Read Sparkles Online

Authors: Michael Halfhill

Sparkles

Advertising Download Read Online
Sparkles

 

By Michael Halfhill

 

A Jan Phillips Story

 

A life cut short; unsolved robberies plaguing Philadelphia’s Jeweler’s Row; a cryptic message scrawled on a paper napkin; a Romanov prince; a young man held captive in Iran; a terrorist cell bent on revenge; and an opera company due to mount a rarely performed production of Handel’sAlexander’s Feast. What do these have to do with Jan Phillips?

One plunges Jan into a prolonged sadness. One leads him on a race to prevent a nuclear disaster. One offers Jan the promise of renewed love. One leads him to reluctantly wield his power as a Mundus master. One is bent on shattering thousands of lives beyond repair, while one unknowingly holds the key to the mystery that has baffled Philadelphia’s finest. Follow Jan as he untangles this Gordian knot that will alter his life in a way he never thought possible.

To my dear friend Ruth Simms whose support and encouragement made my Jan Phillips series a reality.

Acknowledgments

 

 

SHIRA ANTHONY,Betty Conley, Lisa Mills

See the Furies arise!

See the snakes that they rear,

How they hiss in their hair,

And the sparkles that flash in their eyes!

~G.F. Handel

Chapter 1

 

 

Philadelphia

 

THE CALLwas urgent and brief. “Come quickly—as soon as you can.”

Jan Phillips sped through the autumn-painted hills of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Leaves littering the narrow road flew up in a hurricane of color and then settled back into uneven drifts as the big car tore through them. Jan urged the Maserati Quattroporte’s massive engine ever faster, taking the switchback curves with increasing impatience.

The gate to the Mater Dei nursing home stood open. It was always open. As he passed through, Jan wondered, incongruous to the moment, if the good sisters ever closed it. Perhaps he would ask, perhaps not. He batted the idle thought away.

Jan parked in the visitors’ parking area. As he climbed out of the car, he snatched a lightweight overcoat from the passenger seat. Wrapping the coat around his shoulders, he pushed the car door shut and hurried inside the entrance to the main building. Just beyond the front doors, a young postulant sat at a desk. She looked up from a computer terminal and offered a comforting smile.

“Reverend Mother is in the garden, Mr. Phillips.”

Jan, who was normally courteous to a fault, dismissed the woman with a curt nod, then stopped and turned. “I’m sorry… I….”

“Please, Mr. Phillips, there’s no need. I understand.”

Jan smiled his thanks, then turned and hurried down a short corridor. Forgiveness seemed so easy here at Mater Dei—at least for the good of this world. Jan knew many good people. Unfortunately, he knew many bad ones too. Another troubling thought on a troubled day.

For five years Jan had walked this way every weekend, arriving late Friday afternoon and driving back into Philadelphia early Monday morning. So predictable was his routine that the nearby inn kept a suite of rooms reserved for him.

Jan pushed through a heavy glass door and walked out to a courtyard, its brick walls covered in dull green ivy, still stiff from the night’s cold. A tall middle-aged woman stood waiting. She wore a head-to-toe robe of dazzling white wool that was cinched at the waist with a thick white cord of equal brilliance. Her habit covered all but her face and hands. At her side, a rosary of black beads hung from the white waist cord.

To Jan, Sister Consolata looked like a being from a distant world—heaven? Perhaps one day he would ask, perhaps not.

Jan attempted a friendly smile that failed miserably on his lips. “Reverend Mother…?”

The nun clutched Jan’s hands and said in her soft, calm voice, “I’m so glad you could come, Mr. Phillips. He’s down by the duck pond. Please brace yourself. I’m afraid the end will be very soon. Come, we should hurry.”

“The duck pond!” Jan protested. “Shouldn’t he be in bed?”

“You know how he loves to watch the ducks. And frankly, what difference does it make where he is?”

Sister Consolata led Jan along a gravel path that wound through a grove of paper-white birch trees. Their gold-colored leaves shivered in the brisk afternoon air.

“Reverend Mother.”

The nun turned slightly, but kept walking. “Yes?”

“You know, Sister, I’ve never complained—well not really complained. But this! It’s so unfair. Why Michael? He’s still a young man, not even fifty.”

“Alzheimer’s is a disease that doesn’t respect age, Mr. Phillips. We have the young here, as well as the very old.”

Jan frowned. “Sometimes I wonder what God is up to.”

“God isn’t up to anything, Mr. Phillips. This isn’t a test of Michael’s enduring faith.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s a test for us, Mr. Phillips, for us.”

“I thought you said God isn’t testing us,” Jan replied.

“He’s not. We’re testing ourselves, and it’s been my experience that we usually pass.” The nun added a soft smile that transcended words. It was one of those eerily serene gestures that seemed reserved for candidates for sainthood.

Sister Consolata brought Jan to a low hedge that separated the woods from a wide lawn encircling a small pond. A broad-shouldered man in a pale blue uniform stood near a break in the hedge. Michael Lin, Jan’s life partner, sat slouched on a wooden park bench. He was dressed in a gray flannel jumpsuit; the cuffs were stuffed into fur-lined slippers, a heavy brown blanket wrapped around his thin legs. An empty wheelchair stood nearby.

“Joseph, this is Mr. Phillips.”

The two men shook hands.

“Why isn’t Michael in his chair?” Jan said impatiently. “Wouldn’t he be safer?”

“We thought you’d want to sit beside him. We’ll be here when you need us,” Joseph said softly.

Jan blushed with shame once more. Silently he reproved himself; first the young nun, and now this man.This is getting to be a habit that needs breaking.“Yes, I’m… ah… thank you, Joseph.”

Jan walked slowly toward Michael. He looked back to assure himself that Joseph and the nun were still there. He desperately needed someone to be there. He sat down and reached out, gently touching Michael’s thin shoulder. “Michael?”

Michael’s eyes fluttered open, closed, and then opened wide.

Stifling a sob, Jan said, “Hey there, Mr. Man. How ya doin’?”

Michael pointed a limp hand at a pair of mallards that had just landed in the water. The ducks jabbered at one another like an old married couple before settling into a graceful glide across to the opposite bank.

Michael pointed and grinned broadly.

Jan dug into his coat pocket for a softcover children’s book. Sister Consolata had told Jan that the ability to read was one of the disease’s last trophies. “You must understand, Mr. Phillips,” she had said. “Michael doesn’t remember the meaning of the words.”

As of a week ago Michael could still read. Still, he’d been warned that a brain or possibly a heart aneurism was very likely. Jan could see that Michael’s decline from just a few days ago was severe.

“Look, Michael. I got a book for you. It’s about a polar bear. His name is Snowy. See, he has white fur. The words are real big. Can you read what it says?” Jan closed his eyes lest they betray him with unchecked tears.Steady,steady. He held the book open.

Michael stared at the page for a few seconds, and then shook his head. He petted the bear’s faux fur on the page and murmured, “Nice.”

Just as Jan turned to search the hedgerow again for Sister Consolata’s reassuring face, he felt Michael slump against him.

“Michael? Michael! Oh…. No.” Jan sobbed. “No! Don’t go. Michael… please, don’t go!” Jan pressed his cheek against Michael’s already cooling skin and wept. “No, my sweet friend, I love you so much. Not now… not so soon.”

As he rocked Michael in a hard embrace, Jan felt as if his soul left him and had tried to join Michael’s, and that he was twirling in a free-fall through a void without any sensation save that of aloneness. Jan tried to remember—to remember every word, every smile, every moment of passion. Years of memories tumbled through his mind, colliding, spinning off, and then colliding again, finally settling on their first meeting.

“Mr. Lin, would you do me the honor of dining with me tonight? It would please me very much…. That’s if you don’t have plans already… perhaps someone is waiting for you, a wife or girlfriend?”

“I would be honored to dine with you. Mr. Phillips. So long as I will not be keeping you from a wife or girlfriend….”

And so what began with a jumble of clumsy words so many years ago ended with just one word—Nice.

Chapter 2

 

 

One Year Later

Late September

 

JAN WANDEREDaround the home he had shared with Michael in a quiet daze. He stared at the bare living room as if searching for something he had lost, at last coming before the huge wall of thick glass that overlooked the broad Delaware River. Jan looked at his reflection as if seeing it for the first time. Ever young; that’s how people described him. At forty-eight Jan still possessed smooth pale skin, luminous gray eyes, and hair the color of new corn silk. His only flaw, if there was one, was his five-foot-seven-inch frame. Yet that too was toned to youthful hardness. Even Michael would gently mock him,Don’t you ever age?

Jan gazed up at the velvet night sky as a light rain began to fall. The gleaming lights from the distant New Jersey shoreline broke through the window’s dense glass, but without their usual cheerful effect. They twinkled brightly, as if nothing had happened. But something had happened and no one came to tell him it was all a mistake and that Michael was alive and waiting for him downstairs in the car. His solitude was real and complete, and Jan found himself unable to live alone in the sprawling riverside loft. Even now, though empty of all their furnishings, the rooms whispered, screamed, laughed, and wept with him. Powerless to will them away, his mind clawed back from the walls years of conversations, as if they had occurred only moments ago. And then there was Mundus. Mundus—global, secret, immensely influential, with only three goals: peace, tolerance, and balance—it was the one constant in an inconstant world. The fourth-floor, ultra secret command center that kept Jan connected with his Mundus global counterparts was safely relocated. There would be no need for him to return here.

“Effendi?”

Jan turned to see Amal standing nearby, a light raincoat draped over his forearm. Dear faithful Amal. He had been with Jan for many years, attaching himself like a protective barnacle. An Egyptian and a devout Muslim, Amal was troubled by Jan’s behind-closed-doors relationship with Michael, yet he loved his master too well not to serve him. Although he had a room of his own in the sprawling loft, Amal chose instead to sleep on a cot just outside Jan’s bedroom door. He never complained. He rarely spoke.

“Forgive me,Effendi… we should… it is time to go.”

Jan took one last look at the deserted space. Was it his imagination, or did he just see Michael slip out the door?

Jan allowed Amal to drape his overcoat over his shoulders, and then with a deep sigh, he turned away.

Guthrie, Jan’s longtime chauffeur, waited in the loft’s ground floor parking pad. The Rolls-Royce Phantom purred like a silver panther, eager to be moving. The car was Michael’s. Jan hated riding in it. Now, he couldn’t part with it. Guthrie held the rear door open as Jan slipped onto the soft leather seat. Amal took the front passenger seat. Once underway, Guthrie asked, “Where to, sir?”

Jan looked out at the sky for a long moment.

“Sir?” Guthrie prodded.

“Yes? What…?”

“Where are we going?”

“The Saint Roi.”


Page 2

Amal and Guthrie exchanged a sidelong glance. Jan rarely visited the Saint Roi. Neither Amal nor Guthrie knew exactly why. He never spoke of his connection to the elegant art deco building, except to say he had an apartment there.

Guthrie threaded the car through Philadelphia’s crowded streets, skirting the city’s Chinatown district. It was here that Jan had met Michael. He thought on how happy they were together. Remembering the first time he saw Michael, really saw him, in the dim half-light of Michael’s import store in Chinatown; their first kiss, and Michael’s slick skin against his own, and the way Michael’s hair flopped to one side when Michael bent down to kiss him. He remembered, too, Michael’s stern reproach when Jan complained about how Colin seemed not to appreciate Jan’s hovering concern over his son’s rebelliousness. Tears he thought were all shed welled up. He ached for Michael’s voice, just once more, please God, just once more. He thought of the people whom he and Michael made happy through their own happiness, and he wondered if they too would still be happy with just the memory.

“Mr. Phillips!” Jerry, the Saint Roi’s manager, said as he crossed the lobby. “Sir. It’s so good to see you again, I ah—”

The man stopped short as he eyed Amal dressed in his elegant, traditional Arab garb.

“Thank you, Jerry. You’re very kind.” Jan turned to Amal. “Jerry, this is Amal. Amal is my right hand. If he asks for anything—”

“No worries, Mr. Phillips. I understand. Oh, the items you ordered from the Spruce Street Market arrived. I had one of the staff put them away for you.”

Jan nodded. With Amal in tow, he headed for the private elevator that went to his penthouse apartment. A few moments later, the polished bronze doors slid open. Jan took a deep breath and stepped into his past.

The two stood for a moment, Amal taking in the large living room’s quiet beauty, Jan fighting back the last angry words he and Tim had exchanged here, nearly three decades ago.Like you said, love makes us careless, especially with ourselves. I just couldn’t fight the fantasy you had of me, the image I let you create, because you needed it so much. Comfort? Money? Power? Yeah, I got it all! But what you never realized, Tim, was all I ever needed was to be wanted, not as a trophy or a cloned successor to your ambitions in Mundus, or even as a memory of what you and Peter were—but needed for me.

Jan let the moment pass, as he had let so many moments pass since Michael died. He breathed deeply. The smell of aged wood and leather scented the still air.

Jan pinched the sides of his nose, trying to ward off a headache that had already begun.

“Ah, Amal, let me show you around. As you can see, the living room is in the center. On your left is a hall leading to the kitchen and dining room. Beyond is your room with a bath. My room is directly across from yours. There’s a laundry room and workroom too. To our right is my office. There’s a small yellow light next to the doorknob. When it’s on, I’m not to be disturbed—you understand?”

“Yes,Effendi.”

“You go on and take a look at your bedroom. If there’s anything that you want changed, just let me know.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,Effendi.”

“Good. Well, then, I’ll be in my office for a while.”

Jan slipped into the office and closed the door.

The yellow light came on.

 

 

THE INTERCOMconnecting the apartment to the lobby buzzed. Amal wiped his hands on a tea towel. He went to the intercom and pressed the receive button.

“Yes?”

“This is Jerry. Miss Betterman is here to see Mr. Phillips.”

Amal paused and looked at the yellow light, then said, “Please send the lady up.”

Amal went to the door. He opened it just as Marsha Betterman arrived. “Miss Betterman, please come in,” he said, smiling.

“Amal,” she said. “Goodness, you are efficient. What would Mr. Phillips do without you?”

Amal ignored the compliment.

“My master is in his study. The yellow light is on and I—”

“It’s all right, Amal. I know what the light means. I was hoping to speak with Mr. Phillips. He’s been so sad, and it’s been so long since Michael died. It can’t go on like this. I don’t want to sound mercenary, but people are relying on him. Pay increases for the attorneys, court cases he has to sign off on… I could go on and on. The staff is wondering what’s going to happen to them… and to the firm. Some of our best attorneys are talking about leaving. Mr. Phillips has got to get back to work.”

Amal shifted from one foot to the other. “I do not know what I can say. It is not proper for me to discuss my master with anyone—even you.”

“Thank you, Amal,” Jan said, smiling as he joined them. “Would you please make some tea for us?”

Amal made a slight bow, relieved to be rescued from what was, for him, an embarrassing situation.

 

 

JAN WENTto a set of leather club chairs that faced the large living room windows. Outside, Philadelphia’s gleaming skyline soared high above them. The rain that had begun earlier continued, streaking the big glass panes with wide rivers of brilliant refracted light.

Marsha sat next to Jan. Amal arrived with two cups of Assam tea. Jan gave the man a quizzical look.

