. I’m guessing you were calling me about the man who just arrived a few minutes ago dressed like a priest.”
“How did you ...
“My people drove him here after we checked him out. He’s the real deal alright. Swiss Guard. He was sent by the Vatican and flew in on an Italian fighter jet.”
“He told us. He also said Ariella and your men are safe.”
Zamir emptied half of his beer in one long gulp. “Want me to answer your next question, Lev?”
“You know I’ve got to go to my daughter, Danny. Can you help us?”
“Let me make this easy for you, Professor. We just received a top priority request from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office. He’s dispatching one of our Dolphin-class subs to transport you and the cardinal to a meeting in Gibraltar.”
“Gibraltar? No ... we need to get to France.”
“By the time you get to France, your daughter and the others will be in Gibraltar.”
“This doesn’t make any sense. If we have to go to Gibraltar that’s where we’ll go, but why not fly us there? And what’s all this about subs?”
“Apparently, submarines are the only secure way to travel right now.”
“Do you want to clarify that, Danny?”
“Something about computers and the internet. Our secure phones aren’t secure anymore. That’s why I hung up on you before you could say anything else.”
“Are you talking about the entire Israeli network?”
“Actually, Lev, it’s much worse. Our cyber warfare section has detected a computer worm that’s worked its way into our communications network through the internet. For some reason it hit Israel first, but within a matter of weeks it will begin targeting every country on Earth. We’re talking about all of Europe, the Russians, the Chinese ... even the Americans, and it’s not just the intelligence community that’s being affected. It appears that thiswormis working its way into everything connected to a computer, which means it will eventually affect almost every person on the planet, even if they don’t own a computer. From what I’ve been told, it looks like it was designed to infiltrate the infrastructures of the things that support the essentials of everyday life, including communications, food and fuel distribution, transportation, the power grid ... even our bank accounts. Anything that has any connection to computers will be affected, and unfortunately we don’t have a clue as to who or what’s behind it. Our best people are scrambling for more information, but somehow someone out there knows every move we make. They’ve managed to hack their way into our intelligence satellites and have taken control of all the security cameras we’ve been installing in our cities to monitor terrorist activity. They’re now able to track the movement of almost anyone in Israel anytime, day or night. Airports and commercial aircraft seem to be especially vulnerable.”
“You’re talking about literally thousands of different types of encrypted software programs controlling millions of pieces of hardware!” Lev said, his face turning pale. “No one has that power. It’s impossible!”
“Well, it seems that someone’s achieved the impossible, my friend, because it’s happening. The only computer systems that can’t be infiltrated are the ones in our submarines at sea. They’re totally isolated. Even when our subs are docked they’re not plugged into shore-based networks. They never have been for fear of something like this happening. Submarines by their very nature are highly shielded systems that use scrambledburstforms of communication, and they’re not connected to the internet. Their software is compartmentalized within the sub itself. It’s a failsafe mechanism that was designed years ago to prevent a rogue nation from taking over the launch capability of a nuclear sub. You can imagine what that would mean.”
Lev pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket and lit it with a match. “You make this worm sound like some kind of technological Armageddon, Danny.”
“That’s exactly what it is. The days of two armies coming together on the field of battle are over. The next big war, if there ever is another big war, will be one of technology. It’s like science fiction come to life. It won’t matter how many troops or tanks or fighter planes we have. The nation that controls the computers of the world will be the victor.”
“But why Gibraltar?” Lev asked.
“You said we are going to Gibraltar.”
“Oh, that. Your daughter and the rest of the team in France will be boarding one of Britain’s Astute-class nuclear subs off the coast of Normandy. From there they’ll be transported to Gibraltar to meet up with you and Leo. Intelligence services from countries all over the world are becoming involved, and they chose Gibraltar as their meeting place. Evidently, Acerbi also has a place at the table.”
“That should be interesting,” Lev said, frowning. “When do we leave?”
“Tonight ... after its dark. A Special Forces team will be waiting for you on the beach behind the villa. From there they’ll transport you to a rendezvous point with the Israeli subTekumaout at sea.” Zamir finished off his beer before fixing Lev with a look that intensified the worry lines around his eyes. “You know, Lev, in all my years of military and intelligence service, I’ve never seen a threat like this before. It’s diabolical. Whoever’s behind this has become almost God-like overnight, and it’s obvious they already have the upper hand.”
“Any idea what Acerbi has to say?” Leo asked.
“No. I’ve heard he’s being tight-lipped as usual.”
“Then I guess we’d better go pack,” Leo said, standing and stretching his arms over his head. “This is one meeting I don’t want to miss.”
“What’s your hurry, Cardinal?” Zamir called out. “You’ve got a few hours to kill before you leave.”
“I’ll be right back. I need to let Morelli know he’s going for a little ride on a fighter jet this afternoon. He’ll be thrilled.”CHAPTER 20
Great! It was the first word that came to Leo’s mind as they walked through the confines of one of theTekuma’snarrow, faux-wood passageways to a tiny cabin. Even though he had worked deep underground in a Pennsylvania coal mine with his father and uncles the summer before he left for his first year of college, Leo had never really liked cramped spaces, and a sub was about as cramped a space as one could hope for. Not only that, but he couldn’t help but think of all the water pressure that would soon be pressing against the hull. If anyone ever did manage to sneak a virus into the onboard computer system of a sub, the resulting malfunction could order it to descend below its classified crush depth. After that the only consolation would be the fact that they probably wouldn’t feel anything when the hull finally imploded.
As soon as they entered the small cabin, a thin, nervous-looking man stepped in behind them and extended his hand. “Welcome to theTekuma, gentlemen. My name is Misha Bagrov. I’m the security officer onboard theTekuma. I hope you don’t find our accommodations too spartan. What we lack in space we make up for with good food.”
“Nice to meet you, Misha,” Leo said, extending his hand, “and this is Professor Lev Wasserman.”
“It is indeed an honor to have the two of you onboard. Incidentally, I have your complete dossiers on my desk. I believe this is the quickest we’ve ever cleared two civilians to sail on an Israeli submarine. Your mission must be very important, is it not?”
Lev adopted a look of total indifference. “Actually, Misha, at this point we don’t know any more than you do. I couldn’t help but notice your last name ... Bagrov. Russian, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Professor. I was born in Russia before my Jewish parents immigrated to Israel when I was still an infant. I’m an Israeli citizen now. Please, make yourselves comfortable. We’ll be submerging in five minutes.” The officer turned to leave but paused in the doorway. “By the way, Professor, I admire the way you managed to change the direction of our conversation away from your mission. I can tell you’re no rookie in the business of secrecy.”
Stepping out into the hallway, Bagrov missed the tight smile curling at the edge of Lev’s mouth as he headed aft toward the sub’s control room. Closing the door to their cabin, Lev held his finger to his lips while he checked the small space for listening devices. Satisfied that no obvious bugs had been planted in the room, he sat on the edge of the lower bunk and was reaching for a cigar in his shirt pocket when he noticed aNo Smokingsign posted above the door. “How long did Danny say it will take us to reach Gibraltar?”
“He didn’t,” Leo replied.
“They keep the speed of these boats a closely guarded secret,” Lev said, “but I believe this boat can make a run like that in a day and a half. A nuclear-powered sub might make the trip a little quicker.”
“I thought this was a nuclear sub.”
“No, with everything else on our plate, Israel can’t afford to make that fiscal leap just yet. In fact, we don’t even build our own subs. Most people are startled to hear our subs are built in Germany.”
“Germany! Are you telling me we’re in a U-boat?”
