The Judas Strain

Page 5

Balthazar reached behind Vigor and shifted the door closed, shutting out the light from the other room. He then clicked on a small hand lamp. It bathed the room in purple, lighting up his white coveralls. "We use ultraviolet light during art restoration projects. It can help bring forth details the naked eye can miss."

Balthazar pointed to the marble floor.

But Vigor had already noted what had appeared under the lamp's glow. A shape, painted crudely, shone on the center of the floor.

A curled dragon, nearly turned upon its own tail.

Vigor's breath choked in his throat. He even stumbled back a step, trapped between horror and disblief. His ears roared with the memory of blood and screams.

Balthazar placed a hand on his shoulder, steadying him. "Are you all right? Maybe I should have better prepared you."

Vigor stepped out of the man's grip. "I. . . I'm fine."

To prove this, he knelt closer to inspect the glowing mark, a mark he knew too well. The sigil of Ordinis Draconis. The Imperial Royal Dragon Court.

Balthazar met his eye, the whites glowing under the ultraviolet. It was the Dragon Court that had burned this tower two years ago, aided by the traitorous former prefect of the Secret Archives, Prefetto Alberto, now dead. It was a story Vigor had thought long ended, finally put to rest, especially now with the tower's phoenixlike rise from the smoke and ashes.

What was the mark doing here?

Vigor knelt with a crick of his left knee. The mark looked hastily sketched. Just a crude approximation.

Balthazar hovered at his shoulder. "I studied it with a magnifying loupe. I found a drop of restoration paste beneath the fluorescent paint, indicating it had been recently drawn. Within the week, I'd guess."

"The thief.. ." Vigor mumbled, remembering the start of the story.

"Perhaps not just a common thief after all."

Vigor massaged his knee. The mark could only be of dire import. A threat or warning, maybe a message to another Dragon Court mole in the Vatican. He remembered Balthazar's message: A most horrible and wonderful discovery has been made. Staring at the dragon, Vigor now understood the horrible nature of that message.

Vigor glanced over his shoulder. "You also mentioned discovering something wonderful in your note."

Balthazar nodded. He reached behind and opened the closet's door, allowing in a flood of light from the outer room. With the brightness, the phosphorescent dragon vanished off the floor, as if shunning the light.

And Vigor allowed a long breath to escape with it.

"Come see this." Balthazar knelt beside Vigor. "We would have missed this if not for the dragon painting on the floor."

He leaned forward on a palm and reached out with his other hand. His fingers brushed across the bare stone. "It took the loupe to reveal this. I caught sight of it when examining the fluorescent paint. While I waited for you, I cleared some of the centuries of grime and dirt from the carving."

Vigor studied the stone floor. "What carving?"

"Lean closer. Feel here."

Concentrating, Vigor obeyed. He felt more than saw, with his fingertips, like a blind man reading Braille. There was a faint inscription in the stone.

Vigor didn't even need Balthazar's assessment to know the carving was ancient. The symbols were as crisp as scientific notation, but this was no physicist's scrawl. As the former head of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, Vigor recognized the significance.

Balthazar must have read his reaction. His voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. "Is it truly what I think it is?"

Vigor sat back and rubbed the dust from his fingertips. "A script older than Hebrew," he mumbled. "The first language if you were to believe the stories."

"Why was it drawn here? What does it signify?"

Vigor shook his head and studied the floor, another question growing. Again the dragon sigil appeared, but only in his mind's eye, lit by his worry rather than the glow of ultraviolet. Upon the stone, the dragon had coiled around the inscription, as if protecting it.

His friend's earlier words returned to Vigor. We would have missed this if not for the painting on the floor. Maybe the dragon was not so much protecting the ancient carving as meant to illuminate it, to cast a spotlight upon it.

But whose eyes was it meant for?

As Vigor pictured the twisted dragon, he again felt the weight of Jakob's body in his arms, smoking and charred.

In that moment Vigor knew the truth. The message was not meant for another Dragon Court operative, another traitor like Prefect Alberto. It was meant to draw someone intimately tied to the history of the Dragon Court, someone who would know its significance.

The message had been left for him.

But why? What was its meaning?

Vigor slowly stood. He knew someone who might be able to help, someone he had avoided calling lor the past year. Until now, there had been no need to keep in touch, especially after the man had broken up with Vigor's niece. But Vigor knew a part of his reticence rested not just with broken hearts. The man, as much as this tower, reminded Vigor of the bloody past here, a past he wanted to forget.

But now he had no choice.