“I had the tea brewing when Miss Betterman arrived,” he said.

Amal set the cups down on a chrome-topped tea table, then left the room.

When Marsha didn’t speak, Jan said, “Well?”

“To be blunt about it, Jan, the firm needs you back in the office—and you’ve got to get out of this funk.”

“What do you suggest—take a lover?”

“Take a cruise. They’re less expensive,” Marsha said cynically.

Jan let out a mirthless chuckle, but then turned serious. “You know, Marsha, some people are lucky enough to find love once in their lives. Even fewer find it a second time.” Jan looked wistfully out the window. “But a third? Isn’t that asking life for more than is reasonable, or even possible?”

“Are you saying you want another man in your life?”

Jan shook his head. “I’m not sure what I’m saying. Michael’s dementia robbed me of five long years of loving. I feel more empty now than ever before.”

“Well, you are still young, and you’re überrich. It shouldn’t be difficult to find someone.”

“Tim found me, and I found Michael. Maybe I’ll be found again. What do you think?”

“Sounds lazy to me.”

Jan let the remark hang between them, then said, “I’ve been invited to a party at Larry Sinclair’s townhouse.”

“Go. It will get you out, and it would do you some good.”

Marsha picked up her teacup and took a sip.

Jan considered her suggestion. “Hmm, perhaps.”

“May I count on seeing you tomorrow? There’s a stack of papers that need signing.”

“Marsha, you sign my name as well as I do.”

“Better!” she said, laughing.

“All right, I’ll be there. Now get out of here. I have some work to do.”

Jan walked his office manager to the door. She looked over his shoulder at the room beyond. “Like you, it never seems to change, does it?” she said. “Think about Sinclair’s party. Give your heart a rest.”

Jan merely nodded. After Marsha left he returned to his study. He did not turn on the little yellow light. An e-mail from his son, Colin, waited.

Dad, do you have time for a long weekend visit? Zan and I would love to see you before the holidays.

Jan checked his calendar, and typed,How about this coming weekend? I’ll bring Amal along, if I may. Dad.

Chapter 3

 

 

Home on the Range in Big Sky Country

 

IT WASearly morning. The sun had just begun to make a hazy appearance behind a bank of clouds that stretched far into the distance. Jan and Amal had been traveling for almost two days, first by Jan’s private jet to Ennis, Montana, with an overnight stay at a local inn, and then a long drive in a rented SUV. Outside, the air was cold. Snow squalls had slipped in and out of the area sometime during the night.

The car rental agent drove. They rode in silence, Amal in the backseat, Jan in the front passenger side. The driver, a taciturn middle-aged woman named Millie, turned off the road and headed up a gravel path, just wide enough for the car to pass without clipping the snow-coated branches of the trees that crowded close to the edges. After about a mile, she parked the car on a small concrete pad. To the right of this was a tiny cabin made of hand-hewn clapboards painted chocolate brown. Three horses and a pack mule stood huddled together in a corral off to the side. To the left of the parking pad, a chain, heavy with rust, that was normally suspended between two stone pillars had been let down. Beyond, a narrow bridle path wound over a knoll, and then disappeared into a thick band of hemlocks. Everywhere, the world was white with unblemished snow.

“Well, here we are,” Millie said. She pressed a button that released the car’s trunk lid, adding, “Do you want me to hang around till you see if anyone is here to meet you?”

“No thanks, Millie. Two of the horses are for us. We have someone meeting us.”

Millie gave Jan an up-and-down glance as if to say,Are you sure you can handle one of those? She shrugged her doubt. “You’re the boss.”

Jan handed Millie a tip for driving, while Amal pulled their bags from the car.

“You okay?” Jan asked Amal as they headed for the cabin.

“Of course,Effendi. The Sahara gets much colder at night than it is here.”

“How about the horses?”

Amal rolled his eyes in answer. “Have I ever let you down?”

Jan smiled. “No, never.”

As they climbed the steps to the cabin, Colin’s wife, Alexandra, opened the thick wooden door. She wore a red flannel shirt stuffed into blue jeans and square-toed riding boots. A wool felt wide-brimmed hat was pulled down to just above her ears. “I thought I heard a car. Come in quick, or we’ll lose the heat.”

The cabin was a square, bare one-room structure. Small rectangular windows set high in the walls let in light. Bunk beds stood against each of the sidewalls. Against the back wall a low dry sink squatted under a shelf loaded with canned food. Next to this, a cast-iron wood-burning stove provided heat and a place for cooking. A table surrounded by four chairs took up the center space. Jan noticed three of the chairs had leather chaps draped over them. “Cozy,” he muttered.

Known to her friends and family as Zan, she pulled off the hat and shook out her long auburn hair. Jan immediately thought of Tim.His hair. Of course it would be. She is, after all, his daughter.“Zan, you look lovely. Country living agrees with you.”

Zan gave Jan a kiss on his cheek, then pulled away. “You’re such a liar,” she said, laughing. “I look like Ma Kettle. My hands are dried out from mucking out horse stalls. I’ve had to swap my Oil of Olay for Corn Huskers Lotion! By the way, Colin will meet us tonight. One of our dogs had a litter of puppies. They’re weaned now so he’s taking them out to our Indians.”

“There are Native Americans here?” Jan said as he took the bags from Amal and set them down. “Zan, you remember Amal.”

“Of course I do,” Zan said as she offered her hand.

Amal took a step forward and bowed slightly, touching his breast with the tips of the fingers of his right hand. “I am grateful that the mistress of this beautiful land welcomes me. If I may be of service, please let me know. Many years ago, when I lived in Cairo, I too cleaned up after animals, camels I mean.”

“Don’t tempt me, Amal, I may take you up on your offer.”

Zan turned to Jan. “About the Indians, we have four families, plus a schoolteacher-cum-paramedic living on the property. They don’t refer to themselves as Native Americans. But they do use First Nations or First Peoples. Mostly they just say Indians.”

“Were they here on the land when Colin bought it? I don’t remember him saying so.”

“No, he invited them. They look after the wind farms and make sure they’re all working. Colin pays them very well for that. They also keep the deer herds thinned for us, and in return we provide housing. It’s a win for everyone.”

“Except for the deer,” Jan said.

“Except for the deer,” Zan agreed. “But a bullet in the heart is not nearly as terrifying as being clawed or bitten to death by a cougar, or a wolf.”

Jan turned his attention to the chaps. “Those for us?”

“Yes, do you know how they go on?”

“I do,” Jan said. “I looked them up on the web.” Pulling up the leg of his jeans, he said, laughing, “We even have boots!”

“Impressive. We’ll see if we can scuff them up before you leave.” Zan grabbed her chaps and a pair of spurs and headed for the door. “I’ll put these on outside and cinch up the saddles. We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready.”

 

 

THEY RODEsingle file. Zan led, with the pack mule tagging along. Jan and Amal came in close behind. The trail wound along the low side of a string of hills covered with shiny hemlocks, interspersed with aspen that had turned autumn gold. It began to snow just as they cleared a ridge. Jan looked back at Amal, who smiled. Pointing at the aspens, he mouthed, “Beautiful!”

Not far from the trail, a log house cantilevered out from the side of a steep hill. Zan stopped and turned in her saddle and pointed it out. “We call that a safe house. Colin lets mounted state troopers live there rent-free. We’ve got seven in all spread out along the trails. Everyone around knows that all the big spreads have troopers. We’re very remote out here, and I feel safe knowing that at any one time we have at least two off-duty officers nearby.”

Curious, Jan said, “How do they get here?”

“The troopers keep their cars in a garage at the cabin where we met. When they have to go someplace by car, they stable their horses at the cabin. We have a woman who stays in the cabin when there are horses there. She takes care of them.”

“You’ve got quite a setup here,” Jan said, impressed.

“It’s all Colin’s idea. He’s amazing. You’ll see what I mean when we get home.”


Page 3

An hour later they passed a one-room line shack. The sun was getting low in the sky. Horses and riders were covered in a thin coating of snow. Jan was beginning to wonder how much longer it would be before they would stop. He urged his horse to a trot, catching up with Zan. She pointed to a dot hiding in the trees about a mile away. “Home. We’ll be there by sunset.”

Jan nodded but didn’t reply. Relieved, he fell back in line.

The snow had stopped. The barn door was open. Probably sensing that food and rest awaited them, the horses quickened their pace. As Jan and Amal moved up to Zan, she pulled a key fob from her coat pocket and pressed a button. Light flooded all around them. The sound of barking dogs split the silence.

Jan laughed, and Amal looked puzzled.

“I thought Colin said you two were living off the grid!”

“We are,” Zan said, “but you know what a gadget freak Colin is. Let’s get the horses in for the night and I’ll show you the house. You won’t believe it!”

“Are those guard dogs I hear?” Jan asked.

“Anatolian Shepherds,” Zan answered. “They keep me company when Colin is out on the range. When it’s dark and the wind howls, it can get a little creepy being alone in the house.”

 

 

THE SINGLE-LEVELhouse was made from hand-hewn logs. The living room had a cathedral ceiling made of smoothed redwood boards. A large fireplace on the north wall, and a floor-to-ceiling window set into the south wall, dominated the room. Leather sofas, flanked with end tables, faced the hearth. Homespun rugs covered much of the pine flooring. Behind the sofas, a trestle was laid out for a meal. All that was required was the food. “Stunningly refined rustic” was how the magazineArchitectural Digesthad described the house when it was featured in one of their lead articles: “Living off the Grid with Elegance.”Jan remembered that while the magazine had had free access to the house, both Colin and Zan had refused to pose for photographs. In a letter to Jan, Colin explained that he was proud of his house, but his privacy was off-limits.

Zan pointed to a hallway. “Amal, your rooms are that way. There are four, so pick any you want. As soon as you’re settled, we’ll eat.” Zan hung her hat on a peg by the door.

“Zan,” Jan said, “I have to ask. Where does the power for all these lights come from?”

“From Colin, where else? He’s terrified of a house fire. The way his mother died has haunted him all his adult life. Everything is electric, even the fireplace.”

Jan knew the story. Angela, along with her parents, had been burned alive in a house fire when Colin was just fourteen. “Yes, his aunt Elaine told me. Colin never talked to me about it.”

Zan propped her boot on a saddle stand and began removing a spur.

“I’m not surprised,” Zan said without looking up. “It took me a long time to get him to open up about it. After we decided to come here, Colin went all out with renewable energy schemes. This house, the police houses, and all the line shacks are solar heated—lights, and cooking too. He also set up two wind farms. He’s very proud of it.”

“I’m proud ofhim.” Jan looked around the room. “He’s come a long way from a frightened boy to all this.”

“You’re telling the wrong person,” Zan said as she stripped off her chaps. “I’ll get supper started. I know Colin will want you to ride out with him early tomorrow, so we’ll have an early bedtime.”

Jan watched Zan walk toward the kitchen. Her tone had been sharp. He wondered if it was about him, or Colin.

Chapter 4

 

 

Starry Night

 

BRILLIANT VENUSshone like polished silver through the darkness that had fallen hard around them. Jan lay on the ground, his back nestled on a bed of fragrant pine needles, his head resting on his saddle. He had cocked his hat low over his brow and pulled a woolen blanket up to his chin. Colin added a new log to the fire to ward off the night air, and then joined him, settling his back against his own saddle. After a while Colin said, “Can we talk? I mean… about you and my mother.”

Jan pushed his hat back and looked upward. He had dreaded this conversation ever since, on a snowy New Year’s Eve, Colin’s aunt Elaine callously dropped Colin off on Jan without warning, without ceremony—unless a shouting match with Elaine could be considered ceremony. At the time Colin was in his midteens. Colin, the son Jan never knew he had, suddenly became inextricably a part of his life. Now alone, with only silent Venus to eavesdrop, and after so many years and so many missed opportunities, Jan understood that Colin wanted answers.

After a pause, Jan said, “What do you want to know?”

“I want to know what she was like. Was she ever happy? I… don’t remember her being happy.”

What was she like? So much of their brief marriage was made up of angry fights, silent nights, and emotional walls made thick with Angela’s bottomless need and Jan’s complete lack of understanding those needs. Defining her without hurt would be almost impossible. Jan’s devil whispered in his ear,Come on, you’re a lawyer. You know how to make a mud brick look like a gold bar.Jan’sgood angel countered,He deserves to know. He’s waited a long time for this. Don’t let him down.

“Happy?” Jan said. “Yes, when we first met she was happy. She was studying voice at Saint Joe’s the same time I was there.Iwas the one who was unhappy, or more to the point, angry. My relationship with Tim was in trouble. I was tearing it apart, and furious with myself because I didn’t know how to stop…. Then your mother came along, just when I needed to be with someone who didn’t make me so mad at the world.”

“Did she know about your relationship with Tim?” Colin probed.

“Your mother was a smart woman, but she wasn’t shrewd. She knew I lived with Tim, but I don’t think she thought beyond that, not until after we were married.”

“You mean because of the sex? Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean….”

“I know what you meant,” Jan said softly. “No. Sex, or the lack of it, was just a symptom of deeper problems…. This is hard to express.”

“It’s okay. I’m not made of sugar. I want to know.”

Jan thought about the first time he met Angela, and smiled. “I heard your mother’s voice before I even laid eyes on her,” he said. “She was in one of the studios at the university. It was in September. The day was warm and the music department’s windows were open. As I passed by, I heard this strong soprano voice singingLet the bright seraphim in burning row, their loud uplifted angel trumpets blow.”

Jan closed his eyes for a moment and let the memory sweep over him.

“Go on,” Colin urged, clearly eager for answers to questions that had plagued his mind since he was just a boy.

Jan looked over at Colin, who’d now rolled onto his side, watching his father closely.

Jan continued, “I was curious. So I went to see who belonged to that voice. I introduced myself and complimented her singing, and her choice of Handel. We talked after her rehearsal, had coffee, and set up a date…. That went on for a few months, plays, movies, horseback riding—she loved horses. She laughed at my jokes. She sang for me. I liked her, and she liked me. Most important to me, she cooled my rage. I found someone who didn’t threaten me, someone who liked me, not for the fancy address, or the money, or for the eye candy. For her part, I believe she was looking for someone to love her the way she wanted her father to love her. That was a role I neither understood nor wanted. A year after we were married, she began binge eating, followed by starvation diets. Nothing I did pleased her, and everything I didn’t do sent her into rants about other women, and eventually about Tim. There were two more years, two more years of crying, fighting, eating, followed with the inevitable divorce.”

“Did you hate her by then?” Colin asked.

“No. Never. The love was gone, killed, but that space was not replaced… just… empty. On our last night together, she wanted to make love. One more time for Old Glory, as she put it. The next day she left in a taxi for the airport. I never saw or heard from her again. I sold the house in Society Hill and sent a check to her parents. I never got a response.”

“Didn’t you miss her at all?” Colin’s voice blurred with emotion.

“I missed the woman I’d met… in those early days, but the last? No. I didn’t miss the helpless anger. I wish for your sake I could say so. I suspect that’s what you’d like to hear.”

They sat quietly for a while—father and son. A soft breeze stirred in the treetops. Colin broke the silence. “Dad, in the end, when it was finally over between you and Mom… did you regret it all?”