“In a manner of speaking. The world stage has changed dramatically since Israel achieved statehood back in 1948. These German Dolphin-Class subs are diesel-electric boats designed and constructed in Germany for the Israeli Navy. At a billion euros apiece, they are the single most expensive piece of equipment in the entire Israeli military and are considered to be the most sophisticated conventionally-powered submarines in the world. The first two subs we received, theDolphinand theLeviathan, were actually donated to us by the German people who have strived to support the State of Israel after the horrors of World War II. The sub we’re on now is the third sub Germany built for Israel, and the cost was split between the two countries. I’ve heard there are two more on the way, each subsidized by the German government.”
“Then Israel has no ability to launch a nuclear strike from their subs?”
“I didn’t say that. We don’t have the big stealthy missile boats like they do in the U.S. and Russia, but these subs are still capable of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, thus giving us an offshore second-strike capability if Israel is ever attacked. By the way, that last part is classified, so keep it under your cardinal’s hat.”
“I had no idea,” Leo said, bending slightly in the tight confines of their tiny cabin. “The world has undergone some amazing changes in the past fifty years, but it seems as though humanity continues to walk a tightrope between progress and total annihilation.”
“That’s a good analogy, Leo. We’ve evolved into a species of risk-takers and excitement junkies sandwiched between the two opposing forces of good and evil.”
“Maybe that’s what drives us. Bishop Morelli and I have had long talks on the subject, and we both agree that it’s possible mankind is destined to seed the universe someday. We wouldn’t be able to accomplish something like that without some risk-taking behavior being built into our DNA.”
“You could be right about the risk-taking behavior, Leo, but as a mathematician I have to disagree with your theory of mankind seeding the universe. With the billions of galaxies all around us, it’s a mathematical certainty that there are thousands of other civilizations out there somewhere thinking the very same thing, many of which have probably been traveling to other worlds since before we even existed.”
Leo pulled up the only chair in the room and squeezed his tall frame onto the tiny seat. “Well, there has to be a first, doesn’t there? Maybe we’re it ... civilization number one.” Leo reached up and turned on a small brass lamp mounted on the wall. “Speaking of other worlds, have we learned anything else about that dark star that appeared on Adrian’s sixteenth birthday?”
“Other than the fact that we found a reference to the event encoded in Genesis, we’ve heard nothing new about it since it appeared. Right now it’s just hanging there ... like it’s waiting for something.” Lev stood and opened the door. “Why don’t we go get something to eat, Cardinal? For now we’re just along for the ride.”
Ariella awoke with a start. Looking around at the bare stone walls of their small, cell-like room, she could hear John’s heavy breathing—a sure sign that he was still sleeping soundly beside her. Quietly, she lifted the blanket and slipped out of bed before looking down at the glowing face of her military watch. It was three in the morning, a full thirty minutes before they were due to be awakened for their rendezvous with the British sub.
Outside, beyond the thick walls of the towering monastery, she could still hear the shrill cry of the wind as it whipped around the curved battlements of the medieval structure. She took a few deep breaths and tried to calm herself, but it was no use. Her heart was still racing with the thought of launching through the pounding surf in a small rubber boat and heading out into a dark, storm-tossed ocean to meet up with a nuclear submarine. As frightening as the thought was, Ariella feared that it would pale in comparison to what Eduardo and the pope had to say once they reached their destination. Looking over at John, she saw that his eyes were now open. “What time is it?” he asked.
“Time to get up, hon. Better dress warm. Sounds like that wind is really howling out there.”
“Maybe they’ll postpone the rendezvous til the weather gets better.”
“Postpone? Really, John? The British are sending in a boat full of Special Forces soldiers to pick us up. They don’t care about weather.”
John stretched before climbing out of bed and glaring at his wife. “I just love being married to a military chick.”
“Call mechickone more time and you’ll find out just howmilitaryI can get.”
John smiled and kissed her on the lips. “Come on, G.I. Jane. Let’s go find the others and get this show on the road.”
Ariella grabbed John around the waist and kissed him back. “I love being married to a quasi-intellectual who doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. Maybe you’re really just some kind of adrenalin junkie sociopath.”
John reached out to grab her but missed as she made a giggling escape into the bathroom and closed the door.
Down the hall, Alon and the Israeli security team were talking to the British Special Forces soldiers that had just arrived and were passing out orange-colored waterproof survival suits to everyone. Next to them, a group of grim-looking Swiss Guards were watching as the soldiers prepared the pope and Eduardo for the rigors of the cold, swirling water that would soon envelop them all when they made their way through the crashing surf for their harrowing ride out to the sub.
Walking from their room, John and Ariella began suiting up. John watched as the pope pulled his waterproof suit over his black sweater and jeans, thinking that the scene was strangely familiar in a biblical sense. The tall, blond Norwegian pope reminded him of a working-class fisherman who was preparing for a long day of pulling nets—a good analogy for a man who, like Peter, was called the fisher of men.
“Ready?” Alon called out.
The orange-suited group all nodded their heads as the British Soldiers lead them down a spiral staircase that seemed to descend forever into the granite base of the monastery. Inside the thick stone walls, the sound of the wind outside was barely noticeable until they reached a rusty metal door that led outside.
Looking back over his shoulder, a soldier looked into the faces of those standing behind him. “Stay together and follow me. My men will be all around you, but its pitch black out there and the wind speed is approaching forty knots. The current is strong and the water is cold, but you shouldn’t feel it in these suits. There are white strobe lights attached to your life vests so that we can spot anyone who gets separated from the group. Don’t turn them on unless a wave washes you away from the group and you need rescuing. The boats will be waiting for us in the surf, so hopefully that won’t be a problem.”
The soldier braced himself before opening the door. Immediately the seriousness of their situation hit them in the form of howling wind and horizontal rain that stung the exposed parts of their faces. There was no moon, and in the next few seconds they would find themselves immersed in total blackness. First out the door behind the soldier was Eduardo Acerbi, who was physically attached by two nylon ropes to two British soldiers. Next in line, the pope emerged with a couple of burly Swiss Guards. A strong swimmer, the pope had declined their pleas for safety lines with the thought that he had a better chance of making it through the surf without the drag of his protectors.
Inch by slow inch, the group felt for slippery hand-holds as they climbed down over moss-covered granite rocks to the water’s edge, until finally they found themselves standing on sand in swirling, knee-high water. With the incoming tide pushing against them, they huddled together and waited.
Suddenly, a dark shape came crashing into Alon’s side. It was a black rubber boat manned by British commandos, and before he had time to react, two pairs of meaty hands reached down and literally jerked him out of the water. Lying in the bottom of the boat, Alon looked up to see two of the biggest men he had ever laid eyes on. No wonder they flipped him out of the water like a father playing with his two-year-old son.
In less than a minute, the commandos had loaded all of their passengers into two boats and were heading back out to sea. The howling wind drowned out the sound of the revving motors as the light, flat-bottomed boats rose over building sets of waves that threatened to swamp them. Each crashing wave pushed them back, until the spinning props were able to take hold once again and propel the small craft forward. As soon as they were past the surf, the boats rose and descended in the rhythmic motion of the sea as they sped toward a darkened shape highlighted by a sky that was growing progressively lighter with the coming of the dawn.
Moments later the soft rubber boats kissed the black steel hull of the waiting sub and more hands reached down to help everyone scramble up the curved sides. Once onboard, they were motioned toward a red glow emanating from an open hatchway on deck, and five minutes later the hatch was being secured from inside while the sub powered away from the coast before making a quick descent in a mass of bubbles that raced for the surface as the sub headed for the depths.
Inside the submarine, the red battle lighting bathed the dripping group as they leaned with the tilt of the boat and began peeling off their survival suits.
“That really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Eduardo said. He was shaking slightly from the cold, but otherwise he looked as if he had just stepped from the shower and was ready to devour a hot breakfast.
Shaking out his wet hair, John blinked when the overhead lighting changed from red to white. “Actually, since I was raised on a ranch in New Mexico I find the sea pretty terrifying. I don’t know how you guys managed to see anything with all that salt water in your eyes.”
