VINCENTI SCOOTED THE CHAIR CLOSER TO THE TABLE AS THE waiter positioned his food before him. Most of the city's hotels were bleak tombs, where little or nothing worked. The Intercontinental was different, offering five-star European-quality services with what the establishment advertised as Asian hospitality. After the long flight from Italy he was hungry, so he'd ordered a meal brought to the room for both himself and a guest.
"Tell Ormand," he said to the waiter, "that I don't appreciate it taking thirty minutes to prepare these entrees, especially after I called ahead. Better yet, have Ormand come up here after we're finished and I'll tell him myself."
The waiter nodded his assent and retreated.
Arthur Benoit, sitting across from him, spread a cloth napkin onto his lap. "Do you have to be so hard on him?"
"It's your hotel. Why weren't you on his ass?"
"Because I wasn't upset. They prepared the food as fast as they could."
He could not care less. Shit was happening and he was testy. O'Conner had gone ahead to make sure things were ready. He'd decided to eat, rest a bit, and accomplish some business over a middle-of-the-night meal.
Benoit gripped a fork. "I assume the invitation to join you was not because you wanted the pleasure of my company. Why don't we cut through the garbage, Enrico. What do you want?"
He started to eat. "I need money, Arthur. Or should I say, Philogen Pharmaceutique needs money."
Benoit tabled the fork and sipped his wine. "Before my stomach becomes upset, how much do you need?"
"A billion euros. Maybe a billion and a half."
"Is that all?"
He smiled at the sarcasm. Benoit made his fortune in banks, which he still controlled across Europe and Asia. He was a billionaire several times over and a longtime Venetian League member. Hotels were a hobby and he'd recently built the Intercontinental to cater to the influx of League members and other expected luxury travelers. He'd also relocated to the Federation, one of the first League members to do so. Through the years, Benoit had several times provided money to fund Philogen's meteoric rise.
"I assume you'll want the loan below international prime."
"Nothing less." He crammed a forkful of stuffed pheasant into his mouth, savoring the tang.
"How much below?"
He heard the skepticism. "Two points."
"Why don't I just give it to you."
"Arthur, I've borrowed millions from you, every dime repaid on time, with interest. So yes, I expect preferential treatment."
"At present, as I understand it, you have several outstanding loans with my banks. Quite sizable."
"Every one of which is current."
He saw that the banker knew that to be true.
"What would be the benefit of such an arrangement?"
Now they were getting somewhere. "How much Philogen stock do you own?"
"A hundred thousand shares. Bought on your recommendation."
He speared another chunk of steaming bird. "You check yesterday's quote?"
"Sixty-one and a quarter, up a half. It's really a sound investment. I bought nearly five hundred thousand new shares last week myself." He swirled pheasant into some smoked mozzarella stuffing. "In secret, of course."
Benoit's expression signaled that he got the message. "Something big?"
His fellow League member may have been a hotel dabbler, but he still liked to make money. So he shook his head and feigned, "Now, Arthur, insider trading laws forbid me from giving that kind of information. I'm ashamed you'd even ask."
Benoit smiled at the rebuke. "There are no insider trading laws here. Remember, we're writing the laws. So tell me what you're planning."
"Not going to happen." And he stood on his refusal, waiting to see if greed, as usual, would overtake better judgment.
"When would you need the billion-or billion and a half?"
He washed down a mouthful with a swallow of wine. "Sixty days, at the latest."
Benoit seemed to consider the request. "And the length of the loan? Assuming, of course, it's even possible."
"A billion dollars, with interest, repaid in two years?"
He said nothing. Just chewed, letting the revelation simmer.
"Like I said, your corporation is heavily in debt. This loan would not be viewed favorably by my approval committees."
He finally voiced what the man wanted to hear. "You'll succeed me on the Council of Ten."
Surprise came to Benoit's face. "How would you know that? It's a random selection from the membership."
"You'll come to learn, Arthur, that nothing is random. My time is about up. Your two years will begin shortly."
He knew Benoit desperately wanted to serve on the Council. And he needed friends there. Friends who owed him. So far, four of the five members who would not cycle off were friends. Now he'd just bought one more.
"Okay," Benoit said. "But I'll need a few days to broker out the risk among several of my banks."
He grinned and continued to eat. "You do that. But trust me, Arthur, don't forget to call your broker."
ZOVASTINA CHECKED HER LOUIS VUITTON WATCH, A GIFT FROM the Swedish foreign minister during a state visit a few years back. He'd been a charming man who'd actually flirted with her. She'd returned the attention even though little about the diplomat had been stimulating. The same was true of papal nuncio Colin Michener, who seemed to delight in irritating her. For the past few minutes she and the monsignor had wandered the basilica's nave-waiting, she assumed, for the altar preparations to be completed.
"What brings you to work for the pope?" she asked. "Once the papal secretary to the last pope, now a mere nuncio."