Jan shook his head in the campfire’s half-light. “When I look at you, Colin, I have no regrets, except the hurt… not my hurt, but yours. Fathers ache when their children cry. You were so broken when you came to me, sad in your soul, and very angry because I was the only one you could rely on. You were so sore… I… I didn’t know how to reach you. I’m….” Jan suddenly realized that perhaps he’d said too much. “Colin, I’m sorry, this has to be hard for you to hear.”

“No. I asked for the truth. It’s just… I wonder what it would have been like to have had a father… you know, all the time. I wonder what might have been.”

Jan shook his head and murmured, “Might have been… I think those are the sorriest words we ever say.”

Jan looked up at the sky, now crowded with stars. “Looks like Venus has gotten some company for the night.” He looked over at Colin. Were those tears he saw, reflecting in the firelight?

Chapter 5

 

 

Indian Love Call

 

THEY’D BEENup since before dawn, and just arrived at Colin’s solar Station Number One. “I just need to check on a panel that I installed last week. I won’t be long,” Colin said as he swung out of his saddle.

Jan dismounted too. He walked the length of the station and back again. “Colin, this is amazing. How many of these do you have?”

“I’ve built ten. The line shacks they supply aren’t far. Fiber-optic cables carry all the energy produced. Add to that, the shacks have batteries that kick in if the power level dips. So far that hasn’t happened.”

“Why do you have so many line shacks anyway?” Jan asked.

“There are miles of wilderness here. The shacks are only two hours apart by horse, or four hours on foot. Everyone on this range knows where the shacks are located. It’s not foolproof, but so far, no one has been lost in bad weather.”

“What about the wind farms?” Jan asked.

“Oh boy, Dad! Wait until you see those. They’re the workhorses. Eventually, they’ll take the place of the solar stations. But these have to do until I can get enough mill sites set up and—”

A buzzing noise split the air. Colin looked toward the emergency call box. A red light blinked off and on. “What now?”

While Colin spoke on the phone, Jan walked off and sat on a fallen log. He looked over at Colin and thought,Dad. I think I can count on one hand how many times he’s called me that. Feels nice.

Colin returned a few minutes later with a scowl on his face.

“What’s up?” Jan said.

“That was Zan. I guess my cell phone was turned off, so she took a chance that we’d be here. Anyway, the schoolteacher in the Indian compound phoned to say that two teens have run off. Sounds like the two families are squaring off in a shouting match. We’d better see how far this has gone.”

Jan stood and walked over to his horse. As he swung into his saddle, he said, “Does this happen often?”

“No. Not so far.”

“Shades of the past,” Jan said with a wry smile.

The memory of a teenaged Colin running off and ending up in the hands of bad guys was not lost on him. “It’s not quite the same thing, Dad. But I take your meaning.”

 

 

COLIN ANDJan rode hard for about a half hour, arriving at the compound of four houses, each with a barn and corral. A fast-running stream ran between them, separating two of the houses from the other two, creating the sense of a larger community. Two men led horses across a grassy plot that served as a common area. Each man carried a rifle. Another man sat on a porch step, watching. Three women stood off to one side. Children ranging from toddlers to early teens hung back, away from the fray.

“Jim Barrows…. Bill Taylor,” Colin called out. “What’s going on here?”

The two men stopped. The one called Jim cupped his hand over his eyes, shielding them from the sun’s glare. He looked up at Colin and Jan as they urged their horses closer.

“Mr. Phillips, what are you doing here?”

“Heard there was a problem. You wanna tell me about it?”

“I can tell you what’s going on here, Mr. Phillips,” Bill Taylor said angrily as he stepped closer. “Eddie, that’s Jim’s boy, took my daughter off somewhere. Far as we know, all they brought with them was the clothes on their backs, and Eddie’s rifle.”

Jim rounded on his neighbor. “Bill, if you hadn’t tried to keep them apart, this wouldn’t have happened. Admit it, you don’t think my family is good enough for you!”

Bill shook his head. “Jim, we’ve been friends for years. There’s nothing wrong with your family. There’s nothing wrong with Eddie, except he’s too young to get involved with Olivia.”

Colin held up his hand. “All right. That’s enough.”

“Just a minute, Mr. Phillips,” Jim Barrows said. “This here is a family matter. Just because we get our houses for free doesn’t mean you can mix in our affairs.”

Colin leaned forward in his saddle. “Jim, maybe you don’t understand. Your houses are part of your pay package. Nothing is free here. You all keep the range working. It’s hard work. You all know it, and so do I. But the range is my property, and when it comes to trouble that can lead to violence, it becomes my business.”

“Your property, Mr. Phillips?” Jim said, sweeping his hand in an arc. “This belongs to all of us. You’re just a caretaker, like us. In the end, the only property we get is six feet.”


Page 4

A tense quiet settled in the small enclave. A chilly breeze ruffled through the trees. Colin eyed the armed men. Breaking the silence, he said, “Bill, you said that Eddie has his rifle with him, and here you two are, all set to go out after him with your rifles. What couldpossiblygo wrong?”

The two fathers scuffed the ground with their boots and eyed one another. “What are you gonna do, Mr. Phillips?” Jim asked.

Colin gestured to Jan. “This here is my father. We’ll go find Eddie and Olivia. You two stay here. I’ll call on your cell phones if I need you. Oh, I almost forgot, one of the mills looks out of kilter. Go up on the high ridge and make sure…. Okay?”

Colin didn’t wait for an answer. He spurred his horse across the bridge toward a trail that led away from the compound. As they passed by the schoolteacher’s house, a woman called to them. “Mr. Phillips! Mr. Phillips…. Wait!”

Colin reined in his horse. Jan stopped just behind. “Mrs. Gray?”

The woman hurried up to Colin. “I have some food to take with you. There’s water too.” Then in a conspiratorial tone, she said, “They’ve gone up to that broken-down miner’s shack near Old Bear Mountain. They’ll be hungry when you get there. There hasn’t been anyone up there for ages, so I’m sure there’s no food stores left. When you find them, say that they can stay with me—together I mean, if they want to, that is. I can keep an eye on them and see that they get their schooling.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Gray. I think you’re a treasure.”

Colin looked back at his father. “Ready?”

Jan nodded.

As they rode away from the compound, Jan asked, “You didn’t mention a problem with one of the windmills before.”

“There isn’t,” Colin said. “They need something to do, and I gave it to them.”

“Clever.”

“Jim’s right about not owning the land, though,” Colin said. “No matter how much we have, we take none of it to the grave. As Shakespeare says,And nothing can we call our own but death, and that small model of earth which serves as paste and cover to our bones.”

“You’re getting wise in your old age,” Jan said in mock sarcasm.

“As I recall, I wasn’t always so wise, or have you forgotten Iceland?”

“I think every boy thinks of running away from home at least once in his life.”

“Getting kidnapped by thugs, and nearly getting Zan killed, kinda takes it to a different level, wouldn’t you say?”

Jan shook his head. “You were just sixteen then. Are you still beating yourself up over that, after all these years?”

“I’ll never forget how you followed us up that glacier,” Colin said, choking with emotion. “You saved our lives…. Dad, do you remember what you said, when I asked you why you risked your life, after I’d been so rotten to you?”

“I’m afraid it’s all a blur. I was just thankful we got out alive.”

“I don’t believe that…. You said it’s what fathers do. You knew where I was, and you came to get me.”

“Now it’syourturn,” Jan said. “Let’s see if you can rescue a couple of runaways.”

“By the way, I keep forgetting to ask how things are in your world. Still finding windmills to battle?”

Jan shifted in his saddle. “Well, I’ll tell ya….”

 

 

Noon

 

COLIN ANDhis father cautiously approached a weather-beaten shack that seemed to hang somewhere between collapse and disintegration. Their horses’ hooves shuffled across the loose shale that covered the trail. A gust of windblown snow sifted cloudlike through the trees that covered the mountain. Somewhere a hawk screeched a complaint. As they neared, the front door opened. Eddie stepped out onto a small stoop. He stood legs apart in defiance. His eyes blazed with dark brightness. Shiny dark hair draped over his shoulders. He held his rifle with the barrel pointing down.

Colin reined in his horse, and immediately held out his hand, showing he held no weapon. “Eddie Barrows. It’s Colin Phillips. I’m here with my dad.”

“Mr. Phillips, me and Olivia won’t go back. We wanna get married. So you just leave us be,” Eddie yelled.

Ignoring the boy, Colin eased out of his saddle. “Eddie, I’m coming in. I have some food for you.”

Olivia joined Eddie at the door. Colin remembered her as a pretty girl. She had grown up. She was beautiful. She was barefoot. “Eddie, I’m hungry. Please, Eddie, let Mr. Phillips in.”

After a few steps, Colin asked, “Olivia, where thehellare your shoes?”

“They got soaked through, when I slipped in a creek.”

Colin returned to his horse and rummaged in his saddlebag. He pulled out two pair of woolen socks, and then climbed the stairs to the stoop. He held them out to the girl. “Put both pair on before you catch your death.”

Colin looked back at Jan. “You okay staying here?”

“I’m good. You go on… and Colin?”

“Yeah?”

Jan mouthed, “Be careful.”

Colin nodded.

 

 

Friendly Persuasion

 

THE MINER’Scabin was cold. The lone window that had served for air and light had been broken out. Colin looked around. A rough hole in the far wall was the only evidence that a stovepipe had been there. The stove too, was gone. Olivia opened the food packet and began to eat. She offered some to Eddie. Eddie ignored her outstretched hand. Still defiant, he stood with his back to the wall.

“You two look like hell. What did you think you’d accomplish, running off like that?”

“I told you, Mr. Phillips, we’re in love. We want to get married. Our folks don’t want us to… so that’s why we left.”

Eddie’s remark dragged Colin’s mind back to a painful memory of his own. I love Zan. I want to be with her all the time. I thought if I could get a place of my own we could be together, but it all blew up in my face. Stupid! Stupid.

Colin looked at the two teens for a moment. “Love. Well, that’s a reason, but just look at you. You’ve no food, no money, no clothes, and most important, no job. As far as I can see, all you have is that rifle. What were you going to do, shoot your way into the chapel of love?”

Eddie blushed with shame. Despite the situation, Olivia giggled at Colin’s joke.

Eddie fingered the hammer on his rifle. Colin ignored the gesture.

“None of that changes how we feel, Mr. Phillips,” Eddie said, his voice frustrated.

“Eddie, this can still be put right. Think about it. You’re an Indian. Do you really want to have a run-in with the law? Under these circumstances, you wouldn’t stand much of a chance. Olivia’s parents would be against you…. You know the odds. The system would eat you alive. Now, do you want to hear my plan?”

After a long pause, Eddie said through a pout, “Guess so.”

“Mrs. Gray said you can stay with her… both of you. You’ll finish your high school courses. Then if your grades are good enough, yours too, Olivia, and you still want to leave, I’ll see about college for you. Either way, if you want to work for me, then you’ve got jobs.”

Colin stood aside while Eddie and Olivia whispered their futures.

“You’ve got a deal,” Eddie said as he stood up.

Colin walked to where Olivia squatted finishing a sandwich. He looked into her eyes. “Olivia, are you pregnant?”

Olivia’s eyes grew large. “No!”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“Good. Keep it that way.” Colin looked back at Eddie. “That goes for you too.”

An awkward silence settled over them. Colin was sweating underneath his wool vest.

“Let’s get moving.”

Chapter 6

 

 

Homeward Bound

 

THEY RODEsingle file with Eddie sitting behind Colin. Olivia rode with Jan. Wrapped around Jan’s waist, Olivia’s arms felt frail—childlike. He wondered how old she was.

“Are you really Mr. Phillips’s dad?” Olivia asked.

“I am. Why do you ask?”

“You look more like brothers.” Olivia giggled. “You could even be twins.”

Was she flirting with him? Jan changed the subject. “Olivia, you know that you’re not home free. You’ll be staying with your schoolteacher, and you have to finish school before you two can get married. You know that’s the deal, don’t you? If you screw up, you two will have to live with your folks.”

“Yes, sir. I know. We’ll be good.”

Jan sincerely hoped the deal would hold. He thought of Colin’s runaway escapade and how that adventure nearly ended in tragedy.Kids; when they’re little they step on your shoes. When they grow up, they step on your heart.

 

 

Late afternoon

 

THEY RODEabreast the last mile before home. The air had become heavy with expectant snow.

“When do you think the snow will come?” Jan said.

Colin looked up at the sky as if to read the clouds. “Tomorrow afternoon, I’d say. You and Amal will be airborne by then.”

“I’ll miss you and Zan.”

Colin reined his horse to a stop. He looked at Jan for a moment. “We’ll miss you too. I mean that. I didn’t come out here to get away from you.”

Jan smiled. “I didn’t think you did. You know I’m very proud of you. A lot of people who come into a fortune wouldn’t have invested in the land, and especially its people, the way you have.”

“You know, Dad, I’ve always felt I needed to live a life of meaning, and not just lazing around, bored to death with too much money and time. I hope I’m accomplishing something here.”

“You are, Colin. You are.”

Chapter 7

 

 

Trouble in Paradise

 

JAN FOUNDColin behind the house. Colin was splitting wood with a double-headed ax. He put the ax down as Jan approached.

“Taking out your frustrations?” Jan joked.

Colin ignored the remark. “Dad, is it okay if Zan flies back to Philly with you?”

The question caught Jan off guard. “I thought her mother said you two are coming out for Christmas. Did I miss something?”

The look on Colin’s face was not good.

“Does shewantto go back with us?” Jan asked cautiously.

“Yes, I believe she does.”

“Do you want her to?” Jan said.

“What do you think?”

“Colin, I’m not a mind reader. I don’t know. Do you want to tell me what’s been going on?”

“She’s lonely. Coming out here was a mistake… for her, at least.”

“Did Zan say that?”

“Not in so many words. But she sits for long hours looking out the window. If I ask her if anything is wrong, she just shrugs. If I press her, she gets upset, but we never seem to get to what’s wrong.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Do you want her to leave?”

“No! Of course I don’t.” Colin wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “You know Marsha was out here a while back. They laughed and talked for days. Then as soon as her mom left, Zan got all quiet again. I tried to talk to her, but she just went deeper and deeper into herself.”

“Colin, psychologists say that three things derail a marriage, money, children, or sex. It can’t be money, and there aren’t any children yet. That leaves sex. It’s a touchy subject. We can leave it alone if you’re too uncomfortable to talk about it.”

Colin shook his head. “It’s about a baby, not sex.”

“Sex is how yougetbabies.”

“Very funny.” Colin frowned and looked off toward the trees. “Zan’s afraid she can’t have a baby. Our doctors say there’s nothing preventing us from conceiving, but….”

“Maybe you’re trying too hard. It happens to lots of folks.”

“We’ve been told that, but I’m not so sure.”

“Look, there is absolutely one thing I am sure of. If Zan goes to Philly, nothing will happen for you in the baby department. If having, or not having, a baby is the issue, then where you two make your home is not the problem, and I don’t believe her flying back with us will help you.”

Colin sat down on a tree stump. Jan squatted beside him. “Let me ask you something. How much time do you spend away from home?”