A British sailor grinned and handed him a towel. “Actually, sir, this is what we call a low-risk recovery mission. We’ve launched in hurricanes before. Now that’s terrifying ... at least until we dive. Once we get below the surface we leave the storm behind and it’s smooth sailing from then on.”
“I was wondering why it felt so calm all of a sudden,” Ariella said, wringing out her wet hair.
“That’s because we just dove. We’re two hundred feet below the surface right now, Miss.”
Suddenly a booming voice caused Ariella to turn her head as the crew snapped to attention. Standing in a rounded steel hatchway, she saw a dark-haired man in his mid-forty’s staring back at her. He was wearing a blue sweater and a white hat with the gold braid of a captain emblazoned across the black visor.
“At ease, men. I see our passengers are none the worse for wear. Welcome aboard the HMSAmbush.I’m Captain Colin Moss.”
The frown lines in the captain’s face made it look as if the man was incapable of smiling as he studied the new arrivals. “Which one of you is the pope?”
Surprised gasps from the British crewmembers filled the tight space as they turned to see Pope Michael sweep the orange hood from his head, revealing a face familiar to millions around the world. “That would be me, Captain.”
The captain was speechless for a moment as he stared into a pair of piercing blue eyes. “I’m honored to have you onboard, Your Holiness, but I have to say that I’m a little perplexed by all of this.”
“I can understand your confusion, Captain Moss. The first and only time a Catholic pope has ever visited the UK was back in 1982 when our beloved Pope John Paul II spent six days traveling through the beautiful English countryside. I suppose that, technically, this sub is sovereign British territory, so that would make me the second Catholic pope to visit your great country. I must apologize for any inconvenience our arrival has caused you and your crew. We shouldn’t be taking you away from your normal duties for more than a day or two.”
“That’s not what I was referring to, sir,” Moss replied. “Apparently, you’ve been declared a missing person after you disappeared from the Vatican two days ago. The world press is speculating that you’ve been kidnapped ... or worse.”
“I can assure you Captain that, despite the wild speculation by the press, I am here of my own free will, and as you can see I am quite well. How long will it take us to reach Gibraltar?”
“How the bloody hell did you know where we are headed?” Moss snapped, instantly regretting his tone. Removing his cap, the red-faced captain ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Please excuse my wording, Your Holiness. I haven’t slept in thirty-six hours and I’m afraid you caught me a bit off guard. The route of one of Her Majesty’s nuclear submarines is one of our most closely guarded secrets ... for obvious reasons. Lives could be at stake. I should have known you would be aware of our destination.”
Pope Michael smiled as he stepped forward and laid a hand on the startled captain’s shoulder. “That’s quite alright, Captain. I understand the pressures of command, and you’re quite right about lives being at stake. Now, you have your orders, so I suggest you get us the bloody hell to Gibraltar as soon as possible.”CHAPTER 21
ROME – THE VATICAN
Matching the mood inside the Apostolic Palace, sweeping rain clouds from the east cast a looming shadow over Vatican City as Father Enzo Corelli peered down from a third-story window into the canyon-like expanse of theSan Damasocourtyard. For the past two days the pope’s private secretary had watched a seemingly endless parade of limos deposit cardinals from all over the world in front of the palace following the news of Pope Michael’s disappearance.
From his perch inside the Papal Apartments, Corelli frowned when he saw the imposing figure of Cardinal Nevio Tucci exit a dark blue Mercedes and hurry toward the palace, his red robes brushing the smooth cobblestones. It was well known in Vatican circles that Father Corelli and Cardinal Tucci had a history, and it hadn’t always been a pleasant one. In Corelli’s mind, Tucci was nothing more than an officious-acting bureaucrat who had risen within the Curia to a position of considerable power, thus necessitating frequent meetings with the pope. But since it was Corelli who controlled the pope’s schedule, and thus access to the Holy Father himself, the two had locked horns on more than one occasion when Corelli had informed the cardinal that his request for an audience with the pope was denied because the matter at hand was too trivial to interrupt the pope’s impossibly busy schedule.
Once inside the palace, Tucci was hustled through the marble corridors of power to an elevator that would take him to a secret underground conference room two floors below. Modeled after the situation room located beneath the White House in Washington D.C., the recently constructed Vatican conference center was much larger than its American counterpart, for it was designed to hold several hundred Church leaders in times of crisis—and this was a crisis unlike any before in Church history.
Stepping from the elevator, the cardinal was stopped at the door by two security men dressed in dark blue suits. “Good afternoon, Cardinal. May we please see your identification papers?”
“What! Do you know who I am? I supervised the construction of this facility ... and now I must show identification to enter?”
“We’re very sorry, Your Eminence, but we have our orders. You above all others should appreciate the steps we are taking to assure the safety of everyone who enters.”
The cardinal’s mouth twisted into a snarl. “And maybe you should have been taking security a little more seriously when the Holy Father went missing.”
The security men’s eyes remained fixed on the cardinal’s contorted face as they continued to block his path. “Your papers, sir.”
Reaching inside his robes, the cardinal withdrew an official Vatican picture ID and held it out at arm’s length.
“Thank you, Your Eminence. This way please.” The two unsmiling men escorted the cardinal to a full body scanner before finally releasing him to pass through two steel doors into a room that resembled a theater. Pausing in the doorway, Tucci’s ears were assaulted by the din of over a hundred cardinals talking all at once as he looked out over a sea of red.
As news from around the world flashed up on the large screen at the far end of the room, the cardinal walked down a sloping aisle past a scene of controlled chaos before stepping behind a podium below the screen. “May I have your attention, please?”
The room instantly stilled as the cardinal’s eyes roamed the rows of seats that rose toward the back wall. “Before we get started, we will offer our silent prayers for the safety of the Holy Father.”
After a brief interlude of silent prayer, the cardinal withdrew a white handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow as he cleared his throat. “Good morning, Cardinals. Because time is of the essence, I will get right to the point. As all of you know by now, the Holy Father has disappeared. The Swiss Guard and the Italian authorities have launched a massive search, but as of this moment we still have no idea what could have precipitated this event. Vatican City has been searched from top to bottom, as has most of Rome, yet no trace of the Holy Father has been found ... not even a note. It is also my sad duty to report that Cardinal Leopold Amodeo is also missing ... another deeply disturbing development in an already distressing situation. His good friend, Bishop Anthony Morelli, has just returned from Israel and will be joining us here shortly.”
A subdued murmur arose around the room as the cardinal struggled to continue. “Under the circumstances, our duty now is to provide leadership for the Church, and it is to that end that we must consider electing someone to take the Holy Father’s place until he returns.”
A chorus of angry voices greeted the cardinal’s ears, but he had anticipated this. Reaching under his robes, he produced an envelope with an official papal seal that had been broken. “I hold in my hands a letter addressed to the College of Cardinals. It was found in the pope’s safe this morning by his personal secretary, and it contains instructions from the Holy Father himself. In his own words, the pope has left us a guide to follow should he ever be incapacitated or disappear without proof of his death. According to what I have read, it is his wish that we all meet to elect a temporary leader until he is able to resume his sacred duties.”
Cardinal Ian McCulley raised his hand. A hulking ex-cop from New York City, McCulley had traded in his badge to become a Jesuit priest, eventually becoming one of the most trusted cardinals within the pope’s tight circle of friends. “Are we talking about the day-to-day running of Church business,” McCulley asked, “or are we talking about electing someone to step in and become the actual spiritual leader of our faith?”
Tucci shifted uneasily behind the podium and cleared his throat once again. “Uh ... I’m afraid that part is unclear, Cardinal.”
