The Judas Strain

Page 27

Seichan had sounded relieved. "Then we don't have much time. Many lives are in jeopardy. If you could gather your resources, figure out what—"

"I know what the inscription means, Seichan," Vigor had scolded, cutting her off. "And I know what it implies. If you want to know more, you'll both meet me at Hotel Ararat in Istanbul. I'll be there seven in the morning. At the rooftop restaurant."

After the call, Seichan had hurriedly arranged false papers and coordinated their transportation. She had assured him the Guild knew nothing of her contacts. "Just favors owed," she had explained.

Seichan twisted with a wince to face him, drawing him back to the present. Her elbow bumped her cup of tea. Gray caught it before it went tumbling to the street below. She stared at the jostled cup with the slightest pinch of concern at the corner of her eyes. Gray suspected such carelessness was rare for this woman, someone always in control.

Just as quickly, her expression hardened again.

"I know I've kept you in the dark," she said. "Once Monsignor Verona arrives, I will explain everything." She nodded toward him. "But what about you? Did you make any headway with the obelisk's writing?"

He merely shrugged, letting her think he knew something.

She stared—then sighed. "Fine."

She returned to their table.

Seichan had supplied Gray with photographs and a printed copy of the angelic script. En route here, he had attempted to break whatever code was locked within the script, but there were too many variables. He needed more information. And besides, Gray suspected he already knew the message of the code: break open the obelisk and find the treasure inside.

They'd already done that.

Gray wore the silver crucifix on a cord around his neck. He had already examined it. It was definitely old, well worn. Even under a magnifying lens, he could discern no writing, no clues of any significance that would confirm Seichan's wild claim that the cross once belonged to the confessor of Marco Polo, the world traveler and explorer.

Alone at the railing, Gray studied the city, already bustling in the early morning. Below, buses competed with cars and pedestrians. The bleat of horns attempted to drown out the sharper cries of hawkers and the continual babble of early-morning tourists.

He searched the immediate vicinity, watching for any sign of threat or suspicious approach. Had they shaken Nasser? Having put half the world between them, Seichan seemed confident. But Gray refused to let his guard down. Below, in the hotel's courtyard, a pair of men rose from beaded blankets, finished with their morning prayers, and vanished back into the hotel. Alone now, a child splashed absently in the lobby fountain.

Satisfied, Gray allowed his gaze to shift momentarily higher. Hotel Ararat stood in the heart of Istanbul's oldest district, the Sultanahmet. All the way to the sea, ancient structures rose like islands from the muddle of the lower streets. Right across from the hotel, the lofty domes of the Blue Mosque climbed into the sky. Farther down the street, a massive Byzantine church stood half swallowed by black scaffolding, as if the ironwork sought to clutch the structure to the earth's bosom. And beyond the scaffolding, the Topkapi Palace sprawled amid courtyards and gardens.

Gray felt the weight of ages in these grand architectural masterpieces, stone monuments of history. His fingers absently fingered the cross around his neck. Here was another piece of antiquity, its provenance ripe with historical significance. But what did it have to do with Seichan's global threat? A cross that once belonged to Marco Polo's priest?

"Hey, Ali Baba," Kowalski called out behind him. "One more of these licorice drinks."

Gray bit back a groan.

"It is called raki," a new voice corrected, full of professorial authority.

Gray turned. A familiar and welcome figure stepped from the shadowed stairway onto the rooftop terrace. Monsignor Vigor Verona spoke in Turkish to the tea waiter, polite, apologetic. "Bir sise raki lutfen."

The waiter nodded with a smile and stepped away.

Vigor approached their table. Gray noted the lack of Roman collar around the man's neck. Plainly the monsignor was traveling incognito. Free of the collar, Vigor appeared a decade younger than his sixty years. Or maybe it was the casual manner of his dress: blue denim jeans, hiking boots, and a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He also carried a weathered backpack over one shoulder. He looked ready to scale the mountain for which Hotel Ararat was named, off on a search for Noah's Ark.

And perhaps once upon a time, the monsignor had made that very trek.

Before rising to prefect of the Vatican's archives, Vigor had served the Holy See as a biblical archaeologist. Such a position had also allowed him to serve the Vatican in one other manner. As spy. Vigor's cover as an archaeologist had permitted him to travel broadly and deeply, perfect for filtering intelligence and information back to the Holy See.

Vigor had also helped Sigma in the past.

And it seemed his expertise was needed once again.

Vigor settled to the seat with a long sigh. The tea waiter returned and settled a steaming cup of tea in front of their new arrival.

