VIKTOR HUSTLED PAST THE BASILICA'S BRIGHTLY LIT WESTERN FACADE. High above, St. Mark himself stood guard in the black night above a golden lion with outstretched wings. The heart of the piazza spanned to his left, cordoned off, a multitude of police swarming the broad pavement. A crowd had gathered and he'd overheard from snippets of conversation that a shooting had occurred. He skirted the spectacle and headed for the church's north entrance, the one Zovastina had told him to use.
He was unnerved by the appearance of the woman with the bow. She should have been dead in Denmark. And if she wasn't dead, the other two problems were surely also still breathing. Things were gyrating out of control. He should have stayed and made sure she drowned in the lagoon, but Zovastina was waiting and he could not be late.
He kept seeing Rafael die.
Zovastina would not care beyond wanting to know if the death raised any suspicion. But how could it? There'd be no body to find. Just bone fragments and ashes.
Like when Ely Lund's house burned.
"You're going to kill me?" Ely asked. "What have I done?" The intruder brandished a gun. "How can I be a threat to anyone?"
Viktor stood out of sight, in an adjacent room, and listened.
"Why don't you answer me?" Ely asked, his voice rising.
"I'm not here to talk," the man said.
"Just here to shoot me?"
"I do as I'm ordered."
"And you have no idea why?"
"I don't care."
Silence filled the room.
"I wish I could have done a few more things," Ely finally said. The tone was melancholy, full of resignation, surprisingly calm. "I always thought my illness would kill me."
Viktor listened with a renewed interest.
"You are infected?" the stranger asked, some suspicion in his voice. "You don't look sick."
"No reason I should. But it's still there."
Viktor heard the distinctive click of a gun slide.
He'd stood outside and watched the house burn. Samarkand 's meager fire department had done little. Eventually, the walls collapsed onto themselves and Greek fire consumed everything.
Now he knew something else.
The woman from Copenhagen had cared enough for Ely Lund to avenge his death.
He rounded the basilica and spotted the north portal. A man waited inside the open bronze doors.
Viktor grabbed his composure.
The Supreme Minister would want him focused and controlled.
ZOVASTINA HANDED THE SIGNED CONCORDAT BACK TO MICHENER. "Now leave me be for my thirty minutes."
The papal nuncio motioned and all the priests withdrew from the presbytery.
"You'll regret pressuring me," she made clear.
"You might find the Holy Father tough to challenge."
"How many armies does your pope have?"
"Many have asked that question. But armies weren't needed to bring communism to its knees. John Paul II did just fine, all by himself."
"And your pope is equally astute?"
"Cross him and you'll find out."
Michener walked away, passing through the iconostasis into the nave, disappearing toward the basilica's main entrance. "I'll be back in a half hour," he called out through the darkness.
She saw Viktor advancing through the dimness. He passed Michener, who acknowledged him with a nod. Her two other guardsmen stood off to the side.
Viktor entered the presbytery. His clothes were damp and dingy, his face smoke-streaked.
All she wanted to know was, "Do you have it?"
He handed her an elephant medallion.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"Looks authentic, but I haven't had a chance to test it."
She pocketed the coin. Later.
The open sarcophagus waited ten meters away.
That's what mattered now.
MALONE WAS THE LAST TO HOP FROM THE BOAT ONTO THE CONCRETE quay. They were back downtown, in San Marco, where the famous square ended at the lagoon. Ripples slapped moving poles and jostled gondolas tied to the docks. Still lots of police around and a multitude more spectators than an hour ago.
Stephanie motioned toward Cassiopeia, who was already shouldering through a crowded row of street vendors, toward the basilica, the bow and quiver still draped across her shoulder. "Pocahontas there needs a leash."
Through the crowd, he spotted a man in his late forties dressed in chinos, a long-sleeve shirt, and a cotton jacket walking their way. Cassiopeia seemed to have heard the greeting, too, as she'd stopped her advance and was headed toward where Malone and Stephanie stood.
"I'm Monsignor Colin Michener," the man said as he approached.
"You don't look like a priest."
"Not tonight. But I was told to expect you, and I must say the description they gave was dead on. Tall, light-haired, with another, older woman in tow."
"Excuse me," Stephanie said.
Michener grinned. "I was told you're sensitive about your age."
"And who told you that?" Malone wanted to know.
"Edwin Davis," Stephanie said. "He mentioned he had an impeccable source. You, I assume?"
"I've known Edwin a long time."
Cassiopeia pointed at the church. "Did another man go inside that basilica? Short, stocky, dressed in jeans?"
The priest nodded. "He's there. With Minister Zovastina. His name is Viktor Tomas, the head of Zovastina's personal guard."
"You're well-informed," Malone said.
"I'd say Edwin is the one in the know. But he couldn't tell me one thing. How did you get that name? Cotton."