Angry shouts once again filled the room before Tucci called for order. “Please, gentlemen ... please. We must remain calm. Any dissention within our ranks will only serve to make an already painful task even more difficult. Please try to keep in mind that I am only the messenger. Personally I believe we’re being a little premature here, but the Church has clear rules that must be followed in the absence of a functioning leader. We all know that no one can truly fill the Holy Father’s shoes, but should he ever be unable to perform his duties, the day-to-day administration of the Church falls to the Secretary of State. Since Cardinal Leo is also missing, then it would be the camerlengo who would step in and run the affairs of the Church until the pope returns.”
Cardinal McCulley continued watching the reactions of those around him as eyes that had once patrolled crime-ridden ghetto streets caught every glance and every change in body language, no matter how slight. “It is my understanding that the camerlengo is responsible only for the running of the government of the Church duringsede vacante ...the vacant seat ... the period after the pope dies and before a new one is elected by the College of Cardinals. We have no evidence that the pope is dead.”
“That is true, Cardinal McCulley,” Tucci replied, “however, nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of the Church. What we’re facing here is aninterregnum ... a period of discontinuity. The closest the Church has come to a situation like this was when Pope Pius XI was on his deathbed and Eugenio Pacelli, who held the position of Secretary of State as well as that of camerlengo, stepped in to keep things running. Now, with Cardinal Leo also missing, we must rely on our camerlengo, Father Leonardo Vespa, to step in and fulfill his duties as the overseer of the curia until the Holy Father returns.”
McCulley continued standing. “But Father Vespa is only a priest, and this is not a period ofsede vacante ... at least not yet. What about Cardinal Delacroix ... the Dean of the College of Cardinals? He has been designated theprimus inter pares ...the first among equals. Why not let him run things until the Holy Father returns?”
“Another Jesuit, Cardinal McCulley?” A thin cardinal with a thick, raspy voice stood and waved a crooked finger in the air. “We are not all Jesuits here!”
“Are we not all of one faith here, Cardinal?” McCulley asked. “Do we not speak with one voice? We must still the hostility that has become all too evident over the past several months. If anyone here is offended by our Holy Father’s decision to allow only Jesuits into his inner circle, then I suggest you ask yourselves why? Look around you. Who would you have run the Church now? As we sit here arguing among ourselves, a dark star hovers overhead ... a sign to the world that a period of spiritual warfare is imminent, and our Holy Father may be the first casualty in that war. Now is not the time to fight among ourselves, but to join together in his absence. A war doesn’t stop when a general falls on the field of battle. We must pick up his flag and continue the fight while we pray he returns.”
A tall, black cardinal representing an African diocese stood in the front row. “Maybe the Holy Father is testing us!”
“We are all tested on a daily basis,” McCulley shot back, “but I can assure you that the pope would never pull a stunt like this just to test our ability to react in a crisis. The disappearance of a pope is a world-shattering event, one that could potentially trigger panic among the faithful. The decision of who shall run the Church in the absence of our Holy Father will have far-reaching effects, and we must speak with a unified voice. We are all brothers here together... brothers with many voices in the service of our God, and it is our duty as cardinals to find the right path. We are about to make Church history, and the choices we make in the next few hours could well decide whether we will win or lose our fight with the evil that is headed our way. No decision made by man will ever be one hundred percent correct, but I caution you that someday the light of the future will undoubtedly reach back in time and shine down upon this gathering to reveal the wisdom of our decisions.”
An elderly cardinal stood, wavering on his cane. “Since Cardinal McCulley oversees the Vatican intelligence section, I for one would like to ask him how it is that the Holy Father managed to disappear from Vatican City without anyone seeing him leave.”
McCulley glanced over at the man with the short-cropped military-style haircut seated next to him. “Since I’ve just arrived from out of town, I’m going to defer any questions concerning the pope’s alleged disappearance to our trusted friend, Commander Francois Leander, the head of the Swiss Guard.”
The raspy voice once again sounded from the back of the room. “I would think this matter would fall under the auspices of the Vatican’s intelligence section, Cardinal McCulley. Surely you can tell us something of this mystery without deferring to the Swiss Guard.”
Turning in his seat, McCulley knew without looking that the gravelly voice belonged to Cardinal Serafino ‘Fino’ Acone, a Dominican cardinal with a mysterious past who rarely visited Vatican City, much to the relief of the other cardinals in the room.
McCulley exhaled impatiently. “May I remind you, Cardinal Acone, that the Vatican’s intelligence service is tasked only with information gathered outside the borders of Vatican City. However, in answer to your question, none of our sources have heard anything of value pertaining to the pope’s sudden disappearance. As of late we’ve been working overtime in our efforts to prevent attacks against the Church from terrorist networks around the world who are involved in an all-out war against the followers of Christ. Just last week, Muslim extremists in Nigeria killed over five hundred Christians in separate church bombings. My plane had just landed there when I was informed of the pope’s disappearance. If you want to ask questions about security here in Vatican City, I would once again invite you to direct your questions to Commander Leander of the Swiss Guard.”
Without waiting for Acone to respond, Francois Leander stood and pointed to a color-coded map of Vatican City on the large screen behind the podium. “Over the course of the past two years, we’ve been upgrading our security capabilities to match those of any government on Earth, and the facility we are now sitting in is the result of just one of those upgrades. In addition to the hundreds of human eyes watching everything that goes on inside the walls of Vatican City, we have installed cameras on every rooftop and in every imaginable corner of every building. We’ve also added the most advanced biological, chemical and radioactive scanners currently available, and we feel confident that our sensors can sniff out any potential threat within a mile of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Added to that, anyone entering or leaving Vatican City is carefully screened and is subject to a full body scan, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The rest is classified.”
Cardinal Acone stood once again to hurl a patronizing comment at Leander. “Then pray tell, Commander Leander, how, with all of this security, could the Holy Father disappear into thin air?”
Leander’s eyes didn’t blink. “That I cannot tell you, Cardinal. We’ve looked at all the digital recordings and were able to document the movements of the Holy Father up until the time he disappeared. Up to now we’ve found nothing out of the ordinary. As for Cardinal Amodeo, he refused a Vatican security detail when he left for Turkey with Bishop Morelli on an archaeological dig. We currently have men on the ground there who are now working with Turkish authorities in a search that encompasses almost five hundred square miles.”
“Well, clearly something has happened to both the pope and Cardinal Amodeo ... yet you with all of your high tech security measures appear to have failed miserably.”
Leander remained ramrod straight, his eyes locked with those of Acone. “Yes ... clearly something has happened, Cardinal. When Father Corelli went to awaken the Holy Father for breakfast two days ago, he was nowhere to be found. Apparently his bed had not been slept in, and even the nuns who watch over him saw and heard nothing out of the ordinary during the night. As far as Cardinal Leo is concerned, he was in a very remote part of Turkey. We’re hoping that he is just out of reach and will be contacting us soon.”
“Or with his girlfriend,” Acone’s raspy voice responded.
Leander paused as he gripped the seat in front of him to avoid becoming embroiled in a verbal conflict with the cardinal. “Are there any other questions?”
Cardinal Tucci blinked at the two men as he mopped the sweat from his brow once again and looked out at a sea of questioning eyes facing the podium. “I believe the commander has told us all that he knows, and at this point I think we should let him get back to his work. Thank you, Francois. We are all aware of how hard you and your men work to protect the Holy City.”
Holding his back erect, Leander gathered up his briefing papers and left the room just as a young priest walked up on stage and handed a note to Cardinal Tucci.
“Ah ... good. It appears that Cardinal Delacroix has just arrived in Vatican City, as has Bishop Morelli. As soon as they join us we shall begin the vote.”CHAPTER 22
The ship-sail outline of the towering Rock of Gibraltar appeared to be floating on the horizon when the Israeli subTekumarose from the depths and bobbed at the rendezvous point. Less than a minute later, the sea boiled a hundred yards away when the bow of theHMS Ambushshot into the air and splashed back down with all the force of a giant whale breeching the surface.
