Chapter Eight




STEPHANIE STEPPED FROM THE CAFe BACK INTO THE RAIN. AS SHE yanked the hood over her head she found her earpiece and spoke into the mike hidden beneath her jacket.

"Two men just left here. They have what I want."

"Fifty meters ahead, heading for the bridge," came a reply.

"Stop them."

She hustled into the night.

She'd brought two Secret Service agents, requisitioned from President Danny Daniels' overseas detail. A month ago the president had requested that she accompany him to the annual European economic summit. National leaders had gathered forty miles south of Amsterdam. Tonight Daniels was attending a formal dinner, secure within The Hague, so she'd managed to corral two helpers. Just insurance, she'd told them, promising dinner afterward wherever they'd like.

"They're armed," one of the agents said in her ear.

"Knives in the cafe," she said.

"Guns out here."

Her spine stiffened. This was turning nasty. "Where are they?"

"At the pedestrian bridge."

She heard shots and removed a Magellan Billet-issue Beretta from beneath her jacket.

More shots.

She rounded a corner.

People were scattering. Tan and Fair were huddled on a bridge behind a chest-high iron railing, shooting at the two Secret Servicemen, one on either side of the canal.

Glass shattered, as a bullet found one of the brothels.

A woman screamed.

More frightened people rushed by Stephanie. She lowered her gun, concealing it by her side. "Let's contain this," she said into the mike.

"Tell it to them," one of the agents answered.

Last week, when she'd agreed to do Cassiopeia the favor, she'd not seen the harm, but yesterday something had told her to come prepared, especially when she remembered that Cassiopeia had said she and Henrik Thorvaldsen appreciated the gesture. Anything Thorvaldsen was involved with signaled trouble.

More shots from the bridge.

"You're not getting out of here," she yelled out.

Fair whirled and aimed a gun her way.

She dove into a sunken alcove. A bullet pinged off the bricks a few feet away. She hugged the stairs and eased herself back up. Rain gushed down each runner and soaked her clothes.

She fired two shots.

Now the two men lay in the center of a triangle. No way out.

Tan shifted position, trying to lessen his exposure, but one of the agents shot him in the chest. He staggered until another round sent him teetering onto the bridge railing, his frame folding over the side and splashing into the canal.

Wonderful. Now there were bodies.

Fair scampered to the railing and tried to look over. He seemed as if he wanted to jump, but more shots kept him pinned. Fair straightened, then ran forward, charging the far side of the bridge, shooting indiscriminately. The Secret Service agent ahead of him returned fire, while the one on her side rushed forward and brought the man down, from behind, with three shots.

Sirens could be heard.

She sprang from her position and trotted onto the bridge. Fair lay on the cobbles, rain ushering away the blood that poured from his body. She waved with her arms for the agents to come.

Both men raced over.

Tan floated facedown in the canal.

Red and blue lights appeared fifty yards away, speeding toward the bridge. Three police cars.

She pointed at one of the agents. "I need you in the water getting a medallion from that man's pocket. It's in a plastic sleeve and has an elephant on it. Once you get it, swim out of here and don't get caught."

The man holstered his gun and leaped over the railing. She liked that about the Secret Service. No questions, just action.

The police cars skidded to a stop.

She shook rain from her face and glanced at the other agent. "Get out of here and get me some diplomatic help."

"Where will you be?"

Her mind flashed back to last summer. Roskilde. She and Malone.

"Under arrest."



CASSIOPEIA SIPPED A GLASS OF WINE AND WATCHED AS MALONE digested what she and Thorvaldsen were telling him.

"Cotton," she said, "let me explain about the connection that sparked our interest. We told you some earlier, about X-ray fluorescence. A researcher at the cultural museum in Samarkand pioneered the technique, but Ely came up with the idea of examining medieval Byzantine texts. That's where he found the writing at a molecular level."

"The reused parchment is called a palimpsest," Thorvaldsen said. "Quite ingenious, actually. After monks scraped away the original ink and wrote on the cleaned pages, they would cut and turn the sheets sideways, fashioning them into what we would recognize today as books."

