ZOVASTINA STEPPED THROUGH THE ICONOSTASIS INTO THE PRESBYTERY and stared at the basilica's magnificent baldachin. Four alabaster columns, each adorned with elaborate reliefs, supported a massive block of verde green marble carved into intersecting vaults. Behind, framed by the baldachin, glittered the famous Pala d'Oro, the screen rich with gold, precious stones, and enamel.
Beneath the altar, she studied the two distinct parts of the stone sarcophagus. The misshapen top was more a slab-the bottom carved smooth into a rectangle upon which was etched CORPVS DIVI MARCI EVANGELISTAE. Her Latin was enough for a rough translation. Body of the divine St. Mark. Two heavy iron rings protruded from the top, which apparently was how the massive stones had been initially lowered into place. Now, thick iron bars pierced the rings, bolted at each end to four hydraulic jacks.
"This is a real challenge," Michener said. "Not much space beneath the altar. Of course, with heavy equipment we could easily get inside, but we don't have the time or privacy for that."
She noticed the men preparing the jacks. "Priests?"
He nodded. "Assigned here. We thought it best to keep this among us."
"Do you know what's inside?" she asked.
"What you're really asking is whether the remains are mummified." Michener shrugged. "It's been over one hundred and seventy years since this tomb was opened. No one really knows what's in there."
She resented his smugness. Ptolemy had taken advantage of Eumenes' switch, and used what the world believed to be Alexander's corpse to its fullest political potential. She had no way of knowing if what she was about to see would provide any answers, but it was imperative she find out.
Michener motioned to one of the priests and the hydraulic jacks were cranked. The iron rings atop the tomb stretched vertically, then, ever so slowly, a millimeter at a time, the jacks lifted the weighty lid.
"Powerful mechanisms," Michener said. "Small, but they can lift a house from underneath."
The lid was now two centimeters skyward, but the interior of the sarcophagus remained in shadow. She stared high above the baldachin, into the apse's brightly lit semidome, at a golden mosaic of Christ.
The four men stopped working the jacks.
The sarcophagus lid hung suspended about four centimeters above the bottom, the iron bars now flush with the underside of the altar top.
No more room to climb.
Michener gestured for them to retreat toward the iconostasis, away from the altar, where he whispered, "The Holy Father is trying to accommodate your request with the hope that you'll reciprocate his. But let's be real. You're not going to honor your promise."
"I'm not accustomed to being insulted."
"And the Holy Father is not accustomed to being lied to."
All pretense seemed to have left this diplomat. "You'll be given access to the Federation, as I assured."
"We want more."
Now she realized. He'd waited until the lid was off. She hated herself, but because of Karyn, and Alexander the Great, and what may be out there, somewhere, to find, she had no choice.
"What do you want?"
He reached beneath his jacket and removed a folded sheaf of papers. "We've prepared a concordat between the Federation and the Church. Written assurances that we'll be given access. Per your request of yesterday, we've reserved the right to the Federation on approval of any church construction."
She unfolded the papers and saw the text had even been prepared in Kazakh.
"We thought it easier to have it in your language."
"You thought it would be easier to disseminate in my language. My signature is your insurance. No way I could deny you then."
She glanced through the concordat. The language detailed a cooperative effort between the Roman Church and the Central Asia Federation to "jointly promote and encourage the free exercise of religion through unrestricted allowance of missionary work." The paragraphs went on to assure that violence against the Church would not be tolerated and offenders would be punished. More provisions guaranteed that visas would be liberally granted to Church personnel and no reprisals would be tolerated against any converts.
She stared back at the altar. The lower half of the sarcophagus remained in shadow. Even from ten meters away she could see nothing inside.
"You'd be a good one to have on my team," she said.
"I like serving the Church."
She glanced at her watch-12:50 A.M. Viktor should already be here. He was never late. So dependable. She stared out into the nave, back toward the upper portions of the west atrium where only the golden ceilings were illuminated. Lots of dark places to hide. She wondered, when one A.M. came and she was granted her thirty minutes, if she'd really be alone.
"If signing the concordat is a problem," Michener said, "we could just forget the whole thing."