For several minutes the officers of the two subs stared at one another through their binoculars, each wondering if they were following the correct protocol for a secret meeting at sea between two submarines from different countries. With their sophisticated sonar, each had known the exact position of the other when they had approached the rendezvous point below the surface, but because the encrypted satellite phones they normally used on the surface had been compromised, they were forced to use powerful lights to flash messages to one another across the water.
Finally, the captain of the British sub gave the order, and within minutes a rubber boat from theAmbushwas motoring through the swells toward theTekuma. Standing on the deck of the Israeli sub and breathing in fresh air for the first time in two days, Leo and Lev counted two British crewmembers and nine passengers. In addition to Alon and the four Israeli security men who had accompanied him to Paris, they could see John and Ariella, Eduardo Acerbi, plus someone else.
“Who’s that tall guy sitting behind Ariella?” Lev asked.
Leo strained to see. “I don’t believe it! That’s Pope Michael!”
Lev’s eyes widened. “What the ...
As soon as the small boat had closed to within twenty yards of theTekuma, the two men could clearly see Pope Michael clinging to the side, his blond hair blowing in the wind as he ignored the sea spray stinging his eyes.
Transfixed by the scene, Leo found himself holding back when the nine passengers clamored aboard the Israeli sub and waved to the British sailors who were already heading back toward theAmbushat full speed.
“Leopold ... are you alright?”
Stirred from his reverie, Leo saw that the pope was standing right in front of him. “Your Holiness ... yes, of course. I was just surprised to see you here.”
“We have much to discuss, Cardinal. Everything will be revealed in time.”
The Klaxon dive horn on theHMS Ambushinterrupted the reunion on the deck of theTekumaas everyone watched the British sub disappear beneath the blue surface of the Mediterranean Sea in a frothy swirl, the only sign that remained of the sub’s brief visit with the surface.
As soon as they were gone, Leo saw the Israeli submariners pointing at a sail that had suddenly appeared on the horizon—and it was headed straight for them. Strangely, theTekumamade no attempt to evade being spotted by the approaching sailboat, for its arrival had been planned well in advance. Closing in on the sub, the forty-five-foot sloop was only a boat-length away when her crew turned into the wind and quickly lowered the sails before motoring up alongside the sub’s black hull and bobbing to a stop.
“What’s this?” Leo asked. He watched fascinated as a scraggly-looking young man and a girl wearing a T-shirt over a tiny bikini expertly tied the bow and stern lines to the sub’s retractable cleats before hopping onboard—all without being challenged by the Israeli crew.
After two days without a smoke, Lev lit one of his beloved stogies with a match. “Must be a couple of Danny Zamir’s people.”
“That would be my guess,” Alon said. “Those people have Mossad written all over them.”
The group continued to watch as theTekuma’ssecurity officer climbed up on deck and consulted with the young couple before walking over to speak with Lev. “We’re transferring all of you to the sailboat. As you’ve probably already guessed, Professor, that hippie-looking couple are employed by the Mossad, and you’ll be sailing with them the rest of the way into the harbor at Gibraltar. You’ll all have to hurry, because we’re sitting in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and we don’t have much time. We have to submerge before the next surveillance satellite passes overhead six minutes from now.”
“That’s cutting it pretty close,” John said.
“Yes it is my young friend. That’s why you need to hurry.”
The security officer frowned at the military shirts and pants worn by the group that had just arrived from theAmbush. “Why did they do that?”
“Do what?” John asked.
“Why did the British crew give you clothes like that to wear?”
“Our clothes were wet so they gave us these.”
“We need you to look like tourists on holiday. If anyone’s paying attention when you arrive in Gibraltar, those uniforms will give the entire mission away.”
Listening to the conversation, the scraggly-looking man yelled from the sailboat. “Satellite in five minutes! Don’t worry about what they’re wearing. We have civilian clothes down in the forward locker. Get those people onboard now!”
Two minutes later the sailboat was backing away from theTekumaas the sub’s ballast tanks flooded and she dove below the surface with a full minute to spare before the surveillance satellite came into range and snapped a picture of a lone sailboat gliding peacefully over the swells of the Mediterranean.
As soon as the sailboat rounded the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula, the group rummaged through a pile of loose-fitting, summery clothes in the sailboat’s forward locker, all the while speculating about the prospects of cold beer and boiled shellfish in a seaside café after they docked. Motoring through the narrow channel lined with sharp rocks, the youthful skipper expertly guided the boat into the crowded civilian yacht harbor and docked in a pre-arranged slip manned by a lone customs officer who quickly cleared them with a wink.
Handing out baseball hats and sunglasses to further disguise their disembarking passengers, the two Mossad agents pointed to a white van parked at the end of the dock. By now it was high noon, and it was obvious that there would be no cold beer or boiled shellfish waiting for them in some picturesque seaside café as they climbed into the van.
Towering above them, the famous outline of the Rock of Gibraltar dominated the scene as the van’s driver weaved his way through tight crowded streets before stopping at the base of the rock next to a nondescript metal warehouse surrounded by a chain link fence. Looking above their heads from inside the van, Alon remarked that a single bolder falling from above would almost certainly take out a large portion of the building they were obviously preparing to enter.
“Really, Alon,” Ariella giggled. “Are potential falling boulders really part of your constant threat assessments?”
“You know, Ariella,” Alon said, sliding the van’s door open, “you just reminded me that I’m starting to miss Nava. That’s exactly the type of thing she would say to me right about now.”
Alon’s comment about missing Nava had jolted Leo with the sudden realization that Evita was probably only a few hundred miles away across the Spanish border. It actually felt like his heart was aching. He wanted to walk away and hail the closest taxi. In a few minutes he could be at the airport, and in a few hours he could be holding her in his arms, whispering into her ear that they would never be apart again.
“What’s inside?” Lev asked the driver, the sound of his voice suddenly vaporizing Leo’s thoughts of romantic escape.
The driver turned in his seat. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
Lev pointed through the windshield at the front of the warehouse. “I asked what’s inside.”
“Oh ... the warehouse. It’s only a front. Once we’re inside we’ll be taking the train.”
Alon looked back at the four Israeli security men and instinctively reached for the Sig 9mm pistol tucked into his waistband as they entered the warehouse and walked between stacks of wooden crates to a glass-enclosed office. Once everyone was inside, the driver closed the door and hit a switch behind a file cabinet. Instantly the windows turned opaque. He then hit another switch and the entire back wall began to slide away, revealing a dimly lit tunnel and a small electric engine attached to three open cars on a narrow track that stretched off into the distance.
“Hop in everyone.” The driver hit another switch and the false wall behind them slid shut with a definitive metal clang.No walking away now.
“You sound British,” Leo heard Alon say to the driver. “We were under the impression that this was an Israeli operation.”
“I’m as British as they come, mate. My name is Graham Childs. The Rock of Gibraltar is British territory, and I work for MI6 as a field analyst. That means I gather information in a field office instead of being cooped up in a cubicle at headquarters back in London.” Childs looked around at the strange group staring back at him, especially the old man and the tall guy with the piercing blue eyes. “I would have thought that at least some of you would have figured out by now that this is a joint British and Israeli operation. I mean, what with two subs from both our countries working together to bring you here. Didn’t Mr. Zamir tell you anything?”
“We can’t discuss what Mr. Zamir might or might not have said,” Alon replied in a low voice. “Where are we going?”
Eduardo Acerbi stepped from his place at the back of the group. “We’re going wherever this little train takes us, Mr. Lavi.” It was the first time the old man had spoken since he had left the confines of the British sub. “Time is of the essence, so I suggest we allow this young fellow to do his job.”