"Of course," she said, "much of the original parchment is lost by this mangling, because rarely were original parchments kept together. Ely, though, found several that had been kept relatively intact. In one he discovered some lost theorems of Archimedes. Remarkable, given that almost none of Archimedes' writings exist today." She stared at him. "In another he found the formula for Greek fire."

"And who did he tell?" Malone asked.

"Irina Zovastina," Thorvaldsen said. "Supreme Minister of the Central Asian Federation. Zovastina asked that the discoveries be kept secret. At least for a short while. Since she paid the bills, it was hard to refuse. She also encouraged him to analyze more of the museum's manuscripts."

"Ely," she said, "understood the need for secrecy. The techniques were new and they needed to be sure what they were finding was authentic. He didn't see the harm in waiting. He actually wanted to examine as many manuscripts as he could before going public."

"But he told you," Malone said.

"He was excited, and wanted to share. He knew I wouldn't say anything."

"Four months ago," Thorvaldsen said, "Ely stumbled onto something extraordinary in one of the palimpsests. The History of Hieronymus of Cardia. Hieronymus was a friend and countryman to Eumenes, one of Alexander the Great's generals. Eumenes also acted as Alexander's personal secretary. Only fragments of Hieronymus' works have survived, but they're known to be quite reliable. Ely discovered a full account, from Alexander's time, told by an observer with credibility." Thorvaldsen paused. "It's quite a tale, Cotton. You read some of it earlier, about Alexander's death and the draught."

Cassiopeia knew Malone was intrigued. At times, he reminded her of Ely. Both men used humor to mock reality, dodge an issue, twist an argument, or, most irritatingly, escape involvement. But where Malone exuded a physical confidence, a command of his surroundings, Ely dominated through thoughtful intelligence and gentle emotion. What a contrast she and he had been. She the dark-skinned, dark-haired, Spanish Muslim. He the pale, Protestant Scandinavian. But she'd loved being around him.

A first for her, in a long while.

"Cotton," she said, "about a year after Alexander died, in the winter of 321 BCE, his funeral cortege finally set out from Babylon. Perdiccas had, by then, decided to bury Alexander in Macedonia. This was contrary to Alexander's deathbed wish to be entombed in Egypt. Ptolemy, another of the generals, had claimed Egypt as his portion of the empire and was already there acting as governor. Perdiccas was acting as regent for the infant, Alexander IV. Under the Macedonian constitution, the new ruler was required to properly bury his predecessor-"

"And," Malone said, "if Perdiccas allowed Alexander to be buried by Ptolemy, in Egypt, that might give Ptolemy a greater claim to the throne."

She nodded. "Also, there was a prophecy common at the time that if kings stopped being buried in Macedonian earth, the royal bloodline would end. As it turned out, Alexander the Great was not buried in Macedonia and the royal bloodline did end."

"I read about what happened," Malone said. "Ptolemy highjacked the funeral cortege in what is now northern Syria and brought the body to Egypt. Perdiccas tried twice to invade across the Nile. Eventually, his officers rebelled and stabbed him to death."

"Then Ptolemy did something unexpected," Thorvaldsen said. "He refused the regency offered to him by the army. He could have been king of the entire empire, but he said no and turned his full attention to Egypt. Strange, wouldn't you say?"

"Maybe he didn't want to be king. From what I've read, there was so much treachery and cynicism going around that nobody survived long. Murder was simply part of the political process."

"But maybe Ptolemy knew something no one else did." She saw that Malone was waiting for her to explain. "That the body in Egypt was not Alexander's."

He grinned. "I read about those stories. Supposedly, after highjacking the cortege, Ptolemy fashioned a likeness of Alexander and substituted it for the real corpse, then allowed Perdiccas, and others, a chance to seize it. But those are tales. No proof exists to substantiate them."

She shook her head. "I'm talking about something entirely different. The manuscript Ely discovered tells us exactly what happened. The body sent west for burial in 321 BCE was not Alexander. A switch was made in Babylon, during the previous year. Alexander himself was laid to rest in a place only a handful knew about. And they kept their secret well. For twenty-three hundred years, no one has known."

