The Judas Strain

Page 40

The curator didn't seem to hear. He had already turned to one of the guards and spoke rapidly in Turkish.

Vigor understood.

This was even worse.

"No, no," Vigor insisted, glancing hard to Gray. "I'm sure our student doesn't need to be taken to the hospital. No ambulance is needed."

Gray's eyes widened. They could not leave the church. Their distraction had only succeeded in getting them deeper and deeper into hot water.

"The monsignor is right." Gray flexed and rotated his arm. Vigor noted a flinch. Gray really had hurt his arm. "Just sprained a bit. I'll be fine."

"No. I insist. It is museum policy. If anyone is injured on the premises, a hospital visit is mandatory."

Vigor saw that there was no way to dissuade the curator.

Balthazar stepped forward, clearing his throat. "That sounds prudent. But in the meantime, perhaps there's a place we could rest. Your office is in the basement, no?"

"Of course. No one will disturb you. 1 will deal with the police and summon you when the ambulance arrives. And Dr. Pinosso, please accept my sincere apologies. You've been so generous with your time and knowledge in the past and look how 1 repay you."

Balthazar patted his arm. "Hasan, do not worry. All is well. Nerves are just shaken up. It serves my student right for not watching where he steps when on a precarious perch."

Sirens sounded in the distance.

"This way," the curator said.

A short time later the three of them were alone in Hasan's basement office. It was sparsely furnished. The schematics for the church were tacked to the back wall, behind a cluttered desk. A single framed photograph of the curator, Hasan Ahmet, shaking hands with the Turkish president adorned the wall above a bank of steel filing cabinets. On the opposite wall was an ancient illuminated map of the Middle East.

Balthazar flipped the office door's dead bolt and paced the length of the room. "There is a maze of rooms down here in the basement. You two could hide out until that Nasser fellow comes. I can go up and tell Hasan that you both left."

"It will have to do." Vigor sank into a couch next to Gray, who was massaging his shoulder. "We won't have much time. Did you find anything up there?"

As answer, Gray unbuttoned the lower half of his shirt and pulled out a slab of gold and a tube of beaten bronze. He shook his shirt a bit more and a bit of ruddy clay pottery tumbled out. Gray bent down, picked it up, and placed it on the table.

Vigor began to turn away, but a bit of color from the pottery caught his eye. He retrieved the chunk of reddish clay from the tabletop.

"It's a piece of the hollow brick," Gray explained sourly. "I didn't want to leave it up there. Heaven knows, things went badly enough."

Vigor briefly examined it. On one side, a bit of purple plaster still clung to it, but on the other side, a thick skein of sky-blue glaze coated the clay. Why would someone glaze the inside of a hollow brick?

"Did you see any angelic script up there," Vigor asked, and returned the chunk to the table.

"No. No writing, nothing unusual."

Balthazar bent down and flipped the golden paitzu over. "But there is angelic writing here."

Vigor leaned closer. As expected, a single letter of angelic script decorated the back side. A crude circle enclosed it.

"The second key," Vigor said.

"But what's this?" Balthazar asked. He nudged the tube.

Vigor picked it up. It was as thick around as his thumb, unadorned, except for the old hammer marks of its forger. "It may be a scroll tube." He examined one end. A thin coin of bronze had been stamped over the end, sealing it.

"We'll have to open it," Gray said.

Vigor felt some discomfort at his suggestion. As an archaeologist, he feared mishandling such an ancient artifact. It needed to be photographed, its measurements taken, cataloged.

Gray reached to a pocket and slipped out a penknife. He opened the small blade and held it toward Vigor. "We're running out of time."

Taking a deep breath, Vigor accepted the knife. With a twinge of professional discomfort, he used the tip to pry the cap off the end. It popped cleanly, as if only crafted yesterday.

Vigor cleared a space on the coffee table, tilted the tube, and slid out its contents. A roll of white material dropped to the mahogany table.

"A scroll," Gray said.

Without touching it, Vigor made an assessment from his years of study and lifetime of experience. "It's not parchment, vellum, or even papyrus."

"What is it?" Balthazar asked.

Vigor wished he had examination gloves for handling the old scroll. Fearful of the oils in his hands, Vigor collected a pencil from the curator's desk and used the eraser to unroll the free edge of the material.

It fell away easily, delicate and gauzy.

"It looks like cloth," Gray said.