Colin shrugged. “Umm, a few days a week. This is a big place. You saw the wind farm, and the solar panel fields. They don’t take care of themselves.”

“A few days?” Jan asked, with an edge to his voice.

“Sometimes more,” Colin admitted.

“We’re talking man-to-man here, so I’ll be up-front with you. Zan needs, no… wants attention. She needs to be included. Everything I see here is all your doing.Youbuilt your house.Youpicked out the sites for the line shacks.Youarranged for a police presence.Youset up the wind and solar farms. It’s allyou. Where is Zan in all this?”

“So you’re saying she’s unhappy because of me?”

“No. I’d say she’s unhappy because she doesn’t know where she belongs in your life. She’s married to a man she loves, and according to you, she’s lonely. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Look, you’ve got a purpose here. You’re making a self-sufficient life. From what I hear, all Zan has is you. As romantic as that sounds, it’s not enough for her. Hell, it’s not enough for anybody.”

“What should I do, then?”

Jan’s frustration with his dense son was beginning to show in his voice. “When you go off to work, take her with you! Make room for her in whatever you’re doing. Zan is pretty, but she’s not an orchid.”

Time slipped away. A gust of wind pushed Jan’s hair around. A hawk shot from the sky and landed on the bare branch of a nearby tree. Finally, Colin said, “Okay, I’ll give it a try. I’m just scared we’ll end up like you and my mother.”

Jan shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Son, look at me.”

Their eyes met, and Jan said, “I knew your mother when she was Zan’s age, and believe me, Zan is nothing like your mother. Come out this Christmas. Have a good time and forget your windmills and solar panels and runaway Indians for a while. Make love.”

Jan’s stomach grumbled loudly.

Colin looked at his watch. “It’s half past seven. Hungry? Breakfast should be ready by now.”


Page 5

“Starved. Let’s go see what Zan and Amal have cooked up for us. Then I have to pack. The rental car will be expecting us.”

Chapter 8

 

 

Philadelphia

 

MORNING BROKEinto Jan’s bedroom with that kind of wet glow only possible at sunrise after a rain. Soon its softness would give way to the steel light of the coming winter.

Jan threw back the silk duvet and pulled his naked body up and out of the big bed. The bed he and Tim had made love in, the bed where they had spent their last night together, and the room where it all ended.I was bought and paid for, Tim. Remember? Just like one of your expensive knickknacks, I was an ornament of your pride. You have no idea how many people tried to handle me. Some tried to buy me away from you. Did you know that? You were so busy being proud of your creation that you ignored fingerprints strangers left all over your precious possession!Jan shook the memory away.

Crossing to the bathroom, he looked at himself in the cheval mirror leaning against the wall. He was still relatively young, with strong legs and arms. From neck to groin was a flat, straight plane. His balls and flaccid cock hung low, and straight down.Hmm,I’ve got to do something about that.Jan ran his fingers through his hair before moving on to the shower.

 

 

AMAL WASfinishing his morning tea when Jan padded into the kitchen. “May I prepare your breakfast now,Effendi?”

“Do we have any donuts?”

“No. We do not. They are bad for you, anyway.”

“I like donuts.”

“Shall I order some to be delivered?”

Jan let out a frustrated sigh. “No, I suppose not.”

“What would you like, then?”

“Nothing. I’ll be in the study.”

“Very well,Effendi. I will have donuts for you tomorrow.”

Jan smiled and headed for the study.

“They are still bad for you,” Amal muttered to Jan’s back.

Jan entered the art deco room and sat at the desk made of thick black acrylic. Flaming with swirling colors, Gustave Klimt’s huge paintingThe Kissdominated the wall behind the polished slab. Jan had spent many hours in this room. When he first came to the Saint Roi with Tim, it had seemed a friendly place. Its bookshelves, heavy with the journals of past Mundus masters, were to a young mind a source of mystery and power. Later, after Tim died and Jan was living in the sprawling penthouse alone, the study felt neutral, neither comforting nor depressing, just a room in which he worked on the issues Mundus and its members deemed vital. Now, though, a sense of confinement, of nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, pressed down on him.

Jan logged on to his computer. He typed “Philadelphia houses for sale.” He narrowed his search to Center City.If I stay here, I’ll go mad!

Chapter 9

 

 

Philadelphia

Early Morning

 

PILOT ALICEGlass waited by the Hawker 400 jet plane while Jan parked his car. She studied this man who rarely spoke and wondered just who he was, besides being a renowned lawyer. He was a man of secrets, of that she was certain. She wondered too about the quiet handsome Arab who was never far from him.

As he and Amal approached the plane’s stairs, Jan handed Alice a small leather bag.

“All set, Alice?”

“Ready to go, sir.”

“Weather?”

“There’s a storm over the Atlantic. We’ll be on the ground before it hits the French coast.”

Jan nodded. “Then let’s get going.”

Chapter 10

 

 

Arles, France

 

JAN HURRIEDdown the plane’s stairs, crossed a few feet of tarmac, and climbed into the waiting Land Rover. Amal took the rear seat. He tapped Jan on his shoulder. “Effendi, your seat belt.”

At the wheel was Jan’s estate manager, Kevin Andrews. The three men rode in silence as the light fog that smothered the tree-lined Rhône River valley dissolved into mists, and then finally into a steady rain. Kevin whistled a tuneless melody in time with the windshield wipers as they slung the water off with a dull rhythm. Turning at the stone monument honoring the World War II dead of Arles, Kevin drove into the town’s narrow main street, past the cathedral, and, a while later past, the Roman amphitheater.

“Kevin?”

“Yes?”

“Anything I should know about at the château?”

“We had a flood. Those lavender fields along the river were wiped out.”

“Anyone hurt?”

“No, just the crop.”

Jan thought a moment, and then said, “We’ll take the loss. Make sure all the farmers get paid.”

“Will do. Oh, by the way, your guests have arrived.”

Jan stared out over the rain-soaked landscape.It’s been a good year for Mundus. I wish I felt like celebrating. Something’s going on with Iran. The word revenge keeps popping up in their e-mail chatter. I wish we had more intel on it, or at least a clue.

Kevin broke into Jan’s thoughts. “There’s one other thing. Saint Sebastian would like to see you.”

Saint Sebastian was code for Jacques Malreve, Abbot of Saint Sebastian Monastery.

Jan took in the request with a frown. He wanted to be back in Philadelphia by midweek. The townhouse he’d bought on Camac Street was painted, furnished, and waiting for its new owner, and the abbot had a habit of dumping problems on Jan when he was least expecting them. Still, if the abbot had asked for a meeting, Jan would certainly go.I guess I better see what Père Jacques wants.

“All right, Kevin, drop me off at the monastery. I’ll phone you when I’m finished. Amal, would you make sure my guests don’t drink too much before dinner?”

Amal smiled wickedly. “Effendi, it will be a pleasure.”

Kevin chuckled. “Amal, have you ever had alcohol?”

“Never!”

Chapter 11

 

 

Saint Sebastian Monastery

 

SEVERAL WEEKSof banked embers glowed like hellfire in the study’s massive fireplace. Jan finished warming his hands and then sat down on a hard wooden chair.If I ran this place, there’d be cushions on these things.

As was their custom when Jan first began coming to the monastery, Jan spoke in Latin while the old monk spoke in French. Jan enjoyed these opportunities to speak in the rare language he had learned to love as a boy. Jacques, for his part, appreciated the opportunity to converse in, as he put it, “the language of my ordination.” Over the years the two had become close friends. Jacques, the liberal Catholic theologian who saw mankind not as a sin-riven race, but as one created “a little less than the angels,” while Jan viewed the church as a community that had lost its core mission—to love and to serve.

Jacques Malreve held out a silver cup. “Here, drink this. It’s from our 1950 vintage. I think you will like it.”

Jan sipped the wine. Eyeing the old abbot, he said, “Jacques, this is a treat, but you didn’t ask me here to sample vintage wine. So, what’s up? Please don’t tell me you have another church you want me to buy!”

Jacques smiled for the first time since Jan arrived.

“No. No churches, but I do have a request.”

“Am I going to like this?”

“Do you know Claude Bonnet?”

“Bonnet…. Bonnet…. If we’re talking about the same man, he ownsBanqueRépublique. Jacques, please don’t tell me you want me to buy his bank!”

The monk shook his head. He drew up a small wooden chair opposite Jan and sat down. “No, my friend. I want you to find his son. His father has reason, apparently good reason, to believe that his son has been taken somewhere along the Iranian border, by whom he is not certain—the Iranians or perhaps worse. Rescue him if you can.”

Jan carefully placed his wineglass on a nearby stand and looked at the stone floor. In a very real sense, he had been rescued—bought, literally and figuratively, by a man. Tim Morris had given him a life beyond the dreams of most people, but at a terrible cost—his mother murdered, an ill-conceived marriage that ended in shattered lives. Tim had given him Mundus, too, with all its noble aims, its immense influence, and yet an organization entirely susceptible to human flaws. And wealth—wealth so large that Jan didn’t even know how much was there.

The reasons for denying such a ridiculous request were so obvious that Jan was surprised Jacques hadn’t come to them. Yet all Jan could say was “Did Bonnet ask for my help?”

“Not directly. His son has disappeared. He is frantic with worry. He asked me to help find him. He thinks I have connections.”

Jan watched as Jacques rose to lay another log into the fireplace. The dry wood burst into ravenous flame. After a long pause Jan said, “Jacques, does Bonnet know about me, or more to the point, does he know about Mundus?”

“He doesn’t know about Mundus. He believes the Vatican can help, or at least I can get the Curia’s secretariat to use its influence.”

Jan stared at Jacques in disbelief. “The Vatican! You can’t be serious.Hecan’t be serious. It’s true there’s a Catholic community in Iran. However, it is not true that the Vatican has a particle of power there. My friend, you know that as well as I do.”

“Bonnet is a religious man. He thought if I approached the right people with sufficient incentives, I might get his son back.”

“Incentives? You mean money.”

The monk shrugged a yes. “I didn’t call Rome. Such a request from a man who wants the Latin liturgy returned to Sunday Masses would get little response, if any at all. That’s why I’m asking you to do something.”

“I’m not Interpol. Finding people is their job.”

The old man reached out. Grasping Jan’s shoulder with a strong hand, he looked into his eyes. “Theymay have him. You of all people know what that means.”

“BytheyI take it you mean al-Qaida, or any of its spawn. Even so, it’s still an Interpol job.”

“Jan, you know that no law organization will do what needs to be done to get the boy out.”

“Boy! He’s a boy?”

“No, he’s not a child. He’s around twenty-five.”

“So who exactly has him—does anyone know for sure? You know the Iranians pick up people all over the country and accuse them of spying.”

“He was hiking in Kazakhstan. We’re not sure about Iran.”

“Let me get this straight. He was in Kazakhstan hiking?”

“Not exactly,” said Jacques. “He was hiking but he was looking for a grave also.”

Jan leaned forward. “A grave. He was hiking in a foreign country looking for a grave, and he was, what? Arrested? Pinched? Kidnapped? What?”

Jacques shrugged. “All Bonnet knows is Armande—oh, his name is Armande. He e-mailed his father from a cyber cafe saying that some local man offered to help him.”

“And?”

“He has not been heard from since.”

“And so, Jacques, you believe all I have to do is make a phone call, and all will be well—right?”

“You have done it before. You and your Mundus companions tracked down a human trafficker in the middle of the desert. You chased the men who kidnapped your own son to the top of a glacier and brought him back unharmed. You and your people have stopped terror attacks all over the world, and yes, I know others get the credit… but credit is not what you are after. Mundus is a wonderful group of people, and you, my friend, know that without them this world of ours would be a much more dangerous place than it is.”

“What you say about Mundus is true, all of it… and you only know a small part. But in eliminating the pasha and the slave ring, I caused the deaths of innocent men as well. I’ll never be able to get that out of my mind. Sometimes, Jacques, the cost is so high my soul quivers.”

The two men shared a tense moment.

“Will you do it?” Jacques asked at last.

“Jacques,” Jan said, “we’ve got a G-7 summit coming up, and Mundus is scrambling to get Spain and Germany on the same page. Yemen is teetering toward civil war. We’re negotiating with the rebels for a settlement there. The United States is becoming more politically radicalized. Trouble is brewing from the North Sea to the Pacific Rim, with only seven Mundus masters covering emerging events. Six, Jacques—hell, even the Lord had twelve men working for him! Do you want me to go on? We could be here all day!”

Jacques stood and went to the statue of the archangel Michael. “Will you do it?” he asked again.

Jan got up and paced the room that had become so familiar to him. He ran his fingers over the smooth stone wall—walls that were built when Imperial Rome still ruled this land. He turned as the monk lit a candle.

“Who’s that for?” Jan said.

“It is for whoever needs it.”

Jan went to the old man and embraced him, and then whispered, “Better light two.”

Chapter 12

 

 

Jan’s château on the River Rhône

Meeting of the Mundus Society Masters

 

THREE WOMENand four men sat on sofas with deep cushions covered in pale rose-colored damask silk. They were Mundus Society Masters, representing the world’s continents. Together they organized and managed hundreds upon hundreds of dedicated agents who fanned out across every nation on the globe. Their goal was summed in three words: Peace. Balance. Tolerance.

A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows of thick glass reflected the brilliant light radiating from the ancient fireplace across the room. On this cool night, the deep embers warmed their faces as they reviewed once more the world status, a status that was as stable as volcanic lava.

Still, Osama bin Laden was dead. Mundus agents in Pakistan found him, and then leaked their information to highly placed sources in the American CIA. No one would ever know of their efforts on behalf of the US. Justice and the stability of nations was the aim, not glory. This night, the leaders of this powerful clique, who quietly shaped the course of nations, were relieved, but not cheerful. They were hopeful, yet haunted with an unspoken dread of what might come next. Would the Arab Spring, as the geopolitical analysts called it, bring fresh cleansing rains, or a torrent of fire? Would North Korea’s new “Dear Leader” bow and scrape before the military that kept him in precarious power, or would he move his starving country into the life of nations? It was the kind of challenge Mundus had met head-on, and prevailed. There was Bosnia, Albania, as well as Croatia, which would soon join the EU. These could be put in the win column. Iraq and Afghanistan were yet to be settled. There was more work to do, but for now this gathering of Mundus Masters was ended.


Page 6

Amal, who was standing nearby, handed Jan a slip of paper with a telephone number written on it. Amal’s long burnoose of white cotton knitted together with silver threads glittered in the light cast from the fireplace as he slipped into the shadows, away from the glow. He turned and regarded each member in turn. Over the years he’d served Jan, Amal had come to know them. All were from disparate walks of life. Each member was equal in status, and if it came to it, in raw power—which they were all known to use from time to time. Of the three women, two were middle-aged homemakers, Antonia Mendoza from Peru, and Dagmar Lentz from Iceland. The third, Margarita Spencer, was a twenty-five-year-old Australian tour guide. Akira Tsukamoto, a retired Japanese samurai swordsmith, spoke for Asia. A pensioned British diplomat, Sebastian Faust of Egypt, represented Africa and the Middle East. Prince Paulo da Saracena spoke for Europe. From North America came Jan Phillips, a Philadelphia lawyer. None of these men and women would be picked out of a crowd as being extraordinary. Jan, however, was the exception, not because of his height, which was middling, nor from his physique, which was slight, but rather for his extraordinary youthful appearance. It seemed that Jan had been around forever, yet despite a telltale deepening laugh line around his mouth and a few crow’s feet near his eyes, he looked as if he should be playing high school soccer.