“Right then,” Childs said, grinning at Alon. “All aboard?”
Alon hopped into the first open car, his hulking mass causing it to tip sideways while the rest settled onto the bench-type wooden seats behind him. Starting the tiny engine, Childs slammed it into gear, and within seconds they were whizzing silently through a twisting tunnel that angled upward into the center of the massive limestone hump known as the Rock of Gibraltar.
As rows of yellow lights in the ceiling zipped by overhead, they saw other side tunnels branching off into unlit spaces. It was anyone’s guess as to where they led, making the trip seem even more mysterious as the tiny train swerved to the left around a bend and climbed once again in a final struggle with gravity until they entered a brightly lit space that resembled a miniature subway station and squealed to an abrupt halt alongside a concrete platform.
Jumping from the cab, Childs waited for everyone to exit the cars, and like a tour guide he motioned for the group to gather around. “In case any of you are wondering, we’re now standing in the exact center of the Rock. As I mentioned before, this is British territory, and we’ve been fortifying this massive piece of real estate since the 18thcentury. This place is honeycombed with tunnels and natural caves, but the most extensive tunneling was done during World War II. The area we’re standing in now was actually constructed during the Cold War in the late 1950’s to be used as a bomb shelter in the event of a nuclear war. Unfortunately, limestone isn’t as strong as granite, which means that the monkeys who live on the surface wouldn’t be the only victims of a direct hit by a nuclear bomb. For that reason, this shelter has been taken off the list of places to go in the event of a first strike. Please, follow me. I’ll take you to your quarters.”
“Our quarters?” Lev looked back at the others. “I was under the impression that we were just here for a short meeting.”
“You are, sir. However many of the other participants are still making their way here, so the actual briefing won’t be taking place until later this afternoon, and we were told you would all probably be staying overnight. The accommodations are a little dated, but I think you’ll find them adequate for the brief time you’ll be staying here.”
Childs smiled as he stopped in front of a pair of tall steel doors. “I believe I overheard someone mention cold beer and prawns when we were in the van. I don’t know about the prawns, but I think I might know where I can find some cold beer. This way please.”CHAPTER 23
For several minutes, Evita Vargas stared into the mirror and brushed her hair before finally deciding to walk to her favorite café. Smoothing her silk blouse, she closed the door to her Madrid apartment and stepped out into a narrow cobblestoned street pulsing with foot traffic and the occasional motor scooter that wove between pedestrians in the well-rehearsed dance of Spanish urban harmony.
The small café sat just across the street from a tree-covered square where mothers played with their children while their husbands were either at work or looking for work in a country where the unemployment rate had reached a staggering twenty-six percent. These were hard times for Spain, as in other parts of the world, and the smoke-stained walls of the café bore witness to the fact that fewer customers now lingered over a steaming cup ofcafé con lecheas they read their papers or peered into the glowing blue screens of their laptops.
In fact, due to the global economic crunch, the leisurely pace that had once dominated Spanish life was rapidly evaporating in the push to abandon centuries-old traditions in favor of greater corporate productivity. Traditionally, most Spaniards had once taken a long afternoon break from work to enjoyla comida, the long midday meal followed by a siesta. The entire country had once closed up shop from 2pm to 5pm, but recently Evita had begun to see a change in the placid culture she had been born into.
Now, instead of walking or biking to work, many people spent over an hour commuting long distances to their jobs in cars, making leisurely lunch breaks impractical, and many shops now remained open during a time that was once considered sacrosanct in a society that had valued the balance between work and rest. Even the Spanish government had decided to institute a standard eight-hour work day with a one hour lunch break, all in the interest of greater efficiency.But were the people really better off with all of these new changes?
As Evita sipped her milk-laced coffee and peered through the café’s windows, her large brown eyes mirrored the sadness inside. Her decision to take a break from her relationship with the cardinal had been intended to give her some distance from the intensity of the situation and allow her to sort through her true feelings, but instead, the separation had only filled her with loneliness and a longing to return to the emotional familiarity of the man who loved her.
Grabbing her purse, she left a few coins on the table and walked out into the sunshine for the short stroll to her office at the university. A tenured professor of epidemiology, she was allowed to come and go pretty much as she pleased—a convenient perk when one is also a member of Spain’sCentro National de Inteligencia, a counterpart to the American CIA or Britain’s MI6.
It was this same dual role that had brought her into contact with the cardinal to begin with, when they had chased a madman halfway around the world the year before in an effort to head off a global biological catastrophe. She hadn’t meant to fall in love. In fact, that was the last thing she had wanted to do, but fall in love she had, and now, for better or worse, she was destined to live with the consequences of that little four letter word.
Walking onto the campus, the curved outline of the modernistic science building loomed overhead as she entered through a row of glass doors. “Hold the elevator!” she called out, running toward the stainless-steel doors that were bouncing off the reluctant arm of a man inside who had heard her plea.
“My pleasure, Miss,” the man said. Wearing a striking blue coat and a tweed Scottish rain hat, he appeared to be in his early sixties. “Are you a student here?”
“No, actually I’m a professor. And you are?”
“I’m here to see you, Evita.”
Trying to maintain a neutral expression, Evita slowly reached her shaking right hand into her purse and gripped the butt of a small .22 caliber Beretta pistol. “How do you know my name?”
“I’m acquainted with the names of many who believe in the spirit of light, my dear.”
Evita’s eyes widened as she stared into a face that radiated serenity. “Who are you?”
“My name is Julian Wehling. I was born in France to English parents but I live in England now. I teach Medieval European history at Cambridge.”
“What do you want with me?”
“A few minutes of your time ... nothing else.” The doors to the elevator slid open and Evita quickly stepped out.
“Your office is on the next floor, Ms. Vargas, and you can release your grip on the gun in your purse. I mean you no harm.”
“I’ll keep my hand right where it is, especially when I’m talking to a complete stranger who seems to know so much about me when I know absolutely nothing about him.”
“A situation I am endeavoring to correct if you will give me a chance.”
Two giggling female students brushed past and stepped into the elevator. “Up or down?” one called out.
Evita studied the man for a moment. “One cup of coffee in a public place.”
The man smiled and extended a hand toward the open doorway of the elevator. “Down, please.”CHAPTER 24
After they left the small train platform, Leo and the others followed the young MI6 analyst through a pair of tall steel blast doors into a concrete labyrinth of passageways that snaked through an old Cold War bunker. Turning a corner, they entered a blue-carpeted and slightly musty-smelling reception room that still retained the aura of the period in which it had been built. Furniture from the 1960’s sprinkled the room with the colors of avocado, gold, and turquoise, and at the far end of the room a fully stocked bar sat beneath the reproduction of a large Jackson Pollack painting.
Lev’s senses reeled at the nostalgic ambiance of the setting. “I feel like I’ve just stepped back in time. This place looks exactly like the bar at the old country club my parents used to belong to.”
“If it was in Israel, it was probably decorated by the same British designers who did up this place,” Childs said. He picked up a copy of Life magazine and thumbed through the pages before laying it back down on a Swedish coffee table. “Like I said before, this place was constructed back in the late fifty’s and early sixty’s. Obviously they haven’t changed the furniture ... or much else for that matter.”
John walked to the bar and ran a hand along the carved mahogany edge. “I kinda like it ... very retro. If your government ever decides to sell off any of this stuff ...
Childs grinned. “I’m afraid the home office hasn’t authorized a garage sale just yet, old boy, but you’re welcome to check back next year. I hear they’re thinking of closing this facility down soon. Anyone up for a cocktail before lunch?”
The group shook their heads in unison, preferring instead to wait until after the meeting.