"The Holy Father likes to call on me for special projects."
He nodded. "You're quite special."
"And why is that?"
"You're a head of state. Why else?"
This man was good, like that Swedish diplomat and his French watch, quick with thoughts and words, but lacking in answers. She pointed at one of the massive marble pillars, its base wrapped with a stone bench and roped off to prevent anyone from sitting. "What are the black smears?" She'd noticed them on all of the columns.
"I asked that once myself." Michener pointed. "Centuries of the faithful sitting on the benches, leaning their heads onto the marble. Hair grease absorbed into the stone. Imagine how many millions of heads it took to leave those impressions."
She envied the West such historical nuances. Unfortunately, her homeland had been tormented by invaders who'd each made a point of eliminating all vestiges of what came before them. First Persians, then Greeks, Mongols, Turks, and finally, worst of all, Russians. Here and there a building remained, but nothing like this golden edifice.
They were standing to the left of the high altar, outside the iconostasis, her two guardsmen within shouting distance. Michener pointed down at the mosaic floor. "See the heart-shaped stone?"
She did. Small, unobtrusive, trying to blend with the exuberant designs that swirled around it.
"Nobody knew what that was. Then, about fifty years ago, during a restoration of the floor, the stone was lifted and beneath they found a small box containing a shriveled human heart. It belonged to Doge Francesco Erizzo who died in 1646. I'm told his body lies in the church of San Martino, but he willed his innermost being to be buried close to the patron saint of Venetians." Michener motioned toward the high altar. "St. Mark."
"You know of the innermost being?"
"The human heart? Who doesn't? The ancients saw the heart as the seat of wisdom, intelligence, the essence of the person."
Which was precisely why, she reasoned, Ptolemy had used that description. Touch the innermost being of the golden illusion.
"Let me show you one other thing," Michener said.
They crossed before the elaborate rood screen rich with squares, rhomboids, and quadrilobes formed in colored marble. Behind the divider, men were on their knees, working beneath the altar table, where a stone sarcophagus sat bathed in light. An iron grating that protected its front, about two meters long and a meter high, was being removed.
Michener noticed her interest and stopped. "In 1835 the altar table was hollowed out and a prominent place made for the saint. There, he's rested. Tonight will be the first time the sarcophagus has been opened since then." The nuncio checked his watch. "Nearly one A.M. They'll be ready for us shortly."
She continued to follow the irritating man to the other side of the basilica, into the dim south transept. Michener stopped before another of the towering marble columns.
"The basilica was destroyed by fire in 976," he said, "then rebuilt and dedicated in 1094. As you mentioned when I was in Samarkand, during those one hundred and eighteen years the whereabouts of St. Mark's corpse became forgotten. Then, during a mass to dedicate the new basilica, on June 26, 1094, a crumbling noise came from this pillar. A flaking of stone. A shaking. First a hand, an arm, then the entire saintly body was revealed. Priests and people crowded around, even the doge himself, and it was widely believed that, with St. Mark's reappearance, all was right with the world again."
She was more amused than impressed. "I've heard that tale. Amazing how the body suddenly reappeared just when the new church, and the doge, needed political and financial support from the Venetians. Their patron saint revealed by a miracle. Quite a show that must have been. I imagine the doge, or some clever minister, stage-managed that entire scene. A brilliant political stunt. It's still being talked about nine hundred years later."
Michener shook his head in amusement. "Such little faith."
"I focus on what's real."
He pointed. "Like Alexander the Great, lying in that tomb?"
His lack of belief bothered her. "And how do you know that it's not? The church has no idea whose body those Venetian merchants stole from Alexandria, over a thousand years ago."
"So tell me, Minister, what makes you so sure."
She stared at the marble pillar supporting the grand ceiling overhead and could not resist caressing its sides, wondering if the tale of the saintly body emerging from it was true.
She liked such stories.
So she told the nuncio one of her own.
Eumenes faced a formidable task. As Alexander's personal secretary, he had been entrusted to make sure that the king was entombed beside Hephaestion. Three months had elapsed since the king's death and the mummified body still lay in the palace. Most of the other Companions had long since left Babylon, venturing out to take control of their portion of the empire. Finding a suitable corpse to switch proved a challenge, but a man of Alexander's size, shape, and age was located outside the city, in a village not far away. Eumenes poisoned the man and one of the Egyptian embalmers, who had stayed on the promise of a huge payment, mummified the imposter. Afterward, the Egyptian left the city, but one of Eumenes' two accomplices killed him. The exchange of corpses happened during a summer storm that battered the city with heavy rains. Once wrapped in the golden cartonnage, dressed in golden robes, wearing a crown, no one could distinguish the two bodies. Eumenes kept Alexander hidden for several months, until after the royal funeral cortege left Babylon, headed for Greece with the imposter. The city then slipped into a lethargy from which it never emerged. Eumenes and his two helpers managed to leave without incident, taking Alexander north, fulfilling the king's final wish.