Two days had passed since Alexander executed Glaucias. What was left of the physician's body remained outside Babylon 's walls, on the ground and in the trees, the animals still picking flesh from the bones. The king's fury continued unrestrained. He was short-tempered, suspicious, and unhappy. Eumenes was called into the king's presence and Alexander told his secretary that he would soon die. The statement shocked Eumenes, as he could not imagine a world without Alexander. The king said that the gods were impatient and his time among the living was about to end. Eumenes listened, but placed little credence in the prediction. Alexander had long believed that he was not the son of Philip, but instead the mortal descendant of Zeus. A fantastic claim for sure, but after all his great conquests many had come to agree with him. Alexander spoke of Roxane and the child she carried in her womb. If it be a boy he would have a solid claim to the throne, but Alexander recognized the resentment Greeks would have toward a half-foreign ruler. He told Eumenes that his Companions would battle among themselves for his empire and he did not want to be a part of their struggle. "Let them claim their own destiny," he said. His was made. So he told Eumenes that he wanted to be buried with Hephaestion. Like Achilles, who wished that his ashes be mixed with those of his lover, Alexander wanted the same. "I shall make sure your ashes and his are joined," Eumenes said. But Alexander shook his head. "No. Bury us together." Since just days earlier Eumenes had witnessed Hephaestion's grand funeral pyre, he asked how that would be possible. Alexander told him that the body burned in Babylon was not Hephaestion's. He'd ordered Hephaestion embalmed last fall so that he could be transported to a place where he could forever lie in peace. Alexander wanted the same for himself. "Mummify me," he commanded, "then take me where I, too, can lie in clean air." He forced Eumenes to pledge that he would fulfill this wish, in secret, involving only two others, whom the king named.

Malone glanced up from the screen. Outside, the rain had quickened. "Where did they take him?"

"It becomes more confusing," Cassiopeia said. "Ely dated that manuscript to about forty years after Alexander died." She reached over to the laptop and scrolled through the pages on the screen. "Read this. More from Hieronymus of Cardia."

How wrong that the greatest of kings, Alexander of Macedonia, should lie forever in an unknown place. Though he sought a quiet respite, one which he arranged, such a silent fate does not seem fitting. Alexander was correct about his Companions. The generals fought among themselves, killing each other and all who posed a threat to their claims. Ptolemy may have been the most fortunate. He ruled Egypt for thirty-eight years. In the last year of his reign, he heard of my efforts in writing this account and summoned me to the palace from the library at Alexandria. He knew of my friendship with Eumenes and read with interest what I had so far written. He then confirmed that the body buried in Memphis was not that of Alexander. Ptolemy made clear that he'd known that ever since he'd attacked the funeral cortege. Years later he'd finally become curious and dispatched investigators. Eumenes was brought to Egypt and told Ptolemy that Alexander's true remains were hidden in a place only he knew. By then the grave site in Memphis, where Alexander was said to lay, had become a shrine. "We both fought by his side and would have gladly died for him," Ptolemy told Eumenes. "He should not lie forever in secret." Overcome by remorse and sensing that Ptolemy was sincere, Eumenes revealed the resting place, far away, in the mountains, where the Scythians taught Alexander about life, then Eumenes died shortly thereafter. Ptolemy recalled that when asked to whom did he leave his kingdom, Alexander had answered "to the brightest." So Ptolemy spoke these words to me:

And you, adventurer, for my immortal voice,

though far off, fills your ears, hear my words.

Sail onto the capital founded by Alexander's father,

where sages stand guard.

Touch the innermost being of the golden illusion.

Divide the phoenix.

Life provides the measure of the true grave.

But be wary, for there is but one chance of success.

Climb the god-built walls.

When you reach the attic, gaze into the tawny eye,

and dare to find the distant refuge.

Ptolemy then handed me a silver medallion that showed Alexander when he fought against elephants. He told me that, in honor of those battles, he'd minted the coins. He also told me to come back when I solved his riddle. But a month later Ptolemy lay dead.




11:50 P.M.

ZOVASTINA LIGHTLY RAPPED ON A WHITE LACQUERED DOOR. A stately, well-groomed woman in her late fifties with dull gray-black hair answered. Like always, Zovastina did not wait to be invited inside.