"Long story. Right now we need to get inside the basilica. And I'm sure you know why."
Michener motioned and they retreated behind one of the street vendors, out of the pedestrian flow. "Yesterday we came across some information on Minister Zovastina that we passed on to Washington. She wanted a peek inside St. Mark's tomb, so the Holy Father thought America might like a look at the same time."
"Can we go?" Cassiopeia asked.
"You're a nervous one, aren't you?" Michener said.
"I just want to go."
"You're carrying a bow and arrows."
"Can't fool you."
Michener ignored her quip and faced Malone. "Is this going to get out of hand?"
"No more than it already has."
Michener motioned off toward the square. "Like the man killed here earlier."
"And there's a museum burning on Torcello," Malone added, as he felt his cell phone vibrate.
He fished the unit from his pocket, checked the display-Henrik, again-and answered. "Sending her a bow and arrows was not smart."
"I had no choice," Thorvaldsen said through the phone. "I must speak with her. Is she with you?"
He handed the phone to Cassiopeia and she walked away.
CASSIOPEIA HELD THE PHONE CLOSE, HER HAND TREMBLING.
"Listen well," Thorvaldsen said in her ear. "There are things you must know."
"THIS IS CHAOS," MALONE SAID TO STEPHANIE.
"And getting worse by the moment."
He watched Cassiopeia, her back to them, phone held close.
"She's messed up," he made clear.
"A state, I believe, we've all experienced."
He smiled at that truth.
Cassiopeia ended the call and walked back, handing him the phone.
"You have your marching orders?" he asked.
"Something like that."
He faced Michener. "You can see what I have to work with, so I hope you're going to tell me something productive."
"Zovastina and Viktor are in the basilica's presbytery."
"Works for me."
"But I need to speak with you privately," Michener said to Stephanie. "Information Edwin asked me to pass along."
"I'd rather go with them."
"He said it was critical."
"Do it," Malone said. "We'll handle things inside."
ZOVASTINA APPROACHED THE ALTAR TABLE AND BENT DOWN.
One of the priests had left a light bar on the floor. She motioned for Viktor to kneel beside her. "Send the other two out into the church. Tell them to wander, especially upstairs. I want to make sure we have no watching eyes."
Viktor dispatched the guards, then returned.
She lifted the light bar and, with breath held, illuminated the interior of the stone sarcophagus. She'd imagined this moment ever since Ely Lund had first told her of the possibility. Was this the imposter? Could Ptolemy have left a clue that would lead to where Alexander the Great rested? That place far away, in the mountains, where the Scythians taught Alexander about life. Life in the form of the draught. She recalled what Alexander's court historian had written in one of the manuscripts Ely discovered. The man's neck had swollen with lumps so bad he could hardly swallow, as if pebbles filled his throat, and fluid spewed forth from his mouth with each exhale. Lesions covered his body. No strength remained within any of his muscles. Each breath was a labor. Yet in one day the draught cured him. The scientists at her biological lab believed the symptoms were viral. Was it possible that nature, which created so many assailants, had also spawned a way to stop them?
But no mummified remains lay within the stone coffin.
Instead, she saw a thin wooden box, half a meter square, richly decorated, with two brass handles. Disappointment squeezed her stomach. She instantly masked that emotion and ordered, "Remove it."
Viktor reached beneath the dangling stone lid, lifted out the ornate receptacle, and laid it on the marble pavement.
What had she expected? Any mummy would have been at least two thousand years old. True, Egyptian embalmers knew their craft and mummies that old and older had survived intact. But those had sat undisturbed in their tombs for centuries, not indiscriminately carted across the globe, disappearing for hundreds of years at a time. Ely Lund had been convinced that Ptolemy's riddle was authentic. He'd been equally convinced that the Venetians, in 828, left Alexandria not with St. Mark, but with the remains of another, perhaps even the body that had rested in the Soma for six hundred years, revered and worshipped by all as Alexander the Great.
Viktor released the hasps and removed the lid. The inside was lined with faded red velvet. More of the brittle cloth lay puffed within. She carefully removed it and spied teeth, a shoulder blade, a thigh bone, part of a skull, and ash.
She closed her eyes.
"What did you expect?" a new voice asked.
VINCENTI CONSIDERED KARYN WALDE'S ANSWER TO HIS QUESTION and asked, "What would you be willing to do to have your life?"
"There's little I can do. Look at me. And I don't even know your name."
This woman had spent a lifetime manipulating and, even now, she was still capable.
"Italian? You don't look it."
"I liked the name."
She grinned. "I have a feeling, Enrico Vincenti, that you and I are a lot alike."
He agreed. He was a man of two names, many interests, but one ambition. "What do you know about HIV?"
"Only that it's killing me."
"Did you know it has existed for millions of years? Which is incredible, considering it's not even alive. Just ribonucleic acid-RNA-surrounded by a protective protein coat."