Her words from yesterday when she'd challenged him.
She called his bluff.
"You have a pen?"
MALONE SPOTTED A PAIR OF RED RUNNING LIGHTS A QUARTER mile away, flitting erratically across the black water, as if the boat was without a pilot.
"You see that out there?" he asked Stephanie, pointing.
She stood on the other side of the helm. "It's beyond the marked channel."
He'd thought the same thing. He kept the boat churning forward. They were closer now to the drifting craft, maybe a couple hundred yards off. No question, the other boat, about the same shape and size as his, was near the shallows. Then, in the ambient glow from its helm, he saw someone plunge into the water.
Another figure appeared and three shots banged in the night.
"Cotton," Stephanie said.
"Already on it."
He whirled the wheel left and headed straight for the lights. The other boat seemed to spring to life and motored away. He cut a swath through the water and sent swells heading toward the other low-riding craft. Water slashed into the hull. Malone was still fifty feet away, the other craft passing them now. The shadowy outline of its pilot appeared at the helm, a gun at the end of an outstretched arm.
"Down," he screamed to Stephanie.
She'd apparently spotted the danger, too, and was already leaping to the wet deck. He dove with her as two bullets whizzed past, one shattering a window in the aft cabin.
He sprang to his feet and regained control of the helm. The other boat was speeding away toward Venice. He needed to pursue, but now wondered about the person in the water.
"Find a flashlight," he said, as he slowed the boat and maneuvered toward the spot where they'd initially seen the other vessel.
Stephanie scampered into the forward cabin and he heard her rummaging through the compartments. She reappeared with a light in hand.
He shifted the throttle to idle.
Stephanie raked the water with the flashlight's beam. He heard sirens in the distance and spotted three boats with flashing emergency lights rounding the shore of one of the islands, heading for Torcello.
Busy night for the Italian police.
"See anything?" he asked. "Somebody hit the water."
And he had to be careful not to plow over them, but that was going to be difficult in the pitch darkness.
"There," Stephanie hollered.
He rushed to her side and spotted a figure struggling. Only a second was needed for him to know that it was Cassiopeia. Before he could react, Stephanie tossed the flashlight aside and leaped into the water.
He bolted back to the helm and maneuvered the boat.
He returned to the other side of the deck just as Stephanie and Cassiopeia waded close. He reached down and grabbed hold of Cassiopeia, yanking her out of the water.
He laid her limp body on the deck.
She was unconscious.
A stringed bow and arrow quiver was strapped to her shoulder. Certainly a story unto itself, he thought. He rolled Cassiopeia onto her side. "Cough it all out."
She seemed to ignore him.
He popped her on the back. "Cough."
She started to spit out water, gagging on each exhale, but at least she was breathing.
Stephanie climbed out of the lagoon.
"She's woozy. But she wasn't hit by any bullets."
"Tough shot in the dark from a wobbly deck."
He kept lightly pounding her spine and more water sprayed from her lungs. She seemed to be coming around.
"You all right?" he asked.
Her eyes seemed to reacquire their focus. He knew the look. She'd been popped on the head.
"Cotton?" she asked.
"I guess it would be pointless to ask why you have a bow and arrows?"
She rubbed her head. "That piece of-"
"Who was he?" Stephanie asked.
"Stephanie? What are you doing here?" Cassiopeia reached out and touched Stephanie's wet clothes. "You pulled me out?"
"I owed you that one."
Malone had only been told some of what had happened last fall in Washington while he was under siege in the Sinai, but apparently these two had bonded. At the moment, though, he needed to know, "How many are dead inside the Museo di Torcello?"
Cassiopeia ignored him and reached back, searching for something. Her hand reappeared with a Glock. She shook the water from it, drying the barrel. Great selling point about Glocks, which he knew from firsthand experience-the damn things were nearly waterproof.
She rose to her feet. "We need to go."
"Was that Viktor in the boat with you?" he asked, irritation now in his voice.
But Cassiopeia had recovered her wits and he saw anger again in her eyes. "I told you earlier this doesn't concern you. Not your fight."