Michener said, "So the body here may not be Alexander after all?"
"I don't recall that I promised to explain myself."
He smiled. "No, Minister. You didn't. Let me just say that I enjoyed your story."
"As entertaining as your fable of the pillar."
He nodded. "They probably both rank together in credibility."
But she disagreed. Her story had come from a molecular manuscript discovered through X-ray analysis, images that had lingered for centuries beyond the view of a human eye. Only modern technology had managed to reveal them. Hers was not a fable. Alexander the Great was never entombed in Egypt. He was taken somewhere else, a place Ptolemy, the first Greek pharaoh, ultimately discovered. A place to which the mummy in the tomb ten meters away might lead her.
A man appeared at the iconostasis and said to Michener, "We're ready."
The nuncio nodded, then motioned for her to lead the way. "Seems, Minister, it's time to see whose fable is true."
VIKTOR WATCHED AS THE WOMAN CLIMBED THE STEPS TO THE boat's center deck and kept her gun trained on him.
"How'd you like the fire?" she asked.
He threw the throttle into neutral and moved toward her. "You stupid bitch, I'll show you-"
She raised the pistol. "Do it. Go ahead."
The eyes that glared back at him were full of hate. "You murder with ease."
"So do you."
"And who did I kill?"
"Maybe it was you. Maybe someone else from your Sacred Band. Two months ago. In Samarkand. Ely Lund. His house burned to the ground, thanks to your Greek fire."
He recalled the task. One he'd personally handled for Zovastina. "You're the woman from Copenhagen. I saw you at the museum, then at the house."
"When you tried to kill us."
"Seems you and your two friends invited that challenge."
"What do you know about Ely's death? You're the head of Zovastina's Sacred Band."
"How do you know that?" Then it occurred to him. "The coin I examined in that house. Fingerprints."
Her mind seemed to be struggling with some painful conviction, so he decided to stoke her emotional furnace. "Ely was murdered."
He noticed a bow and a zippered quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder. She'd shown how cold her heart beat when she barred the museum doors and used the arrows to ignite the building. So he decided not to push her too far.
"I was there."
"Why did Zovastina want him dead?"
The boat rocked in the unseen swells and he could feel them drifting with the wind. The only illumination came from the faint glow of the instrument panel.
"You, your friends, the man Ely, all of you are involved with things that don't concern you."
"I'd say you're the one who needs to be concerned. I came to kill you both. One down. One to go."
"And what will you gain?"
"The pleasure of seeing you die."
Her gun came level.
MALONE BROUGHT THE THROTTLE TO NEUTRAL. "YOU HEAR that?"
Stephanie, too, was alert. "Sounded like a gunshot. Nearby."
He stuck his head beyond the windscreen and noted that the fire on Torcello, about a mile away, burned with new vigor. The mist had lifted, weather here apparently came in quick waves, the visibility now relatively reasonable. Boat lights crisscrossed paths in all directions.
His ears searched for sound.
He powered up the engines.
CASSIOPEIA AIMED AT THE BULKHEAD, SENDING THE BULLET within inches of Viktor's leg. "Ely never hurt a soul. Why did she have to kill him?" She kept the gun trained on him. "Tell me. Why?" The question came out one word at a time, through clenched teeth, more pleading than angry.
"Zovastina is a woman on a mission. Your Ely interfered."
"He was a historian. How could he have been a threat?" She hated herself for referring to him in the past tense.
Water lapped against the low-riding hull and the wind continued to batter the boat.
"You'd be surprised how easily she kills people."
His avoidance of her questions only compounded her rage. "Man the damn wheel." She watched him from the opposite side of the helm. "Move us ahead, nice and slow."
He turned and engaged the throttle, then suddenly spun the boat hard left, twisting the deck beneath her feet. In the moment of surprise where maintaining her balance overrode her desire to shoot, he lunged toward her.
VIKTOR KNEW HE HAD TO KILL THIS WOMAN. SHE REPRESENTED failure on a multitude of levels-enough that, if she was discovered, Zovastina would lose all confidence in him.
Not to mention what happened to Rafael.
His left hand gripped the top of the rear cabin door and he used the wooden panel to swing his body off the twisting deck, crashing his boots into the woman's arms.
She deflected his blow and fell forward.
The cockpit was a couple of meters square. Two openings on either side provided access off the boat. Engines whined as the boat, without a pilot, fought the swells. Spray crashed over the windscreen. The woman still held the gun, but was having trouble regaining her balance.
He jabbed and caught her on the jaw with the heel of his open palm. Her neck whipped back, banging her head into something. He used the moment of her confusion to spin the wheel again and decrease power. He was concerned about the shifting shoals and clinging grasses. Torcello loomed to his left, the burning museum illuminating the night. The boat twirled in the rough water and the woman grabbed for her skull.
He decided to let nature handle things.
And kicked her into the sea.
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