Sebastian Faust broke the group’s silent reverie.

“Jan my boy, how do you do it?” Sebastian said as he poured his fifth glass of potent Bordeaux. “I mean you’ve got it all—a thriving law firm, money to burn, power… and this place. My God, you do live like a king! Hell! Youarea king!”

Dagmar and Margarita exchanged anxious glances. Michael Lin had been dead for just over year, yet they knew Jan’s heart was still bruised from the loss.

Jan shot Sebastian a sardonic look. “What is it Shakespeare’s King Richard says, Sebastian? ‘I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus, how can you say to me—I am a king?’”

Paulo rose and went to Sebastian. Pulling the wine glass from his hand, Paulo said, “You’ve had enough of this. It’s late. We all should be going to bed. Our planes leave early in the morning.”

Jan turned to gaze out the window while Sebastian let Paulo lead him from the room.

Antonia, the last to leave, turned to Jan. “Good night, Jan. I’m sorry about Sebastian.”

Jan nodded without turning. When they had all left, he pressed his fingertips against his eyes, and let his mind drift away.Michael, Michael, I thought we’d have more time.

 

 

THE MANTELclock ticked minutes away, finally striking midnight. Amal moved forward from the shadows and said, “Effendi, you must not be angry with Mr. Faust. It was not he who spoke, but the alcohol, which the Prophet Mohammed, blessings and peace be upon him, wisely forbade the faithful. Come. Let me prepare your bed. We must be up early if you want to be back in Philadelphia by afternoon.”

“Thank you, Amal. You go to bed. I want to stay here for a while.”

Amal bowed slightly. “As you wish.”

After Amal left him, Jan went to the secure landline phone. The conversation was brief and to the point. He gave the woman instructions to contact Joachim Nussbaum in Philadelphia. She was to send the ex-Mossad agent to Iran via Kazakhstan, and find out what happened to Armande Bonnet. Bring him back—alive if possible. Jan wanted no traceable Mundus connection with this adventure. The possibility of Mundus clashing with Iran while the western powers negotiated Iran to the conference table and away from nuclear arms was to be avoided. He couldn’t or wouldn’t expose Mundus and its Iranian operatives to danger when the stakes were so high and the outcome of locating Armande was so slim. Jan returned the phone to its cradle and headed to his bedroom upstairs.

Chapter 13

 

 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Mission

 

JOACHIM NUSSBAUM,ex-Israeli Mossad spy and assassin, finished his punishing early morning exercise ritual, showered, and sat down to a breakfast of Turkish coffee, green figs, and yogurt. The bright blue light on his cell phone blinked. Joachim disliked the intrusion in his private time. He noted the caller’s ID, and then picked up the phone. He listened but did not speak. He checked his watch, pressed the disconnect button on the phone, and began his meal.

His instructions were uncomplicated. The place: Rittenhouse Square. Time: 12:00 p.m. He was to wait until contact was made. A reference to salt would be the code word. The lack of detail bothered the man from Mossad. Joachim frowned. He did not like vague instructions, and least of all the melodrama of code words.

Everyone who knew him agreed he was the personification of caution, yet no one accused him of patience. Joachim was a man of action. Though German by birth, his citizenship was Israeli. When one of his many love interests asked if he was a practicing Jew, Joachim replied, “No, my dear. I’m a practicing Pisces.”

The wound he received at the hands of a terrorist on Iceland’s Murderküll Glacier had healed. That wound nearly cost him his life. Now fit again, he was needed by his new employer—Jan Phillips, North American master of the global and highly secretive Mundus Society. The call he’d just received was not from Jan. It was from one of Jan’s many sources—a woman this time. That alone bothered him. Jan had suffered a tremendous personal loss, but Joachim had never known Jan to use cloak-and-dagger methods, nor delegate this kind of thing. As he ate Joachim scanned the Philadelphia Enquirer’s front-page headlines: Thieves Boldly Strike Again: Sansom Street’s Jeweler’s Row Terrorized.

Terror, Joachim thought.These people have no idea. What are a few idle baubles compared to the lives of millions?

Chapter 14

 

 

Downtown Philadelphia

Rittenhouse Square

 

JOACHIM CROSSEDPhiladelphia’s busy Walnut Street at precisely eleven in the morning. He stopped at a street vendor’s cart and eyed a line of doughy pretzels dangling from plastic hooks. Joachim detested soft pretzels. To him they smelled like a gymnast’s jockstrap, and tasted of undercooked flour. He did, however, appreciate the pretzel cart’s shiny chrome construction. The polished metal was perfect for looking at what was going on behind him without having to turn. He bought a twisted slab of salt-encrusted dough that he had no intention of eating and set off down the street. Joachim made one casual pass around the park’s sidewalk perimeter, and then entered through the north entrance. Sycamore and maple trees had shed their fall leaves. Maintenance crews had silenced the noisy central fountain and were scooping out the soggy leaves in small batches before dumping them into a black plastic bin.

Joachim glanced at each workman in turn.

Nothing.

He found a well-worn bench that looked as if it would support him and eased himself onto the seat. The .25 caliber Cobra pistol nestled snugly in the small of his back. He tore off a piece of his pretzel and tossed it to a mendicant squirrel.

Across the silent fountain sat a fat, old man. He wore brown sandals with white socks, black trousers, and a baggy pink shirt. The old man’s thin gray hair matted to his head like wet cotton candy. Beside him sat a much younger man whom Joachim judged to be in his late teens or early twenties. The younger man was dressed in fitted stone-washed jeans and a crisp white dress shirt. He wore black loafers. No socks. The young man sat respectfully silent, listening to the old man. The old man’s eyes were puffy and red with tears. His words, spoken softly between jerky sobs, apparently fell on deaf ears. The young man shook his head. The message was clear: No. A few moments more of pleading and the young man rose slowly. He placed a tender hand on the old man’s shoulder and then moved off into the sparse shadow of an ancient walnut tree. In a moment he was gone without a backward glance. Whatever these two had been to one another was over. The old man blew his nose. His rounded shoulders shuddered once, and then once more. A moment later he rose, gathered up his injured pride, and left by way of the park’s Eighteenth Street entrance. Joachim watched as the old man made one last hopeful glance back into the park before being swept away by the afternoon lunch crowd.

Joachim tore off another bit of pretzel and scanned the park for new arrivals. Four squirrels immediately presented themselves for a handout. At the far end of the park, the Church of the Holy Trinity marked the noon hour with a lone baritone bell tolling the Angelus. A young couple paused, made the sign of the cross, and then hurried away to hail a taxi.

Mr. Young-Something reentered the park. Joachim watched with cautious interest as the young man strolled idly by, and then stopped to eye the quarreling rodents.

“Do you think salty pretzels are good for these bad boys?” Mr. Young-Something said.

Joachim frowned. “If you’re selling what I think you’re selling, I’m not buying.”

Mr. Young-Something glanced to where he had been sitting minutes ago.

“A guy’s gotta make a living.”

“Like that?”

Mr. Young-Something shrugged. “You do what you do. I do what I do.”

“You have something to say to me,” Joachim said impatiently, “or are you just passing through?”

The young man sat uninvited. “I have a message from someone.”

“Who?”

Mr. Young-Something ignored the question. “Do you know where Kazakhstan is?”

“Of course.”

Mr. Young-Something reached into his hip pocket.

Joachim instinctively stiffened.

The young man noted Joachim’s shift in posture with a wry smile. He looked into the ex-spy’s eyes as if to say,You know my game, and I know yours, so let’s get this show on the road.

“Here are your plane tickets, along with four hundred dollars in Kazakhstan tenge and an American Express credit card. You’re expected day after tomorrow. A man in the Petropavl Central Park will approach you just before noon. He’ll be selling ribbon candy. He’ll offer you a free sample.”

With that the young man rose and sauntered out of the park.

Joachim opened the ticket packet.At least they’re first class seats.

Chapter 15

 

 

Kazakhstan

Kaysm Khan Royal Hotel

 

JOACHIM’S ROOMwas spacious as rooms went in hotels that hearkened to a time when Russian aristocrats hunted wild boar in the surrounding forests. The room smelled of mildew. The carpet was genuine Persian, but worn through in places. A brass bed, its gleam dulled to a matte orange from neglect, stood against a wall papered in what was once pale green brocade, now turned dingy from years of cigarette smoke. Only the newly installed Internet access, double-glazed windows, and an electrified chandelier whispered that technology had overtaken an otherwise antique world.

Joachim looked out at the cloud-laden sky and frowned.Looks like rain.

After drawing the heavy red drapes against the late afternoon’s hard light, he sat at a mahogany writing desk. He noted that the desk was new—odd in a room so carefully preserved. He turned on his laptop computer and logged on to a site that barred prying eyes. After reading the coded message, Joachim scrambled the letters once again before deleting the page.I’m supposed to find a lost or kidnapped hitchhiker possibly in Iran. What am I, a magician?

 

 

THE RAINthat drummed against the hotel window all night had stopped in the early morning hours. Joachim ate a breakfast of hard cooked eggs, dry toast, and sweet green tea. His breakfast companions consisted of a sleepy waiter leaning against the kitchen door, and a very young man wearing an ill-fitting dark brown business suit and shoes where the leather pulled away from the rubber soles. Joachim noted that the waiter wore the same kind of shoes as the businessman.

SVR! Hmm, I wonder what the Foreign Intelligence Service is up to now.

Joachim read the French language edition local newspaper. The most useful item was the weather report: rain turning to light snow.

Before leaving the overheated hotel restaurant, Joachim laid down a stingy tip for the waiter. Generosity signaled a surfeit of cash, and cash attracted unwanted attention.

Joachim stepped out into a raw wind that whipped the leftover moisture from last night’s rain into a stinging mist. He turned the collar of his heavy black overcoat up around his neck. After walking a few feet, he stopped to look into a shop window. From the corner of his eye he caught a brief glimpse of the young man from the hotel. Joachim waited a moment more, then headed toward the Petropavl Central Park.

Petropavl Central Park was the focal point and gathering spot of the city. A semicircular colonnade of brilliant white marble embraced one half of the park’s perimeter. But for two policemen, the park was deserted. Joachim skirted the colonnade, stopping now and then to inspect inscriptions detailing Kazakhstan’s heroic struggles. As he walked, he patted his pockets, absentmindedly searching for the Turkish cigarettes he’d given up the year before. A middle-aged man pushing a noisy cart entered the park and approached him.

“Sweets, sir?” the man said in Russian.

The man’s clothes reeked of cigarettes. Joachim’s caution instantly turned to envy.God, I wish I had a smoke!

“No, thanks. It’s bad for my teeth.”

“But, sir, it is very good. Perhaps I can tempt you with a sample of fine ribbon candy. It is made with only the finest ingredients.”

Joachim stepped closer. “Perhaps just a small piece.”

The man dropped a small chunk of the confection into a little paper bag and murmured, “You are being followed.”

Joachim picked out a small sliver of candy and put it to his lips. “Of course I am. Everyone is followed these days.”


Page 7

The man raised his eyes ever so slightly. “He looks very young—probably just a messenger, but you never know.”

Joachim returned the candy to the bag without tasting it.

The man nodded. “Good, is it not?” The man murmured, “Be careful. Go to the Church of Peter and Paul. The priest will guide you. Ask for Father Alexi. Complain that it is hot today.”

The man started to move off when Joachim said, “Wait. I will buy some of your candy.”

The man smiled. “You are very kind, sir.”

Joachim overpaid the man and then walked to a wooden bench. His tail followed at a short distance. Sitting with his back to the wind, Joachim eyed the man’s reflection as it shimmered in a splash of water caught between a pair of paving stones a few feet from where he sat. Joachim stared at the wavy form.I hope I don’t have to kill this guy.

 

 

FATHER ALEXIfinished hoisting the big brass candelabra that hung in front of a niche chapel dedicated to the archangel Gabriel just as Joachim entered the church. The priest turned with a smile and said, “Welcome.”

“Father, I wonder if you could hear my confession?” Joachim asked in Russian—his accent clearly evident.

The priest narrowed his eyes, saying, “My son, the hours for confession are over. Perhaps—”

Joachim pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. Dabbing his forehead, he said, “It’s hot today, isn’t it?”

Father Alexi regarded him for a moment. “Come with me.”

Once inside the dark cubicle, the priest whispered, “Who sent you?”

“America.”

“America has a first name. What is it?”

“Jan,” replied Joachim.

Then the priest said, “You are Israeli?”

“Yes.”

After a long pause, the priest asked, “What do you need to know?”

“I’m looking for a young Frenchman. His name is Armande Bonnet. I believe he was hiking in the mountains. Do you know him?”

“Yes, he was here. He asked to see the church records from the time of the war—the first one, I mean.”

“Why? What was he looking for?”

“A grave, a Russian grave. He said it was his great-grandfather.”

“Bonnet isn’t a Russian name. Why would he say that unless he has Russian ancestry?”

The priest shrugged in the darkness. “I do not know. We did not talk about why he was looking for it. I showed him our archives. He was here for a whole day. I do remember he asked if we had maps. He found the gravesite nearby. Then he left.”

Father Alexi leaned forward. “May I ask why you are looking for him?”

“He’s missing. We believe al-Qaida in the East has him. Possibly in Iran, or Azerbaijan.”

“I see. Yes, any westerner is in danger out in the mountains, especially along the Iranian border. It may also explain his interest in maps…. But I wonder why would he go to the mountains if he found what he was looking for here?”

“I don’t know,” Joachim said. “But I have to find him.”

“Look in the village of Dolatska, on the Iranian border. If he was looking for trouble, that is the place he would go.”

Joachim made a mental note and then said, “I will go now—I was followed.”

“Before you go, I have something for you. I’m sure you had to leave your weapons behind when you entered the country.”

The grill screen that separated the men slid open. The priest handed Joachim a World War II vintage Luger pistol.

“The clip is full. I fired this gun just last week. It is very accurate.”

“Thank you, Father. I did not expect this.”

Father Alexi replied with the sign of the cross.

“May God go with you, my son, and remember your psalms. He who watches over Israel slumbers not nor does He sleep.”

Chapter 16

 

 

5,000 miles away in Philadelphia

 

EVERY CITYdiner has at least three breakfast crowds. The five to seven o’clock mob is made up of night shift crews mixed with prostitutes and their pimps headed for home after an exhausting night’s work.

The seven to eight o’clock customers are the nine-to-five types who work in the skyscraper offices that crowd center city.

The third, and last, set of breakfast patrons are coffee klatch regulars, retirees, and those lucky enough to sleep in while the rest of the world toiled away, keeping America rich. Jan Phillips fell into the last of those denizens of the Broad Street Diner. The diner was one way Jan connected with a time when he hadn’t had obscene amounts of money, a time when, as a boy, diner food was akin to ambrosia. It was also convenient on days when Amal made his morning prayer at his local mosque.

