The Judas Strain

Page 41

"We can't wait any longer," he finally admitted, checking his watch. "We have to get into hiding. Let's gather this all together. Find a place to hole up."

They had spent the last five minutes racking their brains, searching for some clue as to where to seek the third key. Vigor attempted to decipher a hidden meaning in the text, going over it again. Balthazar had studied all surfaces of the golden paitzu. Everyone agreed that the crude line circling the single angelic letter had to be significant, but no one could guess what it might be.

Vigor sighed and began rolling up the scroll. "The answer must be here. Seichan said the Guild's copy mentioned how each key would lead to the next one. We just have to figure out what we're missing later."

Gray gathered up the last remaining artifact: the chunk of the brick itself. He tapped the plaster on the outside of the chunk. "Could there be some significance to the brick being plastered in purple? I'm assuming the false brick could have been any number of colors. They had the entire dome's palette to choose from."

Vigor barely seemed to hear him as he tucked the scroll back into its bronze tube. Still, he mumbled aloud. "Purple is the color of royalty or divinity."

Gray nodded. Grabbing his backpack, he shoved the chunk inside. His thumb ran over the thick blue glaze on the opposite side. Gray remembered how the inside of the brick had felt glassy.

"Blue," he whispered aloud. "Blue and royalty."

Then it came to him.

Of course.

Vigor realized it that same time and sprang straighter. "The Blue Princess!"

Balthazar slid the gold paitzu over to Gray to pack away. "You're talking about Kokejin. The young Mongol woman who traveled with Marco."

Vigor nodded. "She gained her nickname because her name translates as sky blue."

"But what's the significance of her reference here?" Gray asked.

"Let's backtrack," Vigor said, ticking off on his fingers. "The first key was at the Vatican, in Italy, where Marco ended his journey. A major milestone. Following Polo's route backward, we come to the next milestone here, in Istanbul, where Marco crossed from Asia and stepped for the first time back into Europe."

"And if we trace Marco's route further back . . ." Gray said.

"The next major milestone would be at the site where Marco completed the task set to him by Kublai Khan, the whole reason for the journey: to bring Kokejin to Persia."

"But where exactly in Persia?" Gray asked.

"Hormuz," Balthazar answered. "In southern Iran. The island of Hormuz lies at the mouth of the Persian Gulf."

Gray glanced to the table. An island. He picked up the golden paitzu and traced the line encircling around the angelic symbol. "Could this be a crude map of that island?"

"Let's check," Vigor said, and stood up. He crossed over to the curator's old illuminated map on the wall.

Gray joined him.

Vigor pointed to a small island near the bottom of the Persian Gulf, close to the mainland of Iran. It bore the same rounded shape with a distinct teardrop tip. It was almost an exact match to the drawing around the gold glyph.

"We found it," Gray said, his breath quickening in anticipation. "We know where we have go next."

And that meant his plan could still work.

"But what about Nasser?" Vigor asked.

"I haven't forgotten about him." Gray faced the monsignor and gripped his shoulder. "The first key. I want you to give it to Balthazar."

Vigor frowned. "Why?"

"In case anything goes wrong here, we can't let Nasser get ahold of it. We'll present the second key we found here as the first one. Nasser can't know that you found a key in the Vatican." Gray stared between them. "I assume you two kept it between yourselves."

Both men nodded.


Still, Vigor's frown had not dimmed. "Surely when Nasser gets here, he'll search Balthazar and find the other golden key."

"Not if Balthazar is already gone," Gray said. "Like with Kowalski, 1 doubt Nasser knows your colleague traveled with you. Why would he suspect you came here with the dean of the art history department? By tracking your cell phone, all Nasser knows is that you left to meet us. We'll use that to our advantage. We'll send Balthazar with everything he needs to know. Out to Seichan. Along with Kowalski, the three of them can get a jump start and head over to the island of Hormuz. It will be up to them to find the last key. Once Nasser arrives here, we'll have to stall the bastard for as long as possible. But for the sake of my parents, we may have to eventually send him on the right path."

"Where hopefully Seichan will have already found the last key," Vigor said.

"Then we'll have something to bargain with," Gray said.

Still, Gray knew all of these plans hinged on one last hope.

That Painter found a way to free his parents.

And of course, that Gray had not made any gross miscalculations himself.

1:06 p.m.

Seichan waited inside the hotel room across from Hagia Sophia's west entrance. She sat by the fifth-floor window. Her cheek rested against the stock of her Heckler & Koch PSGi sniper rifle. She stared down its telescopic sight, focused on the plaza in front of the church.