"Is she awake?"

The woman nodded and Zovastina marched down the hall.

The house dominated a wooded lot on the eastern outskirts of the city, beyond the sprawl of low-slung buildings and colorful mosques, in an area where many of the newer estates had sprung, the hilly terrain once littered with Soviet-era guard towers. Federation prosperity had generated both a middle and an upper class, and those with means had begun to flaunt it. This house, built a decade ago, belonged to Zovastina, though she'd never actually lived here. Instead, she'd given it to her lover.

She surveyed the luxurious interior. An elaborately carved Louis XV console displayed an array of white porcelain figurines given to her by the French president. A coffered ceiling topped the adjacent living room, its floor covered by inlaid parquetry protected by a Ukrainian carpet. Another gift. A German mirror anchored one end of the long room and taffeta draperies adorned three towering windows.

Every time she stepped down the marbled hall, her mind wandered back six years, to one afternoon when she'd approached the same closed door. Inside the bedroom she'd found Karyn naked, a thin-chested man with curly hair and muscular arms atop her. She could still hear their moans, their ferocious exploration of each other surprisingly arousing. She'd stood for a long minute, watching, until they broke apart.

"Irina," Karyn calmly said. "This is Michele."

Karyn had climbed from the bed and brushed back her long wavy hair, exposing breasts Irina had many times enjoyed. Lean as a jackal, every inch of Karyn's unblemished skin shimmered with the color of cinnamon. Thin lips curved contemptuously, tilted nose with delicate nostrils, cheeks smooth as porcelain. Zovastina had suspected her lover's cheating, but it was an entirely different matter to witness the act firsthand.

"You're lucky I don't have you killed."

Karyn seemed unconcerned. "Look at him. He cares how I feel, gives without question. You only take. It's all you know how to do. Give orders and expect them to be obeyed."

"I don't recall any complaints from you."

"Being your whore doesn't come cheap. I've given up things more precious than money."

Zovastina's gaze involuntarily drifted to the naked Michele.

"You like him, don't you?" Karyn said.

She did not answer. Instead, she commanded, "I want you out of here, by night fall."

Karyn stepped close, the sweet smell of an expensive perfume leading the way. "You really want me to go?" Her hand drifted to Zovastina's thigh. "Maybe you'd like to take off these clothes and join us."

She backhanded her lover across the face. Not the first time, but the first time in anger. A trickle of blood oozed from Karyn's busted lip and hatred stared back at her. "Gone. Before nightfall or, I promise, you'll not see morning."

Six years ago. A long time.

Or at least it seemed that way.

She turned the knob and entered.

The bedroom remained adorned with dainty French provincial furniture. A marble-and-gilt-bronze fireplace guarded by a pair of Egyptian porphyry lions decorated one wall. Seemingly out of place was the respirator beside the canopy bed, the oxygen bottle on the other side, and an intravenous bag suspended from a stainless-steel stand, transparent tubes snaking to one arm.

Karyn lay propped on pillows in the center of a queen-size bed, coral silk covers adjusted to her waist. Her flesh was the color of brown ash-her patina like waxed paper. Once-thick blond hair hung tangled, disheveled, thin as mist. Her eyes, which used to flash a vivid blue, now stared out of deep holes like creatures tucked away in caves. Angular cheeks were gone, replaced with a cadaverous gaunt that had transformed her pug nose into aquiline. A lace nightgown graced her emaciated frame as a flag hanging limp on a pole.

"What do you want tonight?" Karyn muttered, the voice brittle and strained. Tubing at her nostrils delivered oxygen with each breath. "Come to see if I'm dead?"

Irina crept close to the four-poster bed. The room's smell intensified. A sickening mixture of disinfectant, disease, and decay.

"Nothing to say?" Karyn managed, the voice mostly air.

She stared at the woman. Uncharacteristically for her, not a lot of planning had gone into their relationship. Karyn had first been on her staff, then her personal secretary, and finally her concubine. Five years together. Five more apart, until last year when Karyn unexpectedly returned to Samarkand, ill.