Jan left the serenity of his Camac Street townhouse and walked to the corner where the knobby cobblestone lane met the smooth macadam of Pine Street. He had lived in the single block neighborhood of antique brick townhouses for only a short while, but for the first time in his life, he had a home that was uniquely his.

It was just after eight o’clock this cool Friday morning. The night’s chill still clung to the red brick townhouses lining both sides of the street. Lingering wisps of silver morning fog shivered away as Jan walked carefully around the old sycamore trees that buckled the neighborhood’s ancient sidewalks. The great trees had already shed their broad leaves in thick damp pads. These had transformed the street into a jumbled quilt of brownish yellow and orange.

Gathering the collar of his suede jacket close around his neck, Jan marched in long strides from Camac Street to Pine Street. He turned right and headed up four blocks to the diner.

Eight o’clock is considered late morning in any big city, and crammed, jammed, noisy Broad Street was already flooded with delivery trucks and buses. Jan stopped at his favorite corner newsstand and grabbed aPhiladelphia Inquirerfrom the rack.

“How ya doin’, Mr. Phillips?” Betsy, the stand’s owner, said as she threaded errant strands of graying hair back behind her ears.

“Tip-top, Betsy, how about you?” Jan answered brightly.

“Couldn’t be better,” Betsy said as she pointed upward. “Will ya just look at that sky, Mr. Phillips? Have ya ever seen such colors?”

“Betsy, you do know that those beautiful colors are a result of air pollution, don’t you?”

“Spoilsport!” she laughed.

Jan waved her away with a cheerful grin as he sprinted down the sidewalk, up the concrete steps, through the double glass doors, and into a stainless steel rectangle that mimicked a Victorian railroad car. Even at this relatively late hour, the Broad Street Diner seethed like a beehive under a wasp attack.

The long room was flanked on one side by a chrome-rimmed counter covered with faded red Formica. Here men sat on backless stools. Bent over their food, they seemed unfazed by the chatter around them.

The window side of the diner boasted booths with red faux leather coverings, and featured the same tabletop design as the counter. A ceramic tile floor bore the scars of many years of use. Harsh blue light from a string of fluorescent bulbs presided over this surreal world of food odors, noise, and clinking tableware.

Jan disliked eating at the counter. He couldn’t spread out, and more to the point, he hated people watching him eat at close quarters. He looked around, hoping to nab an empty banquette. He saw none. Hope of spacious solitude dashed, he shuffled to the counter like a man condemned to a poison meal, when two men rose abandoning the coveted booth seats. Jan glanced around for potential competition before scurrying past the men and onto the still warm plastic. He looked back at the men as they paid their bill. Both looked Middle Eastern. One seemed vaguely familiar, but Jan couldn’t remember where he would have seen him.

You’re hallucinating. Hunger plays tricks—you know that.

Jan had slept late—consequently he was behind his time. His walk to the diner had made him starved for the diner’s spécialité de la maison—hearty Swedish pancakes with pure Vermont maple syrup. Weak from anticipation, Jan looked around for his favorite waitress. She was headed his way.

“Wanda, you spoil me! How did you know I was here?”

“I saw you walking up the street, so I had Cook make some for you,” Wanda said, stretching her long torso across the booth’s table, giving it a swipe with a damp cloth. She began piling the dirty dishes into a battered Tupperware bin with one hand, while she snatched the tip left by the previous customers with the other. As she tidied the sugar bowl and the salt and pepper shakers, a paper napkin slipped out from under a rack of worn menus. Jan picked it up and was handing it to Wanda to take away when he noticed something.

“Hello, what’s this?” he said.

“Just some leftover trash. Here, I’ll take it.”

“No wait,” Jan said, “There’s writing on it. Maybe it’s a love note.” He arched his eyebrows in mock excitement. “Or maybe it’s a treasure map.”

A busboy arrived with Jan’s meal. He handed it off to Wanda and retreated into the kitchen.

“Sweetie, you’re getting delusional from lack of food. Eat! Eat!” she said as she slid an oval platter piled with fluffy cakes onto the marred table. “The plate is still hot, so be careful.”

Jan pushed the plate of pancakes to one side and carefully opened the thin paper square to its full size.

 

 

HE FLIPPEDit front and back, turning it every which way. The words, some spelled out and others abbreviated, were written in black ink, some of which had bled through the tissue-like paper. After a frustrating moment, he sighed.

“Hmm… doesn’t make much sense, does it?”

“What did I tell you? We get all kinds in here. And most of them haven’t been taking their medicine,” she added, laughing.

Jan refolded the napkin and tucked it into his shirt pocket, snapped his morning paper open, and began to eat as he read the headline news: ANOTHER DIAMOND MERCHANT ROBBED IN JEWELER’S ROW. STUMPED POLICE SUSPECT FOUL PLAY.

Jan chuckled at the obvious jibe.I’d love to be there when the mayor reads this!

Thirty minutes later he had finished reading most of the newspaper and was staring through the restaurant’s fogged glass window, reflecting on his life. He had achieved much in the way of making a life when one considered his childhood years that could only be described as disadvantaged. However, he had been blessed with an excellent mind and an equally excellent parochial education. He couldn’t have known at the time what an extreme burden providing that schooling had been on his devout parents. Then there was Tim Morris—powerful, immensely wealthy, and at times, utterly insensitive to Jan and his visceral need to be loved.

Wanda approached the pensive Jan and asked, “Can I get you anything else, sweetie?”

“What?” Jan scanned the cutlery and peeked into the tiny coffee creamer. He said, “Oh, ah, no thanks, Wanda. I’m good.”

Jan downed the dregs of his now tepid coffee and picked up the bill Wanda left behind. He had noticed something intriguing on the napkin but he wasn’t about to share it with Wanda, nor did he want to open the fragile paper more than was necessary. Jan refolded his newspaper and slipped it under his arm. He left a generous tip for Wanda and headed for the cashier. He was anxious to get a better look at the napkin and its cryptic message.

Jan left the Broad Street Diner, heading home at a brisk pace with the full expectation of walking off much of his pancake breakfast. He stopped briefly on the corner of Broad and Lombard Streets to admire a gleaming Jaguar E-Type sports car parked close to the curb. Jan was no stranger to fast sports cars. It was an addiction he freely admitted to, and indulged in. He squatted beside the long car and studied his reflection. Like a lover fondling a new conquest, he delicately stroked the black paint. He chatted with the motorized feline. “God, you’re beautiful. It seems I’ve waited all my life to be this close to you. Before now I never realized how you excite me—may I kick your tires?”

Jan glanced at his reflection a moment more and ran his fingers though his golden hair. A reflection that was not his suddenly appeared. A voice spoke from behind him. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

Jan stood and turned. A long-dormant yet familiar tingle stirred in his loins. “Sure is—yours?”

An olive-skinned young man with masses of auburn curls and dark eyes faced Jan. A set of keys dangled loosely from his fingers.

“Yep. Wanna go for a ride?” the car’s owner said, with a twinkle in his eyes that could mean only one thing.

“Ah, no thanks, I have a date—with a lady.”

“Oh, gosh I’m sorry. No offense meant.”

“None taken,” replied Jan, smiling.

The young man returned Jan’s smile, and said with barely concealed disappointment, “Lucky lady.”

The Jaguar chirped as the electronic lock released its hold on the door. The owner slipped into the driver seat. A moment later the sleek cat leapt from the curb and fled into the morning traffic.

Jan watched as the car turned onto Pine Street and disappeared. He smiled at the obvious come-on.Hmm, he was cute.Then he remembered the napkin with its cryptic message.

I’ve got to get this to Mrs. Fabian.

Jan had met Aïda Fabian shortly after he took over the control as North American Mundus master. At the time, he remembered thinking Aïda was one of the most regal-looking women he’d ever seen—tall, with a peaches-and-cream complexion, she had long silvery hair all swept in a swirl atop her head. But it was the softness of her brown eyes that underscored what seemed to Jan to be her ability to read his soul.

Jan jogged home, arriving breathless on Camac Street. He picked his way over the leaf-strewn cobblestone street as he headed for Aïda Fabian’s home and their Friday morning ritual. Over a pot of Russian Caravan tea, the two played armchair sleuths as they discussed the latest offerings in the Philadelphia newspaper. Jan would select the most sensational headlines, and then the pair dissected and analyzed the articles in turn. He stopped just short of Aïda’s house and surveyed the charming street of aged façades, gnarled trees, and misshapen brick sidewalks. Here he’d begun to thrive among a cross section of fascinating people. “God, I love this place,” Jan admitted to the empty air.


Page 8

Chapter 17

 

 

Philadelphia

One block from Jeweler’s Row

 

BOBBY O’FARRELLparked his car in the Liberty Place parking garage. Today was special—the highlight of his career. Bobby was a courier, but not just any kind of courier. Many years ago, he’d forgotten how many, an unnamed caller left a phone message for the young, and at the time, unemployed man with a wife to support. There was a job to be had, if he wanted it. Yes, he wanted it!

On the seat next to Bobby was an attaché case complete with a security chain and wrist cuff. The case contained one of the rarest of all gemstones—the fabled Vice-Regal Diamond. The Indian king Nader Shir had the stone cut and fitted into a crown for his beloved queen. The diamond was all that remained of the more than one hundred rubies, pearls, and emeralds that had made up the headdress. Bobby had checked and rechecked the case before flying from New Delhi to Rome, and then on to Philly. His car was still in its usual place at the airport lot. A fine layer of grit testified that it had sat undisturbed for a week. No one knew, or was supposed to know, that he had the jewel with him, let alone that he was about to casually walk down a city street and deliver it to Spencer & Hillier, jewelers to Philadelphia’s glitterati.

Bobby drove the company car into the parking slot. He turned off the engine and pocketed the car keys. He brought the case onto his lap. Slipping the cuff over his right wrist, he closed and locked it then pushed the key into a tiny slit on the side of the attaché case. Only one other key matched the cuff’s lock, and that key was with Spencer & Hillier. He stepped out of the car, set the motion-sensitive alarm, then turned toward the car park’s exit.

The blow was crushing. Later, Bobby would say that he heard nothing, saw nothing, remembered nothing. Right now all he could think about was the awful pain. People were shouting questions at him.Who is the president of the United States?What city are you in? What was the Titanic? Do you speak English?Bobby tried to focus. He tried to answer, but all he could think of was the pain, and the blood.Why is there so much blood?

Chapter 18

 

 

Philadelphia

Thomas Jefferson Hospital

 

DANIEL JELSKIwalked into the hospital room.

“Mr. O’Farrell? My name is Daniel Jelski. I’m an attorney.”

Bobby looked up from the magazine he’d been reading.

“Attorney? I’m not buying a house, and I’m not suing anybody. I don’t need an attorney.”

“Sir, I don’t think you understand. It is you who is being sued… by Spencer and Hillier.”

Bobby furrowed his brow. “Sued? What for?”

“Not for the loss of the Vice-Regal Diamond,” Daniel said as he pulled a metal chair close to the bed and sat down. “You are bonded, of course. The insurance company will settle with any claimants, but the chance of avoiding a court appearance is unlikely. Spencer and Hillier is claiming that your losing the diamond caused them not to get the fee for their services, and, more importantly, they allege that this situation has cost them business. They feel that their one-hundred-year-old reputation is damaged.”

Daniel looked at Bobby, waiting for a response.

“Is this some kind of joke?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Bobby threw back the bedsheet. “Look at me! They cut off my hand, for Christ sake! So, what? You’re here to serve me papers? Nice of you to do it in person.”

“I’m not representing Spencer and Hillier. I’m here to represent you—that is, if you want me to.”

“What are you, some kinda ambulance chaser? You just hang around like a hyena waiting for the sick and the dying?”

Daniel slipped one of his business cards into Bobby’s left hand. Bobby saw Templars of Law embossed on the card. He looked more closely at Daniel. “You look familiar. Do I know you?”

“We’ve never been introduced,” Daniel answered, truthfully.

The two had never met, but Daniel remembered Bobby from the Kensington neighborhood where they grew up. He knew, too, that Bobby O’Farrell had once been Jan’s best friend.

Bobby tossed Daniel’s card aside saying, “Well, I can’t afford a lawyer, and I certainly can’t afford one with a Rittenhouse Square address!”

“Actually, I was hired to represent you.”

“Who would spend money on me?”

“Anonymous.”

“You don’t know who hired you?” Then sarcastically, “Now I know this is a joke.”

“Your benefactor, if I may use the term, wants to remain unknown. It’s not all that unusual.”

“Well, it is to me. If I didn’t hurt so much, I’d laugh.”

Daniel sighed and then shifted in the chair “Sir, we have a lot to talk about, and not much time to do it in. I have to say, you’re lucky to be alive. Your attackers didn’t count on you falling against your car. That’s what set off the alarm.”

Bobby held up his handless arm. “It didn’t stop them from doing this to me. How am I supposed to… to… and you say I’m lucky!”

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but let’s just get through this first, okay?”

Bobby shook his head wearily. “Where do you want me to start?”

Chapter 19

 

 

Camac Street, Philadelphia

 

AÏDA FABIAN’Shouse sat square in the middle of Camac Street. Two doors down on her right was Jan’s doublewide townhouse. Directly across from Jan’s house lived Kat Manlove, a woman straight from a Harlequin romance novel. To Aïda’s immediate left lived Larry Sinclair, an aging retired army general with a penchant for women’s underwear and vintage Balenciaga gowns. In many neighborhoods he would have been an object of scorn, but among the eccentric denizens of Camac Street, he was welcome.

“My dear, you mustn’t think harshly of the general,” Kat had said to Jan on their first meeting. She had dragged him toward a bouquet of mistletoe dangling from the ceiling. Sweeping her arm around the gaily decorated room, now crowded with people, she said, “As you can see, he throws the most wonderful parties!”

Two doors down from Kat Manlove, and directly across from Mrs. Fabian’s home, lived Charlotte De Vere. Every Friday morning, sleet, snow, or shine, Charlotte chaired the planning meeting of the Quaker City Opera Company.

This particular Friday Aïda Fabian sat patiently in her high, wingback chair. Her “power” chair as she called it. She was waiting for Jan. Beside the chair was her constant companion, Schiller, a 110 pound Rottweiler. Before her a gleaming silver tea set stood on a round table of bird’s-eye maple. Beside this table was a set of Sèvres china, reputedly owned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s onetime mistress, the Countess Maria Waleska. Aïda ran her fingertips over each piece. She knew where every item was, right down to the location of the spoons and white linen.

Opposite Aïda’s chair, a smaller version of her “power” chair waited for Jan. She kept it reserved for these Friday occasions. A tall case clock set between the front windows ticked away the minutes. Aïda thought that a clock’s tick-tock was the loneliest sound in the world.

“Wonder what’s keeping Jan,” Aïda said absently.

Schiller raised his massive head and replied with a heavy sigh before relapsing into his nap.

For many years Aïda had been a mover and shaker in Philadelphia politics. She knew everyone. She had been a powerful voice in Mundus, also. But that was before the accident. She picked up the morning paper and fingered the edges of the pages. Disgusted, she dropped it back onto a side table. Of course Aïda could read her own copy, specially delivered to her door each day, but that would mean reading in Braille and accepting for the millionth time that she was irretrievably blind. No, she preferred to wait for Jan.