"You're some kind of scientist?"
"As a matter of fact, I am. Did you know HIV has no cell structure? It can't produce a single speck of energy. The only characteristic of a living organism it ever displays is the ability to reproduce. But even that requires genetic material from a host."
"I'm afraid so. There are roughly a thousand viruses we know of. New ones, though, are found every day. Roughly half dwell in plants, the rest in animals. HIV is an animal dweller, but superbly unique."
He saw the puzzled look on her wizened face. "Don't you want to know what's killing you?"
"Does it matter?"
"Actually, it could matter a great deal."
"Then, my new friend, who's here for who knows what, please continue."
He appreciated her attitude. "HIV is special because it can replace another cell's genetic makeup with its own. That's why it's called a retrovirus. It latches onto the cell and changes it into a duplicate of itself. It's a burglar that robs another cell of its identity." He paused and let the metaphor take hold. "Two hundred thousand HIV cells clumped together would scarcely be visible to the naked eye. It's super resilient, almost indestructible, but it needs a precise mixture of protein, salts, sugars, and, most critical, the exact pH to live. Too much of one, too little of another and"-he snapped his fingers-"it dies."
"I assume that's where I come in?"
"Oh, yes. Warm-blooded mammals. Their bodies are perfect for HIV. Brain tissue, cerebrospinal fluid, bone marrow, breast milk, cervical cells, seminal fluid, mucous membranes, vaginal secretions-they can all harbor it. Blood and lymph, though, are its favorite haunts. Like you, Ms. Walde"-he pointed-"the virus simply wants to survive."
He glanced at the clock on the bedside table. O'Conner and the other two men were standing guard outside. He'd chosen to have his talk here since no one would bother them. Kamil Revin had told him that the guards on the house changed by the week. None of the Sacred Band enjoyed the duty, so, unless it was their turn, no one paid the location much attention. Just another of Zovastina's many obsessions.
"Here's the interesting thing," he said. "HIV shouldn't even be able to live inside you. Too many infection-fighting cells roaming in your blood. But it adopted a refined form of microscopic guerrilla warfare, playing hide-and-seek with your white blood cells. It learned to secrete itself away in a place where they would never even consider looking."
He let the moment dangle, then said, "Lymph nodes. Pea-size nodules scattered throughout the body. They act as filters, trapping unsuspecting intruders so the white cells can destroy them. The nodes are the lion's den of your immune system, the last place a retrovirus should use as a hiding place, but they proved the perfect location. Quite amazing, really. HIV learned to duplicate the protein coating the immune system naturally produces within the lymph nodes. So, undetected, right under the nose of the immune system, it patiently lives, converting lymph nodes' cells from infection-fighting enemies to duplicates of itself. For years it does this, until the nodes swell, then deteriorate, and the bloodstream is flooded with HIV. Which explains why it takes such a long time from actual infection to know the virus is in your blood."
His mind flashed with the analytical thinking of the scientist he was for many years. Now, though, he was a global entrepreneur, a manipulator, much like Karyn Walde, about to perform the greatest manipulation of all.
"And do you know what's even more amazing?" he asked. "Each replication of a cell by HIV is individual. So when the lymph nodes collapse, instead of one invader, there are billions of different invaders, an army of variant retrovirus strains, running unchecked through your blood. Your immune system reacts, like it's supposed to, but it's forced to generate new and different white cells to battle each strain. Which is impossible. And to make matters worse, all of the variant strains of the retrovirus can destroy any of the white cells. The odds are billions against one, the results all but inevitable-of which you are living proof."
"Surely, you came for more than a science lesson."
"I came to see if you wanted to live."
"Unless you're an angel or God himself, that's impossible."
"Now, you see, that's the thing. HIV can't kill anybody. But it does render you defenseless when another virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite enters your bloodstream in search of a home. Not enough white blood cells to cleanse the stream. So the only question is which infection will be the cause of your death?"
"How about you screw off and leave me to die."
Karyn Walde was indeed a bitter woman, but talking to her had stirred his dreams. He imagined himself addressing the press, reporters hanging on his every word, becoming, overnight, a worldwide recognized authority. He envisioned book deals, movie rights, television specials, speaking engagements, awards. Certainly the Albert Lasker Prize. The National Medal for Science. Perhaps even a Nobel Prize. Why not?
But all that hinged on the decision he was about to make.
He stared down at the shell of a human being. Only her eyes seemed alive.
He reached for the hypodermic protruding from the IV port.
"What is that?" she asked, noting the clear liquid the syringe contained.
He did not answer her.
"What are you doing?"
He gripped the plunger and emptied the contents into the IV stream.
She tried to lift herself, but the effort proved futile. She collapsed back to the bed, her pupils wild. He watched as her eyelids acquired weight, then her breathing slowed. She went limp. Her eyes closed.
And did not open.
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