She had watched the police come and go, stopping only briefly.

What had happened?

Behind her, Kowalski lay stretched on the bed, chewing on olives and cleaning five hand pistols and a 5.56 mm NATO A-9I assault rifle.

They had gone shopping, stocking up on the essentials.

Kowalski whistled around an olive pit as he worked. It was getting on her nerves as she kept her post. But at least he knew his armaments.

From her vantage, Seichan had a clear view of the street, park, and plaza. She watched for anyone taking an inordinate interest in the church, more than the typical flash-and-go tourist. She also watched for any telltale sign of someone carting heavy weaponry.

So far so good. Either that or she was losing her edge.

Through her telescopic sight, she watched everyone leaving or entering through the western Imperial Doors of Hagia Sophia. She adjusted the focal length to get a clear view of the faces. She kept inventory. To see if any of the same faces came and went, indicating someone who was canvassing the place.

She wanted to know where as many of the hostiles were positioned as possible.

In case an assault proved necessary.

So far nothing. It made no sense.

Where were Nasser's men? They should have been here by now, taking up positions. The Guild had many resources and assets in Istanbul. The supply of arms behind her was proof enough of that. Or was Nasser operating lean? Keeping his manpower to a minimum? It was easier to blend one or two men into the scenery than a half dozen.

Still, Seichan wasn't buying it.

"Something's wrong," she muttered, hobbling her view.

What was his game?

She concentrated back on her duty. A large man exited the church, crossing in large strides, not attempting to hide. Seichan focused on him, bringing up his bearded face.

That's more like it.

She didn't know his name, but she had seen the man before, meeting with Nasser, two years ago. A fat envelope had passed between them. Nasser hadn't known Seichan had tailed him, spied on his rendezvous. Seichan had a series of photographs of the unknown operative somewhere in her Swiss bank vault. Something tucked away for a rainy day.

Or a sunny one like today.

"No wonder Nasser is operating lean," she mumbled.

The bastard had someone positioned inside Hagia Sophia. That did not bode well. If this man was leaving, that meant someone else had already relieved him. She watched him stop in the plaza and take out a cell phone.

Probably calling Nasser, letting him know his quarry was safe and sound inside the church.

Her cell phone rang.


She reached blindly to the phone, pressed talk, and lifted it to her ear. "Ciao," she said.

"Hello," the caller responded, his voice bright. "I am looking to speak to a woman named Seichan. I was told to call at this number, to arrange for us to get together. A certain monsignor and an American would like us to meet."

Seichan's skin chilled as she listened, focused on the figure, watching his lips move in synchronization with the voice in her ear.

'This is Balthazar Pinosso, with the Vatican's art history division."

At least Seichan finally had a name for the man in the photograph with Nasser. Balthazar Pinosso. A Guild operative. She breathed through her nose. Nasser didn't just have someone positioned inside the church—he had someone inside their own goddamn inner circle.

Seichan mentally kicked herself. It wasn't Sigma that had a Guild mole. The Vatican did.

"Hello," the man repeated, with a trace of worry.

Seichan leaned her cheek tighter against the stock, taking dead aim.

Time to plug the leak. "Kowalski. . ." she whispered.


"The shit's about to hit the fan."

"Hell of about time!"

Seichan pulled the trigger.




Out of the Frying Pan

July 6, 7:12 p.m. Aboard the Mistress of the Seas Thank God, the cocktail party had finally ended.

Lisa hurriedly unbuttoned the hand-beaded silk coat that overlay her black cocktail dress, a pleated silk charmeuse. The Vera Wang-designed ensemble was well over her budget, but she had found the dress spread out on her bed earlier when she returned to get ready for Ryder Blunt's soiree, welcoming the cruise ship to the pirates' homeport.

Dr. Devesh Patanjali must have handpicked the dress himself from the ship's luxury shops down on the Lido Deck. That was reason alone to get it off her body. Lisa had not wanted to go to the party, but Devesh had left no choice. So she had joined the other senior staff up in Ryder's suite.

Champagne and chilled wine had flowed. Hors d'oeuvres were passed atop silver platters, borne aloft by liveried wait staff, while iced trays of caviar surrounded by toast points decorated the buffet table. Apparently there remained enough members of the ship's orchestra still alive to form a string quartet. The group played quietly out on the balcony as the sun set, but they were forced to disband when the winds kicked up and rain began to pelt down in heavy, stinging drops.

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