"I actually came to see how you were."

"No, Irina. You came to see when I would die."

She wanted to say that was the last thing she wanted, but thoughts of Michele and Karyn's betrayal kept her from any emotional concessions. Instead, she asked, "Was it worth it?"

Zovastina knew that years of unprotected sex, drifting from man to man and woman to woman, taking risks, had finally caught up with Karyn. Along the way, one of them had passed along HIV. Alone, frightened, and broke, last year Karyn had swallowed her pride and returned to the only place she'd thought might provide some comfort.

"Is that why you keep coming?" Karyn asked. "To see me proven wrong?"

"You were wrong."

"Your bitterness will consume you."

"This from a person who has literally been consumed by hers."

"Careful, Irina, you have no idea when I was infected. Maybe I'll share this misery."

"I've been tested."

"And what doctor was foolish enough to do that?" A cough racked Karyn's words. "Is he still alive to tell what he knows?"

"You haven't answered my question. Was it worth it?"

A smile creased the withdrawn face. "You can't order me anymore."

"You came back. You wanted help. I'm helping."

"I'm a prisoner."

"You can leave whenever you want." She paused. "Why can't you share the truth?"

"And what is the truth, Irina? That you're a lesbian. Your dear husband knew. He had to. You never speak of him."

"He's dead."

"A convenient car crash. How many times have you played that sympathy card with your people?"

This woman knew far too much of her business, which both attracted and repelled her. Their sense of intimacy, of sharing, had been part of their bond. Here was where, at one time, she could truly be herself. "He knew what was involved when he agreed to marry me. But he was ambitious, like you. He wanted the trappings. And I come with those trappings."

"How difficult it must be to live a lie."

"You do it."

Karyn shook her head. "No, Irina. I know what I am." The words seemed to sap her strength and Karyn paused to suck a few deep breaths before saying, "Why don't you just kill me?"

Some of Karyn's old self seeped through the bitter tone. Killing this woman was not an option. Saving her...that was the goal. Fate denied Achilles a chance to save his Patroclus. Incompetence cost Alexander the Great his love when Hephaestion died. She would not fall victim to the same mistakes.

"Can you seriously believe that anyone deserves this?" Karyn yanked her nightgown open. Tiny pearl buttons exploded outward onto the sheets. "Look at my breasts, Irina."

It hurt to look. Since Karyn had returned, Irina had studied AIDS and knew that the disease affected people differently. Some suffered internally. Blindness, colitis, life-threatening diarrhea, brain inflammation, tuberculosis, and worst of all, pneumonia. Others were emasculated externally, their skin covered with the effects of Kaposi's sarcoma, or devastated by herpes simplex, or ravaged by emaciation, the epidermis inevitably drawn down to bone. Karyn seemed the much more common combination.

"Remember how beautiful I was? My lovely skin? You used to adore my body."

She did recall. "Cover yourself up."

"Can't stand to see?"

She said nothing.

"You shit until your ass aches, Irina. You can't sleep, and your stomach stays in knots. I wait every day to see what new infection will spawn inside me. This is hell."

She'd tossed the woman in the helicopter to her death. She'd ordered the elimination of countless political opponents. She'd forged a Federation through a covert campaign of biological assassination that had claimed thousands. None of those deaths meant a thing. Karyn's dying was different. That was why she'd allowed her to stay. Why she supplied the drugs needed to keep her alive. She'd lied to those students. Here was her weakness. Perhaps her only one.

Karyn smiled faintly. "Every time you come here I see it in your eyes. You care." Karyn grabbed her arm. "You can help me, can't you? Those germs you played with years ago. You had to learn something. I don't want to die, Irina."

She fought to keep an emotional distance. Achilles and Alexander both failed by not doing that. "I'll pray to the gods for you."

Karyn started to laugh. A guttural, throaty chuckle mixed with the rattle of spit. Which both surprised and hurt her.

Karyn kept laughing.

She fled the bedroom and hurried to the front door.

These visits were a mistake. No more. Not now. Too much was about to happen.

The last thing she heard before leaving was the sickening sound of Karyn choking on her own saliva.

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com