Chapter 20

 

 

Philadelphia

Quaker City Opera House

 

CHARLOTTE DEVere looked up and shook away the mass of black curls that gathered around her face, just as Bruce Fletcher, the Quaker City Opera’s stage manager, hurried into the small conference room used for Friday staff meetings. Bruce muttered a muffled sorry and took his seat. His coffee, already poured, had gone cold. Nonetheless, he took a sip. Coffee preparation for meetings was Elizabeth’s expressed wish. Refusing to drink it, cold or blazing hot, would only beg the wrath of the company’s set director and the wrath of Elizabeth Morales, which was to be avoided whenever possible, as many a stagehand had learned from experience.

Before Charlotte could speak, Elizabeth Morales piped up, “Well, Bruce, where the hell is he?”

The “he” Elizabeth referred to was Aram Faji, the company’s costume designer.

“Thank you, Liz, you took the words right out of my mouth,” Charlotte said icily as she searched Bruce’s face for the answer.

“Damned if I know!” Bruce said. “The last time I saw him was Monday. He told me he’d have the new costumes ready today. When he didn’t show up this morning, I thought he might be sick, so I called his house. His phone has been disconnected. I even called the Broad Street Diner to see if he was still there.”

The two women exchanged wondering glances, and then looked at Bruce with expectant frowns.

“He has breakfast there every morning—I thought you knew.”

Charlotte drummed her fingernails on the tabletop and said, “I didn’t know. Is it important?”

“No… I guess not,” Bruce said, unsure why he felt embarrassed. He wrinkled his forehead. “You know, what’s weird is his phone being disconnected. People do that when they move house. You’d expect him to mention something if he was doing that, especially since he has a boy in school. Yet the people at the diner said he did eat there early this morning. They said they noticed him especially today because he’s usually alone, but today he was with somebody. So I can’t figure why he’s a no-show.”

“Well we can’t wait much longer. I have a meeting with Rena Frank to go over the program notes for the season. Aram’s report is the only item pending before finalizing the winter program,” Charlotte said. “I had my heart set on kicking off the season with the Handel.”

“What’s to stop us? He’s not the only one here who knows how to sew beads,” Elizabeth said.

“Don’t you have enough to do with the sets?” Bruce snapped. The remark was clearly intended to suggest that Elizabeth was putting her nose in where Bruce felt it didn’t belong.

“You had my set report last week. Did it look incomplete to you?” Morales said.

She didn’t wait for Bruce’s reply. Turning to Charlotte she said, “I could get a costume design proposal ready by next week.”

“What, another minimalist ensemble with black drapery and black pearls? People want pageantry, Liz! This is Handel for God’s sake, not Alvin Ailey!” Bruce said, his voice taking on a tone just short of derision.

The two turned and looked to Charlotte to decide which would win the battle of egos.

Charlotte bowed her head.These two are going to kill me! Aram is the only one who isn’t a prima donna around here!

Her choices were limited: wait for Aram to show up or cancel the hoped-for production of the rarely performedAlexander’s Feastand headlineCavalleriaRusticana, or let Liz Morales have a go at the costumes for theAlexander.

Charlotte said, “Okay, Liz, you give it a shot. If we have to, we can bump up the Cav. Then, if Aram shows up, we can reconvene. Anything else? No? Then we’re adjourned.”

Bruce and Elizabeth left Charlotte deep in thought. Tardiness was not in Aram Faji’s rulebook. That he had missed an important meeting was disturbing. She knew Aram well. He was talented, conscientious, and punctual. Charlotte knew something else about Aram the others did not. The two had been lovers. That was long before he had married, and before Charlotte was involved with the Quaker City Opera. The affair ended for a host of reasons that both acknowledged, but failed to comprehend in spiritual terms. Still, they remained friends. When Charlotte needed an artist who could manage huge costume designs and changes, she immediately thought of her former lover. There was another bit of information neither Elizabeth nor Bruce had. Aram had left a disjointed message on her home answering service the night before. Charlotte had been too tired to make anything out of it, and so she deleted it thinking Aram would explain everything at the meeting. Now she wished she hadn’t been so hasty.

Chapter 21

 

 

Sleuths

 

SCHILLER EMITTEDa cautious woof as Jan rapped on the door.

Jan pushed the front door open.

“Mrs. Fabian? Are you decent?”

“Alas, Jan, I’m fully dressed. I didn’t have time to slip into my peignoir before you arrived—forgive me?”

“I’ll try to get over it,” he laughed.

“Come sit down. The tea is ready and the bakery just sent over some apricot scones. I know how much you like them.”

Jan took his usual seat. Aïda ran her hands over the tea service until she found the pot and began pouring.

“You’re watching me,” Aïda scolded.

“I’m sorry. I’m just amazed how you do all this yourself.”

“It’s not so hard, Jan… once you get used to it…. So, what’s new in our fair city today?”

“Hmm? Oh, uh, nothing much to interest us.”

“Oh, that is disappointing. I was hoping for a real mystery.”

“There is one thing that’s got the cops puzzled. It’s that rash of thefts in the diamond district. It seems the thieves are hitting the couriers en route, which suggests an inside connection. They strike, lie low, and then strike again. Two of the couriers have been severely beaten, and one is permanently crippled. Needless to say, the gem merchants on Samson Street are on edge. The thing is, no one knows where the gems are, or even if they’re still in the country. They spend like cash and they’re untraceable.”

“I don’t doubt they are,” Aïda said.


Page 9

The pair sat silently sipping tea until Aïda said, “I heard on the radio that the Coast Guard pulled a body out of the river this morning. They were pretty vague about the circumstances. Now that would be interesting, don’t you agree?”

“Yes, and that reminds me. I have a real puzzle for you.”

“Oh good! I knew you wouldn’t let me down. What is it?”

“Well, I was at the Broad Street Diner, and I came across a paper napkin with writing on it—scribbling more like it. I can’t make heads nor tails of it. I thought this would be right up your alley.”

“Writing? What kind of writing?”

“Oh, it’s English, but it’s a jumble of words and initials, with a few numbers thrown into the mix. Oh, yeah, and there’s a chemical formula. I’ll need to work it out when I get time.”

“What makes you think it means anything other than just someone doodling?”

“Call it a hunch.”

Aïda said, “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

“It’s kinda fragile, so I have to be careful with it,” Jan said. “Now there’s writing on both sides. I’ll read each word as it occurs on the topside from left to right. Then I’ll read the reverse side the same way. Okay?”

“Whatever you say, just don’t keep me in suspense!”

“Well, here goes.” Jan read, “THEIR AF; EYES GFH are all in upper case. Then the numbers 555-0055—looks like a phone number.”

“That’s not all, is it?” Aïda asked anxiously.

“No. There’s a drawing of an X-shaped shield with cross-hatching across the top, and what looks like the radiation symbol, except it has one too many blades surrounding the center dot. And, as I said, there is this chemical structure. There’s also a drawing of what looks like a windmill, but one of the blades is missing.”

Aïda rubbed her forehead. “Jan, are you sure this is supposed to mean something?”

“Mrs. Fabian, I’m not sure of anything, but there’s more. I just have to flip it over without tearing it.”

“Oh, this is exciting! I love brain teasers, don’t you, Jan?”

“So long as they don’t give me a headache, yes…. Okay, here goes; That; From; Flash; Sparkles; The.”

Jan concluded the description adding, “There’s another X-shaped symbol with the same cross-hatching across the top and number 3 in the center. Below this is a series of what looks like flames, at least that’s how I see them, and a cloud of smoke leaping up around the whole thing.”

After a long silence Aïda said, “Have some more tea, dear.”

“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“Of course not! I want you to take this into my study and type the whole thing out on my Braille computer. You’ll have to do the drawings by hand with the punch. I’ll look it over tonight.”

“I’ll do the drawing and send Amal over with them. Now I’ve got to get going.”

“Oh, so soon?”

“Sorry, I’m off to toil in the cause of justice.”

“Don’t work too hard,” Aïda said to the door as it closed softly, leaving her alone with the clock’s tick-tock.

Chapter 22

 

 

Salem, New Jersey

 

DUSK WASgathering up the remnants of daylight, pushing them deeper into darkness. A black sedan slowly made its way along an elevated dirt and gravel track. The road, just wide enough to allow a car to pass, snaked through a marshy floodplain along the Delaware River. Adel Kamiri drove. His destination was a two-story hunting lodge made of dull red brick. Slight of build, with dark brown hair and dark eyes that blazed with hatred for the infidel, Adel was what was known as a gatherer. His task was to locate and bring together the sleepers of al-Qaida of the East—those who stood ready to bring the great whore America to its knees. Two men sat in the rear of the car. Known only by their first names, Naji and Firouz, they carried with them the ciphered instructions for what would be a cataclysmic event, one that would overshadow all other attacks upon those who would deny the right of Islam to rule the world.

Adel maneuvered the car close to the rear of the house and turned off the engine. A shadow of a man moved in the distance. “Who is that?” Firouz asked nervously.

“His name is Sinan,” Adel said. “He likes to take walks in the marsh. He said it reminds him of his home near Hawizeh.”

Seeming satisfied, Firouz changed the subject. “I have not eaten since afternoon prayer. Can we not go inside?”

“Be patient,” Adel said. “We must wait a moment longer. This may be America, but we still may not enter a house without an invitation.”

“Is this where we will meet our leader?” Naji asked as he peered out into the darkness.

“I do not know,” Adel answered. “I have never met our leader. Perhaps he will join us, but I cannot say.”

Just then a woman, her head covered with a tight scarf of black cotton, opened the back door and walked the short distance that separated the house from the parking pad. She approached the car, her hands folded under her chin.“As-salāmu ʿalaykumā,”she said.

The three men exited the car and replied,“Waʿalaykumu s-salām.”

“My name is Daria. Come, you will want to eat. I have already set out meals for you. Sinan has already eaten.”

Firouz hurried after the woman while Naji and Adel unloaded their backpacks from the car’s trunk.

Naji laughed. “Sinan thinks only of food!” Naji turned to see a deep scowl on Adel’s face.

“He had better start thinking of other things,” Adel said. “Hunger is nothing compared to our great endeavor.”

“Enshallah.”

Adel nodded. “Yes, Naji. If Allah wills it.”

 

 

OUTSIDE, THEdeep darkness was broken by a sky of scattered stars. Inside, a fire in the hearth warmed a small arc in front of a sofa. Low-watt lightbulbs in the lamps gave off just enough light to read by. Once they had eaten and their evening prayers had been said, Daria cleared the dishes away, and then joined her coconspirators gathered in the living room. The men sat on a threadbare sofa. Its pattern, if there ever was one, had been erased by many seasons of use. They began to smoke what would be many cigarettes over the course of the evening. Daria, according to custom, had eaten alone in the small kitchen. Now she sat on a straight-backed chair of hard wood. She did not smoke.

“Sinan,” Daria asked, “how was your walk in the marsh?”

The handsome young man smiled. “You would not believe the number of animals I have seen here that live also in Hawizeh! It is truly amazing.”

Daria gave an indulgent smile. She knew that the nineteen-year-old would probably not live to see his beloved home once they began their mission. She looked at each man with a mixture of pride and sadness.Still, if we are to see the global caliphate that the Supreme Leader has promised, it must be so.

Puzzled, Naji looked around the room and asked, “Only five? Will anyone else be joining us?”

Daria answered, “Our beloved faith has but five pillars. Five will be sufficient.”

“Our team leader may have something to say about that!” Firouz said.

Adel gave Daria a questioning look. “Daria, what is going on? Where is the leader?”

Daria stood. Looking each man in the eye, she said, “I am your team leader.”

Naji leapt to his feet. “What is this? You, a woman…!”

“Sit down, Naji!” Daria said.

Turning to Firouz she asked, “You have our final instructions?”

Firouz nodded. “I have them here beside me. They are in a code I know well.”

“Firouz, that is one of the reasons you were chosen for our work here. You know the cipher. Read the words, and see who is named as your leader.”

Firouz unsealed a large manila envelope. He pulled out a map and single sheet of paper. Firouz read aloud the ciphered message from a commander in the Revolutionary Guard. The orders were brief and to the point. The team was to detonate plastic explosives at three nuclear power plants along the highly populated areas of the United States. Each member was personally chosen, and was instructed to follow the team leader’s directives without question. Firouz stumbled when he came to Daria’s name but read on. “It says Daria has been given the highest clearance for this mission.”

The men sat in stunned silence. Their world had suddenly taken a decidedly upside-down turn.

“Now that that issue is out of the way,” Daria said, “let us discuss the Vice-Regal Diamond. Once it is in the hands of our contact in Amsterdam, he will make the last deposit of money into our account. From this, we can purchase the remaining materials necessary for our little dirty bombs. Our job is to place the bombs at each of the nuclear power stations from New York down to here in New Jersey.” Daria pointed to a spot on the map. “You can see we are quite close to the Salem plant. As soon as I get the signal that we have succeeded in placing the bombs, I will detonate them simultaneously. Our man in Pyongyang will be richer than he already is, and we will have served a great cause. But first comes the money. The Supreme Leader has chosen for this operation the code name,Revenge!”

“I do not like dealing with the godless North Koreans,” Adel said.

Daria smiled. “Once the world caliphate is established, they will no longer be godless.”

“Enshallah,” the men responded in unison.

Sinan had remained silent for most the conversation. He now stood on shaky legs. “We have a problem.”

“What?” Daria asked.

“As you know, Daria, our plan to have the diamond cut into pieces was aborted, because our Amsterdam contact wanted it intact… or no money… and so Adel and I got the diamond from that stupid American as he was taking it to the jewelers. We searched for the key, but we couldn’t find it. In the end, I had to cut the attaché case off his wrist. Aram Faji was there with us. I can tell you that involving him was a mistake. He became very agitated. He began to say he didn’t want any part of this. Since the plan was to have him keep the diamond safe, and because, in my opinion, the plan had been wrongly changed once already, I decided to go ahead with having Aram take it. Anyway, he was supposed to hide the diamond until it arrived in Amsterdam. When Adel and I met with Aram at the Broad Street Diner, he said he no longer had the diamond.”

Daria held up her hand. The others sat stunned. “Sinan,” she said, “are you telling us that we no longer have this jewel, the jewel that’s supposed to pay for the last, and most important, segment of the plan? Is that what you’re saying?”

Sinan hung his head and nodded. “After we left the diner, I followed Aram. I caught up with him near the river. There is an abandoned warehouse by the water. I don’t know why he went there. I thought he had hidden the diamond there. At first we just argued, but then he yelled he was no longer a jihadist. He said we were going to be mass murderers and that Allah would punish us. He just kept yelling and yelling. I was afraid someone would hear us. We fought. I thought I could make him tell me where he hid the diamond. I lost my head. I kept hitting him. I… I killed him. I wasn’t thinking! I didn’t mean to… I… I am sorry.”

Daria grabbed Sinan by his hair and shook him so hard he fell to his knees. “You stupid, stupid man! I swear by Allah if we fail because of you, I will kill you with my bare hands! I’d do it now if our mission didn’t need you alive.”