“No, I suppose not,” Childs said. “Old habit of mine, actually. Comes from the time when I was stationed with the officer corps at the old British embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. There really wasn’t much for us to do there except play cards, watch old movies, and drink. The bloody heat was miserable.”
Childs smiled at his captive audience and pointed toward a long hallway off to his right. “There are bedrooms down that hall there. They were built to hold members of parliament and high-ranking military officers in the event of a nuclear war ... people like fleet admirals and generals ... people like that, so despite the dated look of the place I believe you’ll find that the accommodations are quite plush even by today’s standards. I had the stewards change all the linens this morning and lunch is waiting for you in the dining hall downstairs. Shall we have a look at what the chefs have cooked up for you?”
Acerbi nodded in agreement. “That sounds wonderful, Mr. Childs.”
“OK then ... follow me.”
Alon turned to the four Israeli security men. “I want two of you to stand outside the entrance to this room. The other two will come with us. Anything happens ... and I mean anything at all, I want to hear about it right away.”
“Yes, sir,” the ranking man said. He checked his gun and nodded to the others before walking out into the hallway. With their escape route now covered, the group clomped down around a curved concrete stairway and entered a dining hall that looked as if it had been transplanted from the inside of a battleship. Long metal tables covered with green table cloths filled one side of the space, while on the opposite side of the long room, a cafeteria-style steam table sat in front of a pair of stainless steel doors that led back into the kitchen.
To those who had been on ships before, it was quickly becoming evident that this facility had been built to Royal Navy standards, and after filling their metal trays with hot food from the spotless steam table, all the myths about bad navy food rapidly began to disappear. The food was delicious.
Lifting a piece of plain white bread from a plate in the center of the table, Leo was busy mopping up some thick brown gravy around a large piece of pot roast when he heard voices behind them.
“Ah, they told us we would find you all down here. Mind if we join you?”
Seven heads swiveled in unison to see Danny Zamir standing at the bottom of the concrete stairwell next to a group of very serious-looking men and one woman.
Lev Wasserman took a swig of iced tea and raised his fork in salute. “I had a feeling you would be at this meeting, Danny. How did you get here?”
Zamir walked over and slapped his old friend on the shoulder. “An old DC-3 aircraft along the coast of North Africa, then a small speedboat across the Strait. Apparently, the older aircraft the charter outfits use to fly supplies around the third world are pretty much invisible because they haven’t been updated with the newest computer-based navigational equipment.”
“Well, it looks like we’re all here,” Lev said. “What’s going on, Danny?”
“That’s what we’re all here to find out. All we’ve been told is that it concerns the computer worm, and apparently the man with all the answers is sitting right next to you.” Danny pointed to Eduardo Acerbi, who continued eating as if he hadn’t had a decent meal in days.
“He hasn’t said a word to us yet,” Leo said, looking at Eduardo, “but I think it’s about high time someone put their cards out on the table.”
Eduardo took a final bite and winked at Pope Michael as he laid his napkin on the table. “Once again our friend the cardinal reminds us that he has the heart of a warrior and that his patience wears thin, so let’s get started. Are any of our new arrivals hungry?”
“I’m famished,” a petite, dark-haired woman answered. “We haven’t eaten since we left our hotel rooms in the middle of the night.”
“Then I suggest you grab some of that delicious food over there and join us.” Eduardo’s frail hands trembled as he poured some tea. “I would prefer to hold our briefing here in this mess hall rather than return to the plush reception room upstairs where all the high level security briefings usually take place. I have a feeling that room is filled with electronic bugs.”
Knowing glances shot around the room as the new arrivals plated their food and took their seats. From the lack of happy chatter, it was immediately obvious to Leo that he was sitting in the presence of people who did very little talking, especially around strangers. Two days earlier, this select group of intelligence specialists had been summoned to this meeting through intermediaries representing Eduardo Acerbi. They had all traveled openly to a NATO base outside Madrid under the guise of a hastily arranged summit meeting convened to address the escalating problems with Iran, and after spending a long day involved in tedious security briefings on the Middle East, they had retired to their hotel rooms to await individual calls. At three in the morning the calls came. Removing the batteries from their smart phones, they quietly slipped into the hallways outside their rooms and walked beneath security cameras that had been disabled.
Once outside the hotel, they made their way down a nearby side street where they found several specially marked cars parked along the curb. All of the cars were at least twenty years old, an essential part of the plan since they lacked any internal computer chips or GPS tracking devices, making them electronically invisible to anyone who wanted to track their movements. The only thing they had to worry about now was the facial recognition capability of the police traffic cameras that lined the highway to Gibraltar, but that obstacle had also been anticipated and was easily neutralized through the use of an invisible reflective polymer embedded into special windshields that had been installed in each car.
Armed only with the knowledge that they were on their way to a meeting concerning the computer worm that had struck Israel, the participants were anxious to hear what information the Israelis had managed to gather about the mysterious cyber attack. A cyber attack anywhere in the world had great national security implications for any country, so when they had received orders telling them to drop everything and make their way to Gibraltar in twenty-year-old cars, this covert group who had lived in the shadows for most of their adult lives thought nothing of making their way to a meeting that was about as shadowy as they came.
Seated up and down the long metal table, the list of attendees was impressive. The first to be introduced by Danny Zamir was Doug Peterson, the deputy director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Better known to those within the agency as the DDCI, Peterson had been recruited from the ranks of the military’s Special Forces Command by his former commander and current director of the CIA. After leading several spectacularly successful missions in Afghanistan, he had risen through the ranks, and in less than five years he had been promoted to his present position as underboss in one of America’s premier intelligence-gathering institutions.
Accompanying him was a thin, hawkish man by the name of Carl Smith, who was introduced as the man who headed up the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center and Analysis Group, the section that oversaw cyber warfare operations. He was happily chatting up Shane Trent, a close friend who worked at the National Security Administration and had been a pioneer in the development of computer viruses and worms used to hack computer and communications systems used by rogue nations and terrorist groups.
Seated across the table from them was a dark-haired woman who turned out to be the senior cryptologist for MI6. Her name was Gwyneth Hastings, and she was listening with rapt attention to Smith and Trent, for in the cyber warfare world the two men enjoyed the status of rock stars.
The final two members of the newly arrived group were less well-known to the others. The first, Clyde Richards, hailed from the ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and the other, Daaruk Khadri, a slight, dark-skinned man with intelligent shining eyes, was a ranking officer in the DIA—India’s Defense Intelligence Agency charged with psychological operations, cyber-warfare, electronic intercepts, and the monitoring of sound waves—a new threat the Indian government had seen lurking on the horizon.
Looking around the room at all the impatient faces staring back at him, Eduardo Acerbi leaned forward on the green tablecloth and cleared his throat. “First off, I’d like to welcome everyone to this meeting. The very fact that you are all here is a testament to our ability to communicate the seriousness of our situation to your superiors ... a situation that grows more menacing by the hour and, if I am correct, will have world-wide implications for every man, woman and child on the planet in the weeks to come. In case none of you have noticed, we are joined by His Holiness, Pope Michael.”
All eyes turned toward the tall blond-haired man wearing a black sweater seated at the end of the table.
Gwyneth Hastings was the first to break the awkward silence. “I don’t want to be the one to rain on anyone’s parade, but this is without a doubt the strangest intelligence briefing I’ve ever attended. I can tell you right up front that I have no intention of discussing any classified material in front of a group of civilians, including a businessman who now lives in Iraq after his late son tried to wipe out half the planet ... nor should I feel obligated to divulge anything to a church leader who I doubt possesses anything even remotely resembling a security clearance ... even if he is the pope.”
An awkward silence followed as everyone waited for Pope Michael’s reaction. “Well put, Ms. Hastings, but I must inform you that, as the head of the Catholic Church, I’m also the sovereign ruler of a country, and therefore I possess the highest security clearance in that country. I might also add that I answer to a higher power, and I give you my solemn vow that nothing of what we discuss here today will pass from my lips without your prior approval.”