"Silk." Vigor unrolled more and more, teasing it across the length of the table. "It's embroidered," he said, noting the fine stitching of black thread across the white silk.

But the needlework did not form a picture or an intricate pattern. Instead, lines of cursive text, stitched into the material, spread down the length of unrolled bolt of silk.

Gray twisted his head to read, but his frown deepened, not comprehending.

"It's lingua lombarda," Balthazar declared with awe.

Vigor could not take his eyes from the writing. "The Italian dialect of Marco Polo's region." He reached a trembling hand and followed with the pencil eraser, translating the first line aloud. " 'Our prayer was answered in a most strange manner.'"

He glanced to Gray. He read the understanding in the American's eyes.

"It's the rest of Marco's story," Gray said, "continuing where the Guild's copy of his book ended."

"The missing pages," Vigor agreed, "embroidered onto silk."

Gray glanced to the door, plainly edgy, and waved to the silk diary. "Read the rest of it."

Vigor started from the beginning, continuing the story of Marco's party. The first section left them trapped in the City of the Dead and surrounded by a cannibal horde. Vigor carefully translated the next part of the tale, his voice tremulous with the power of Marco's original words.

"Our prayer was answered in a most strange manner. And was thus brought about:

Night fell over the City of the Dead. From the vantage of our sanctuary, the moats and pools of the city below shone with light of a sepulchral nature; the hue and sheen was that of molds and mushrooms. It cast the scene below into some dread feast expelled from the Devil's bowels, as the dead fed on the dead. We saw no hope for salvation. What angel would dare tread these blasphemed lands?

But then it came to pass that three figures emerged from the dark forest. They appeared as such: their skin cast a sheen to match pond and moat, and the dread cannibals parted before their feet insomuch as the wind sweeps through a field of grain. The three crossed through the city with little haste but with clear direction. Once at the foot of the tower, these strange apparitions were seen to be of the same people as those that feasted on flesh. Yet their skin glowed with some Blessed light.

In great terror, the kaan's men dropped all weapons and hid their faces against the stone. The three entered our shelter and came upon us with no molestation. Their faces were gaunt and fever-worn; but they seemed sound of flesh, unlike their brothers below. But it was no flesh like unto man. The light of their skins seemed to penetrate their deeper bodies; and thus revealed the churn of bowel and shadowy beat of their hearts. It came also to pass that one of three brushed against one of the kaan's men. He screamed and fell away; and where he was touched his skin did blister and blacken.

Friar Agreer lifted his cross against them; but the first of the three came forward with little fear and touched the Dominican's cross. He spoke in words that no one understood; but with much gesturing, their desire was communicated: to have us drink from the halved shell of an Indie nut. ,

One of the kaan's men must have understood enough of the strange tongue to communicate. A great healing virtue was offered us; and with its consumption, we would be protected from the pestilence that struck here. But Heaven forgive us all for what it would cost, what it would make of us in the end."

The story stopped there.

Vigor sat back in frustration. "There must be more."

"Hidden with the third and final key," Gray suggested.

Vigor nodded and tapped the stretch of silk diary. "But even from this much of the story, it is plain why this tale was never told."

"Why?" Gray asked.

"The descriptions of the strange apparitions," Vigor stressed. "Glowing with a 'Blessed light.' Offering salvation."

"Sounds like angels," Balthazar said.

"But pagan angels," Vigor stressed. "Such a concept would not have gone down well with the Vatican during the Middle Ages. And remember, whoever split up Marco's story did so during the sixteen-hundreds, during another Italian plague outbreak. Despite the disturbing content, the Vatican dared not destroy the message. Some mystics within the Church must have divided the text to both preserve and hide it. But the bigger question remains: What is still left untold?"

"If we're going to discover that," Gray said, "we'll need to find that third key. But where do we begin to look? There's no angelic script anywhere."

"Maybe no angelic script that we could see with the naked eye," Vigor added pointedly.

Gray nodded his understanding. He twisted around to his pack and began fishing through it. "I brought a UV light. In case we ran into any more glowing obelisks."

Balthazar dimmed the lights. Gray ran the UV over every artifact. Even the shard of broken clay brick.

"Nothing," he finally admitted.

Dead end.

12:43 P.M.

Gray's frustration had stretched to the tautness of a piano wire. He gave up any hope on his original plan, though it had been a long shot.

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