The dragon sigil glowed before his mind's eye, full of dread warning.

He needed help.

July 4, 11:44 p.m. Takoma Park, Maryland

"Gray, can you empty the kitchen trash?"

"Be right there, Mom."

In the living room, Commander Gray Pierce picked up another empty bottle of Sam Adams, another dead soldier of his parents' July Fourth celebration, and chucked it into the plastic bin under his arm. At least the party was winding down.

He checked his watch. Almost midnight.

Gray gathered another two beer bottles off the front entry table and paused before the open doorway, appreciating a bit of breeze through the screen door. The night smelled of jasmine, along with a lingering hint of smoke from fireworks exploded by the block party. Off in the distance, a few whistles and crackles continued to punctuate the night. A dog howled from the yard behind his mother, aggravated by the noise.

Only a few guests remained on the front porch of his parents' Craftsman bungalow, lazing about on the porch swing or leaning on the railing, enjoying the cool night after the usual swelter of a Maryland summer. They had watched the fireworks from the perch there hours earlier. Afterward, the partygoers had slowly dwindled away into the night. Only the most diehard remained.

Like Gray's boss.

Director Crowe leaned against a post, bent next to the teaching assistant who worked for Gray's mother. He was a dour young man from the Congo who attended George Washington University on a scholarship. Painter Crowe had been inquiring about the state of hostilities in the man's homeland. It seemed even at a party, the director of Sigma Force kept a finger on the world's pulse.

It was also why he made such a great director.

Sigma Force functioned as the covert field arm for DARPA, the Department of Defense's research and development division. Members were sent out to safeguard or neutralize technologies vital to U.S. security. The team consisted of ex—Special Forces soldiers who had been handpicked in secret and placed into rigorous doctoral programs, forming a militarized team of technically trained operatives. Or as Monk, Gray's friend and team member, liked to joke: killer scientists.

With such responsibility, Director Crowe's only relaxation this night seemed to be the single-malt scotch resting on the porch rail. He'd been nursing it all evening. As if sensing the scrutiny, Painter nodded to Gray through the door.

In the wan illumination of a few candlelit lanterns, the director cast a stony figure, dressed in dark slacks and a pressed linen shirt. His half-Native American heritage could be read in the hard planes of his face.

Gray studied those planes, searching for any cracks in his demeanor, knowing the pressure he must be under. Sigma's organizational structure had been undergoing a comprehensive NSA and DARPA internal audit, and now a medical crisis was brewing in Southeast Asia. So it was good to see the man out of Sigma's subterranean offices.

If only for this one night.

Still, duty was never far from the director's mind.

Proving this, Painter stretched, pushed off the rail, and stepped to the door. "I should head off," he called to Gray, and checked his wristwatch. "Thought I'd stop by the office and check to see if Lisa and Monk have arrived safely."

The pair of scientists, Drs. Lisa Cummings and Monk Kokkalis, had been sent to investigate a medical crisis among the Indonesian islands. The pair, traveling as adjuncts to the World Health Organization, had left this morning.

Gray pushed through the swinging screen door and shook his boss's hand. He knew Painter's interest in the pair's itinerary stretched beyond his role as field ops director. He read the worry of a man in love.

"I'm sure Lisa is fine," Gray assured him, knowing Lisa and Painter had barely been apart of late. "That is, as long as she packed her earplugs. Monk's snoring could rattle the engine off a jet's wing. And speaking of the one-man bugle corps, if you hear any news, you'll let Kat know—"

Painter raised a hand. "She's already buzzed my BlackBerry twice this evening, checking if I'd heard any word." He downed his scotch. "I'll call her immediately once I hear."

"I suspect Monk will beat you to that call, what with two women to answer to now."

Painter smiled, if a bit tiredly.

Three months ago Kat and Monk had brought home a new baby girl, six pounds and three ounces, christened Penelope Anne. After being assigned this current field op, Monk had joked about escaping diapers and midnight feedings, but Gray recognized how it tore a little hole in his friend's heart to leave behind his wife and baby girl.

"Thanks for coming over, Director. I'll see you in the morning."

"Please pass on my thanks to your folks."

Reminded, Gray glanced to the flood of light along the left side of the house, coming from the detached garage around back. His father had retreated there some time ago. Not all the fireworks this evening had been out on the streets. Lately, his father was finding social situations more and more difficult as his Alzheimer's progressed, forgetting names, repeating questions already answered. His frustration led to a private flare-up between father and son. Afterward, his father had stomped off to the garage and his shop.

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