Daria pushed the man away and then turned to Adel. “And you, Adel. What were you doing when this idiot was killing our best link to success?”

Adel shifted uneasily. “I was up by the road that leads to the warehouse. I was to warn Sinan if someone came. I—”

Daria held up her hand. “That’s enough! I can’t listen to any more excuses.”

The room went silent. Daria paced in the lamps’ dim light.

“So now we have no idea where the diamond is.” Daria said this more to herself than to the others. “I cannot believe our sacred mission rests on a rock… I must consider what to do next. We have not come this far to fail.”

“We still have a large amount of explosives,” Sinan said hopefully. “We could go to a large city and set them off.”

Daria frowned at the man. “If it comes to that, then so be it. But before that I need to think. Perhaps there is a way to fix this mess you’ve gotten us into.”

Adel stubbed out his cigarette and stood. He began turning off the lamps until only the light from the glowing fireplace lit the room. “I am going to bed. There is nothing we can do tonight.”

The men left the room, leaving Daria to formulate a new plan of attack.

Chapter 23

 

 

Diamonds in Disguise

 

LIZ MORALESsat in the middle of a kaleidoscope of color and texture that swirled from rack upon rack of costumes. Clothes made by Aram Faji for the Quaker City’s production of Handel’s rarely performedAlexander’s Feast.

I can’t believe this,she thought as she ran her hand over sheer gauze and silk dresses studded with glittering gems of blue sapphire, red garnet, yellow topaz, and dazzling diamonds: all beautiful, all fake.

In one corner, mannequins stood like silent Macedonian warriors—their forms dressed in full battle gear. Helmets festooned with red plumes of faux horsehair gleamed under the studio’s fluorescent lights. The scent of yards of leather used for everything from shield coverings to sandals hung lightly in the air. Pinned to one of the garments was an invoice from a trim shop.

Bruce Fletcher rapped on the door before entering Aram’s studio.

“My God, Liz! This is amazing!”

Liz looked up at her rival. “Yeah, I know. I can’t believe it myself.”

“What are you going to do?” Bruce said.

“Nothing. It’s all done. I guess you get the last laugh on me, Bruce.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m not laughing…. Come on, we’d better tell Charlotte.”

“She’s not here. She went home early. I’ll speak to her when she comes in tomorrow.”

Bruce switched off the lights as the two left the studio. “I guess Charlotte gets her wish after all.”

“What do you mean?” Liz asked, puzzled.

“Looks like we’ll be doing the Handel after all…. Amsterdam here we come, again!”


Page 10

Chapter 24

 

 

Charlotte De Vere’s Townhouse

 

CHARLOTTE DEVere was, as they say in all the TV soap operas, very much in love—in point of fact she was in love with Daniel Jelski. In her opinion, Daniel had all the winning qualities that made women fall head over heels for a man: humor, cheerfulness, generosity, dashing good looks, and oh yes, solvency. Yet she judged as chief among his lovable traits his aura of peaceful strength. It was the kind of self-possessed power that only the truly strong can afford to display. Daniel did so with fearless modesty.

Charlotte listened to the mantel clock in the living room strike eleven thirty. It had been a long day. Aram Faji was dead—murdered. The police had told her this when they showed up at her office at the Quaker City Opera Company. Not only had he been murdered, but it washisheadless body, the police detective told her, that had been fished from the Delaware River. After learning precious little from her, the police left Charlotte to mull over the loss of her friend. Her friend. What did she know about him—really know? That he was a master costume designer? Yes. That he was friendly, talkative, and even handsome? Yes. Once, they had been more than friends, yet Charlotte never met his family. Like so many people, Aram Faji was simultaneously an open book full of ciphers. After their breakup Aram married, and later he seemed distracted. Charlotte never pried. Perhaps she should have.

The only bright spot in her day was that Daniel would be arriving soon. With this promise in mind, she made her way to the second floor of her eighteenth century townhouse. First, she would shower, then slip into a negligee of shimmering cream-colored silk. A dab of perfume behind each ear and on her wrists would finish off the mood. Daniel had given her the perfume as a Christmas gift the first year they had met.

“I don’t know much about perfume,” he’d confessed, “but the woman at the scent counter said it was a classic from France.I hope you like it.”

Charlotte not only loved the perfume, that night she fell in love with Daniel Jelski. As she slipped into bed, she mused on how improbable it was for the two of them to be together; she an ambassador’s daughter, and he a man from what is euphemistically referred to as “the other side of the tracks.” None of that mattered. She loved Daniel. Charlotte closed her eyes and shivered at the thought that soon he would be deep inside her.

 

 

DANIEL FISHEDout the door key to Charlotte’s home and entered a room straight from a Town and Country catalogue.

An antique Turcoman carpet sprawled left to right over the flame-colored pine floor before ending at the foot of a wood-burning fireplace. Set facing the fireplace were mahogany end tables topped with lamps made from antique ginger jars. These flanked a sofa slip covered in a bright tartan fabric. A wall of exposed red brick opposite the front door played host to a double set of American Empire bookcases. Sandwiched behind the brick wall and that of the dining room, a flight of stairs led to the second-floor bedroom where Charlotte waited.

Chapter 25

 

 

Billing and Cooing

 

DANIEL SLIPPEDfrom the bed. He headed for the shower where Charlotte stood swathed in warm mist. He pulled back the glass door and swept her into his arms.

“I thought you were asleep,” she said, nuzzling her face against his shoulder.

“I can’t sleep. This case I’m working on is really disturbing.”

“You mean the courier who was maimed?”

Daniel nodded.

“Come on, I’ll wash your back. You’ll feel better. By the way, I stopped in to see Aïda today,” Charlotte said as she lathered Daniel’s back. “She’s all excited over a puzzle Jan gave her.”

“Jan told me he wanted me to try my hand at it too. I guess he’ll show it to me when he’s ready. I can’t imagine why he thinks it’s important.”

“Beats me. Aïda said it was a jumble.” Charlotte turned. “Here, do my back. I can never reach it.” Daniel swabbed a soapy loofah sponge over Charlotte’s smooth skin.

“Umm, that feels so good,” she cooed.

“Glad you like it. Your muscles seem tense. I wasn’t too rough last night, was I?”

“Of course not. I’m not made of sugar. It’s just I also got some bad news. Our costume designer, Aram Faji, was murdered. Someone cut his head off and dumped him into the river. No one knows where his family is. I still can’t get it out of my mind. I mean, who would want to killhim, of all people?”

“My God, that’s terrible! You say his name is Faji? Is he, was he an Arab?”

“No, Iranian… why?”

Daniel shrugged. “Just wondering.”

Charlotte ran her hand down Daniel’s stomach. Cupping his balls, she squeezed gently. She pulled Daniel in close. “You smell nice enough to make love to. How about it, big fella?”

“Big fella and I have to get home. I have a busy day. We’re still on for tomorrow?” Daniel said.

“I’ll be there,” Charlotte said with a smile.

Chapter 26

 

 

Templars of Law

Rittenhouse Square

 

DANIEL ANDJan stood at the window that overlooked the park and the fountain that made up Rittenhouse Square. The fountain was silent. The naked trees seemed to shiver in the cold air. Only the pigeons and squirrels remained animated as they searched for food. It was late afternoon. Just above the city skyline, the cold western sun showed a dull face. Jan took a sip of his favorite drink, Campari liqueur over cracked ice, with a twist of lemon. Jan gestured to the mahogany dry bar set against the wall.

“Make yourself a drink.”

“Thanks, but I’m going out tonight—a fund-raiser for our beloved mayor. I expect there will be plenty to drink later.”

“Careful driving home,” Jan said.

Daniel nodded but said nothing to this.

“How did you make out with O’Farrell?”

“I think he recognized me, or at least he thought he did. I put the idea out of his head,” Daniel said. “He doesn’t know I’m your brother. If he did, he’d put two and two together pretty quickly.”

“I prefer he not know.”

“Jan, why do you look out for him? I mean, when he thought he wanted to be a chemist, you fixed it so he could get into Drexel. He didn’t have the grades to make it, but still, you smoothed it over for him. Then when he was married and out of work, you got him the job he has, or had. Of all the people from the old neighborhood, why him?”

“Let’s just say, he did me a favor—once.”

“A favor? What kind of favor?”

Jan turned and looked at Daniel without speaking, a look that in itself spoke volumes.

“Okay, I get it. Case closed.”

“Just make this suit go away,” Jan said. “Explain to Jack Spencer just how bad for business hauling a maimed man into court would be for them. If he doesn’t come around, tell him I’d consider it a favor. He owes me one, but Daniel, don’t go there unless you have to. It’s always good to keep these kinds of debts owed, but unpaid.”

Daniel walked over to the drinks stand and poured himself a small scotch and soda. He took a sip and walked back to the window. He looked down at the people, all hurrying with lives to live.

Jan eyed the drink. “I thought you didn’t want one…. What’s up?”

Daniel took another sip. “I got a letter from Sonya. She’s getting married—some guy—professional ski instructor.”

When Jan didn’t reply, his brother went on. “I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s been over five years since the divorce. I’ve moved on with my life. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t. I sold the house in Saint David’s. She loved that house so much. It’s so quiet—not like the city. I’m sending the money to her… I’m babbling. Sorry…. Oh, she said to say hello.” Daniel said all this without turning.

“You seem sad about it,” Jan said.

“Not sad, just bittersweet… the baby dying, me being away at the office so much, then the nightmares. She never got over killing those men in Sudan. Yes, they were slave traders, and they were as bad as men get. Yes, it was a sanctioned kill, and yes, you tried to talk her out of going to Sudan in the first place, and yes she was so fired up about what kind of people they were, she couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge that she might have to kill to make her anger go away. She tried hard to put it behind her, maybe too hard. We both did. I knew when she said she wanted a separation that she wouldn’t come back.”

Jan felt as responsible for Daniel’s marriage breakup as anyone. He could have vetoed Sonya joining the strike team that took out the pasha and his gang of human traffickers. He could have stood firm, but in the end, over Daniel’s objections, Jan allowed Sonya to go. As good intentioned as it was, the “righteous kill,” as Daniel put it, had unintended consequences.

“You and Charlotte are getting along?”

“Yeah. Funny, I never liked opera. If you hadn’t pulled me along that night, I never would have met her. And to think she lives right across the street from you—Hey! You didn’t plan this, did you?”

Jan chuckled. “What do you take me for—a puppet master? No, I didn’t, but Charlotte’s a fine woman. And you’re a good man. I’m happy for you both. By the way, now that the house is sold, where will you be living?”

“I’ve got an apartment near the art museum. Charlotte suggested I move in with her, but I’d rather wait awhile.”

“I can see that. I’d offer you a room at my place, but that’d just cramp your style.”

“My style? That’s a laugh. I’m as smooth as a burlap sack.”

“Baloney. If you’ve got Charlotte De Vere as a lover, you’ve got something most men don’t.”

Daniel flushed. “Now you’re embarrassing me.”

“I meant it,” Jan said.

Daniel shook his head. “Let’s change the subject. Do you want to join Charlotte and me tonight? We have room at our table, and I know Charlotte would love it.”

“I’m going out myself tonight.”

“Oh?”

Jan chuckled without mirth. “It’s Larry Sinclair’s pre, pre, pre, pre-Christmas party.”

“Geez, how many Christmas parties does he throw?”

“My guess is, as many as he can squeeze in from Thanksgiving to December twenty-fifth.”

“Sinclair doesn’t seem like your kinda guy… a little over the top, if you know what I mean.”

“Daniel, you have no idea, until you see him in one of his ball gowns.”

“You’re joking. He’s a decorated general!”

“What do you want me to say? He’s a nice guy, and by all accounts a brave soldier. Clothes don’t always make the man.”

“Suit yourself. You could spend the evening sitting in chairs that were never designed for humans, eating expensive and highly indigestible food while getting your pocket picked by a politician.”

This made Jan laugh. “Something tells me I’m going to have more fun.”

“Ahem.”

Jan and Daniel turned to see Marsha Betterman standing behind them.

“Eavesdropping on the boss, Marsha?” Jan said.

Marsha ignored the remark. “Daniel, Miss De Vere called. She said she’ll meet you at the Four Seasons at 7:00 p.m.”

“Thanks, Marsha. I’d better get going. Can’t keep hizzonor the mayor waiting.”

Jan looked at his wristwatch. “I’ve got to get going too. See you tomorrow?”

Daniel nodded, downed the rest of his drink. “I’ll be here.”

Chapter 27

 

 

Larry Sinclair’s Townhouse

 

JAN BANGEDthe brass door knocker, made in the shape of a field cannon. He looked at the mistletoe garland that drooped from the door’s lintel and frowned.I hope Larry doesn’t try to kiss me!

The man who opened the door wasn’t Larry Sinclair. He was the guy with the auburn curls and dark eyes whom Jan had met outside the Broad Street Diner.

“Well hello. We meet again. Is it fate, or coincidence?” the man said.

Jan blinked his loss for words.

“Don’t just stand there, come in. Come in!”

“Thanks,” Jan said as he stepped into a large room made small by an enormous Christmas tree. Nearby, a long mahogany trestle table bore the weight of silver platters andépergnesspilling over with every kind of food. At each end of the table, crystal punch bowls brimmed with mulled wine. The aroma of cinnamon and evergreen filled the air. From a mezzanine above the living room, a string quartet played a Bach concerto.

“I’d ask to take your coat, but you’re not wearing one—and I still don’t know your name.”

Jan smiled. “Well for starters, my name is Jan Phillips, and I’m not wearing a coat because I live just a few doors from here.”

“How convenient. My name’s Stephen Roman. I’m the official greeter and drink getter.”

The two shook hands. Roman had the firm grip of a man sure of himself. Jan looked around at the crowded room and chuckled. “Stephen, it looks like you’re in for a long night.”

“What are you drinking?” Stephen said as he guided Jan toward a bar.

“Campari over ice with a twist, if you have it.”

As if by magic, a short glass filled with the ruby liqueur appeared. Jan took a sip. He winked at Stephen and said, “Smooth, very smooth.”

“I’m glad you approve,” Stephen said coyly.

Jan just shook his head at the flirting. It was something he hadn’t done in many years. He made his way to where Larry Sinclair was holding court at the steps leading up to the mezzanine.

“Well as I live and breathe! Look everyone. It’s the all too elusive, and may I say gorgeous, Jan Phillips!”

The group of men and women, who were often referred to as “the beautiful people,” parted like the proverbial Red Sea. Larry, dressed in a vintage Elsa Schiaparelli red velvet gown, rose, reached out, and pumped Jan’s hand, holding on just a tad too long before releasing it.

Jan swept the room with a glance. “Larry, you’ve outdone yourself.” He moved in close to Larry’s ear. “Who is Stephen Roman? I mean, what’s his story?”

“Are you interested?”

“Maybe.”

“Well so am I, but alas, so is half of Philadelphia. The other half will be too, once they get a look at him.”

Advertising Download Read Online
Other books
alyzon whitestarr by isobelle carmody
unfaded by sarah ripley
dead: confrontation by brown, tw
milosevic by adam lebor
be near me by andrew o'hagan
sentenced to death by barrett, lorna
truths of the heart by rockey, g.l.