Hastings’ face turned crimson with the realization that she had just spoken to a man many believed to be Christ’s Vicar here on Earth, and she had done so in the same manner and tone she usually reserved for the frequent head-butting sessions that she had been forced to endure for years in the male-dominated, rough-and-tumble-world of intelligence gathering. Not only that, but she had probably just offended a sitting head of state. Taking in a deep breath, she pursed her lips and lowered her head briefly before peering back up into the pope’s blue eyes. “My apologies, Your Holiness. That was incredibly rude of me. Please forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Ms. Hastings. You’re obviously a very talented professional, or you wouldn’t be sitting at this table right now. Personally I’m relieved to hear that you take matters of secrecy so seriously, and as far as Mr. Acerbi is concerned, I must argue in his defense that he saved millions of lives by putting a stop to his son’s murderous rampage ... at great personal cost to himself I might add.”
Hastings was taken aback by the pope’s calm demeanor. “Of course, and my apologies to you as well, Mr. Acerbi.”
Folding his thin arms across a short-sleeved, white shirt, Daaruk Khadri sat back from the table as he took in every word. There was still one question on everyone’s mind that had not yet been addressed, and he intended to ask it before anything else was said. “Regardless of Ms. Hastings’ rather brusque approach, I happen to know that she’s still one of the best agents MI6 has ever sent into the field, and her concerns are valid. I don’t think it’s too much for us to ask why Pope Michael and Mr. Acerbi are sitting here, especially since neither of them are members of the scientific or intelligence communities. From what I’ve heard, Mr. Acerbi recently suffered a stroke, and the press is reporting that the pope has been missing from Rome for several days now without explanation.”
Eduardo lifted a trembling hand and silently refilled his cup of tea. Years spent in endless corporate battles had made him immune to the occasional insult laced with questions concerning personal motives behind his decisions. “Please, allow me to begin by saying that it was necessary for me to feign illness in order to escape from a rather delicate situation ... but more on that later. As for my association with Pope Michael, let me just say for now our two interests coincide and I’ll leave it for him to explain his absence from the Vatican.” Eduardo glanced up at the clock on the wall as a sudden tremor in his hands caused his drink to spill out onto the table.
“Are you alright, Mr. Acerbi?” Hastings asked, her eyes showing genuine concern.
“Yes, my dear. Thank you. The activity of the past few days has been a bit of a strain for a man of my age, so let me get right to the point. I’m sure by now that you have all been informed that the state of Israel has been dealt a crippling blow to their computer-based infrastructure. They’ve experienced a cyber attack the likes of which the world has never seen before, and it has reached into every corner of their computer-based technology. However, the most ominous thing about this attack is the power behind this computer worm. No government on Earth possesses the computing power needed to do what this thing is doing, and from what I’ve observed it’s fairly obvious that it’s about to spread around the globe via the internet and infect the computer infrastructures of every country on Earth.”
Carl Smith looked up from stirring a third spoon of sugar into his coffee. “I’m afraid I find that hard to believe. I mean, if a computer as powerful as you describe existed, the NSA would have come across some evidence of its existence by now.”
“I can assure you that I didn’t travel all the way here to make up some fantastic lie,” Acerbi said. “Think about it for a moment. What would be my motive? I’ve come here at great personal risk to tell you that every computer system in the world will soon be infected by an entity with a definite agenda in mind. The secure communications networks of every country on Earth will no longer be secure, and I’m talking about thousands of different ultra-secure software programs developed by some of the greatest minds in the field of computer science. Not only that, but security cameras all over the world will soon be serving as eyes for whoever is behind this, which means they’ll be able to watch the activities of millions of people all around the globe, including those in military and intelligence institutions. In the weeks to come, every government and personal computer currently plugged into the internet will be monitored by an unknown entity, and I haven’t even mentioned things like communications satellites, cell phones, and the power grid ... which includes nuclear power plants. The implications are terrifying. Everything from the family car to our household refrigerators are now run by computers, and soon all of them will be at the mercy of someone or something who’s created a computer powerful enough to do the things I’ve just described.”
Smith continued to stir his coffee without drinking. “May I ask how you came into possession of this information, Mr. Acerbi?”
“I’ve seen it. It’s in an underground facility six stories below my compound in Babylon.”
Zamir’s entire frame stiffened while some of the others either gasped in disbelief or rolled their eyes. Twirling a pencil in his hand, Shane Trent’s attention vacillated back and forth between Acerbi and the pope. “With all due respect to both of you, if what you say is true, then we should have computer scientists from all over the world sitting at the table with us right now. Do you have pictures, schematics, crude drawings ... anything to back up your story?”
“I’m afraid you have only my word. We’ve come here to appeal to you to send an armed force into Iraq and see for yourselves.”
“An armed force ... into Iraq?” Hastings sputtered. “Been there and done that. Remember the weapons of mass destruction that never materialized?”
“Which is exactly why they’ve located it there ... buried beneath the sands of the desert under the palace I purchased in Babylon.”
“And how pray tell did this monstrous computer get there without your knowledge?”
“Suffice it to say that it was done right under my nose using funds siphoned off my many business interests, and once the people who built it knew I was aware of its existence, my days were numbered. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the entire scope of their operation until I reached Paris and learned of the computer worm that had begun to spread around the world.” Acerbi paused for a moment as he stared at all the disbelieving faces glaring back at him. “There are forces at work here that none of you understand, but whether or not you believe me, I can assure you that everything I say is true. If you’d like, I’d be more than happy to call your bosses so that they can remind you of why you are all here, although at this point I can’t guarantee you that my call will be secure.”
Doug Peterson sipped his coffee without taking his eyes off Eduardo. “This isn’t a corporate boardroom, Mr. Acerbi, and whatever decisions we make here today concerning our future actions will be backed up by our bosses. I can also tell you that this so-called cyber takeover of the world sounds a bit like bad science fiction to me.” Peterson looked over at Gwyneth Hastings. “What about you, Gwyneth? Anything strange buzzing over at MI6 about a super computer we know nothing about?”
“No. We’re constantly monitoring for new viruses and worms, and to date we’ve uncovered every new computer that’s come out of the box. We have classified layers of security that are so effective and so secret that most computer security experts are unaware they even exist. We’d definitely know if there was some kind of monster computer out there that was capable of doing the kinds of things Mr. Acerbi just described.”
“Are you sure about that, Ms. Hastings?” Acerbi asked.
“Absolutely. Some of the best hackers in the world make runs at us every day, and I’m not just talking about some smart college student with some time on his hands, but the brilliant, lone-wolf types who drop out of places like MIT to become legends in the geek world of computerdom. Not once have any of these computer superstars made it past even our first and most basic layer of security. Frankly Mr. Acerbi, what you’ve just described is impossible.”
Danny Zamir slammed his fist down on the metal table with enough force to rattle dishes all the way to the other end. “Are you people kidding me? Israel is already experiencing a digital meltdown of biblical proportions, and the man who knows what’s happening is sitting right in front of you. We can’t afford to take this threat lightly, and if there’s even a small chance Mr. Acerbi is telling us the truth, then we must act. This isn’t exactly our first rodeo you know.”
Clyde Richards, the husky Australian, sat down next to Zamir after retrieving second helpings of bacon from the chow line.“I think we all realize this isn’t your first rodeo, Danny boy, but how do you know this cyber attack wasn’t just aimed at Israel? I mean, you people have enemies all around you who probably spend every waking moment of their lives trying to figure out how to break into your secure communications networks. If you’re looking for a bad guy in all of this, I’d be looking at Iran after the cyber attack you conducted against them last year.”
“Are you referring to operationOlympic Games?”