"Tesekkurler," Vigor said, thanking the man.

Kowalski shifted straighter as the waiter departed, staring between his empty glass and the back of the man's embroidered vest. He slumped, swearing softly under his breath about the poor service.

"Commander Pierce. Seichan," Vigor began. "Thank you for honoring my request. And Seaman Joe Kowalski. Wonderful to make your acquaintance."

A few other pleasantries were passed around. Vigor haltingly mentioned his niece Rachel-It was an awkward subject. Rachel and Gray's breakup had been a mutual understanding, but Vigor was still very protective of his neice. Not that she needed it. It seemed Rachel was faring well as a lieutenant with the Italian carabinieri, even gaining a pay grade.

Still, Gray was happy when Seichan interrupted. "Monsignor Verona, why did you summon us all the way to Istanbul?"

Vigor silenced her with a raised palm, sipped from his tea, then lowered his cup precisely to the tabletop. "Yes, we'll get to that. But before that, 1 want two things settled at the start. First, wherever this leads, I'm coming with you." He pinned Gray with a firm, unwavering stare—then swung his sights on Seichan. "Second, but no less important, I want to know what all this has to do with our illustrious Venetian explorer Marco Polo."

Seichan started. "How did you... I never mentioned anything about Marco Polo?"

Before Vigor could respond, the waiter returned. Kowalski glanced up, hope in his eyes. Those same eyes widened further when the waiter produced a full bottle of raki and propped it in front of the former seaman.

"I ordered you a half liter," Vigor explained.

Kowalski reached over and squeezed Vigor's arm. "Padre, you're all right in my book."

Gray turned his attention to Seichan. "So what does all this have to do with Marco Polo?"

Midnight Washington, D. C.

The black BMW sedan turned off Dupont Circle and glided through the darker streets. Its xenon headlights carved a bluish path down the elm-lined avenue. Rows of apartment buildings framed the street, creating an urban canyon.

It was nothing like the canyons of Nasser's own land, where only goats roamed and caves and tunnels served as homesteads for the wandering Afghani tribes. Yet even that land was not truly his home. His father had left Cairo when Nasser was eight years old, off to Afghanistan after its liberation from Russian forces, to join those who sought a purer Islam. Nasser's younger brother and sister had been dragged there, too. They'd had no choice. On the eve of their departure, his father had strangled his mother, using Nasser's own school scarf. His mother had not wanted to leave Egypt, to vanish forever beneath a burka. She had talked, complained in the wrong ears.

The children had been forced to watch, kneeling in obeisance, as their mother's eyes bulged, tongue swollen, punished by their father's hand.

It was a lesson Nasser learned well.

To be cold. In all ways.

The xenon lamps swept around a corner. From the passenger seat, Nasser motioned to the middle of the block. "Stop there."

The driver, his broken nose bandaged after the failed kidnapping, slid the sedan to the curb. Nasser twisted around to face the rear seat. Two figures huddled close together.

Annishen, dressed all in shades of black, almost faded into the leather furniture. She even wore a hood over her shaved scalp, giving her a monkish appearance. Her eyes shone brightly out of the darkness. She had one arm around her companion, leaning close, intimate.

He still mewled around the gag. Blood blackened one side of his face and throat. In his bound hands, clutched between his knees, he still held his own right ear. Nasser had discovered the man's name in a Rolodex.

A doctor.

"Is this the place?" Nasser asked.

The man nodded vigorously, squeezing his eyes shut after verifying the address.

Nasser studied the building's lobby. A night watchman was stationed behind a desk inside. A security camera protruded above the bulletproof glass doors. Full security. Nasser rubbed his thumb along the edge of the electronic key in his hand, a gift courtesy of their passenger.

After a full day, Nasser was finally back on the trail of the American and the Guild traitor. Last night, he had searched the small home in the Takoma Park neighborhood. He had discovered Seichan's damaged motorcycle in its garage, but little else. There had been no sign of the obelisk, except for a broken fragment of Egyptian marble in the driveway.

But inside the house, Allah had smiled upon him.

Nasser had discovered a Rolodex.

With several doctors' names.

It had taken the rest of the day to find the right one.

He turned around again.

"Thank you, Dr. Corrin. You've provided the leverage I'll need."

Nasser had no need to nod to Annishen. Her blade slipped between the man's ribs and opened his heart. It was a Mossad technique that Nasser had taught Annishen. He had employed it himself only once before.

As his father knelt in prayer.

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