"Yeah, right. There's all kinds of crap swirling here that you don't know a thing about."
"I know the bastards in Asia killed Ely, on orders of Irina Zovastina."
"Who's Ely?" Stephanie asked.
"Long story," he said. "One that's causing us a lot of problems at the moment."
Cassiopeia continued to shake the fog from her brain and water from her gun. "We need to go."
"You kill anybody?" he asked.
"Roasted one of them like a marshmallow."
"You'll regret that later."
"Thanks for the counseling. Let's go."
He decided to delay her and tried, "Where was Viktor headed?"
She swung the bow off her shoulder.
"Henrik sent you that thing?" he asked, recalling the cloth bag from the restaurant.
"Like I said, Cotton, this isn't your affair."
Stephanie stepped forward. "Cassiopeia. I don't know half of what's happening here, but I know enough to see that you're not thinking. Like you told me last fall, use your head. Let us help. What happened?"
"You, too, Stephanie. Back off. I've been waiting for these men for months. Finally, tonight, I had them in my sights. I got one. I want the other. And yes, it's Viktor. He was there when Ely died. They burned him to death. For what?" Her voice had steadily risen. "I want to know why he died."
"Then let's find out," Malone said.
Cassiopeia paced with an unsteady gait. At the moment she was trapped, nowhere to go, and she was apparently smart enough to know that neither of them was going to back off. She rested the palms of her hands on the deck rail and gathered her breath. Finally, she said, "Okay. Okay. You're right."
He wondered if they were being placated.
Cassiopeia stood still. "This one's personal. More than either of you realize." She hesitated. "It's more than Ely."
That was the second time she'd insinuated as much. "How about you tell us what's at stake?"
"How about I don't."
He wanted desperately to help her and arguing seemed pointless. So he glanced at Stephanie, who knew what his eyes were asking.
She nodded her approval.
He stepped toward the helm and powered up the engines. More police cruisers passed, heading for Torcello. He aimed the boat for Venice and the distant lights of Viktor's retreating craft.
"Don't worry about a corpse," Cassiopeia said. "There'll be nothing left of the body or that museum."
He wanted to know something. "Stephanie, any word on Naomi?"
"Nothing since yesterday. That's why I came."
"Who's Naomi?" Cassiopeia asked.
"That's my business," he said.
Cassiopeia did not challenge him. Instead she said, "Where are we going?"
He glanced at his watch. The luminous dial read 12:45 A.M. "Like I told you. Lots going on here, and we know exactly where Viktor's headed."
VINCENTI'S SPINE TINGLED. TRUE, HE'D ORDERED PEOPLE KILLED, one just yesterday, but this was different. He was about to embark on a bold path. One that would not only make him the wealthiest person on the planet, but also secure him a place in history.
Dawn lay a little over an hour away. He sat in the rear of the car while O'Conner and two other men approached a house shielded behind a thicket of blooming chestnut trees and a tall iron fence, everything owned by Irina Zovastina.
O'Conner drew near to the car and Vincenti lowered the window.
"The two guards are dead. We took them out with no trouble."
"Any other security?"
"That's it. Zovastina had this place on a loose leash."
Because she thought no one cared. "Are we ready?"
"Only the woman who watches over her is inside."
"Then let's see how agreeable they are."
Vincenti entered through the front door. The two other men they'd hired for tonight held Karyn Walde's nurse, an older woman with a stern face, wearing a bathrobe and slippers. A frightened look filled her Asian features.
"I understand," he said to her, "that you care for Ms. Walde."
The woman nodded.
"And that you resent how the Supreme Minister treats her."
"She's terrible to her."
He was pleased their intelligence had been accurate. "I understand that Karyn is suffering. Her illness is progressing."
"And the minister won't let her rest."
He signaled and the two men released their hold. He stepped close and said, "I'm here to relieve her suffering. But I need your help."
Her gaze carried suspicion. "Where are the guards?"
"Dead. Wait here while I go see her." He motioned. "Down the hall?"
She nodded again.
He switched on one of the bedside lamps and gazed at the pathetic sight lying prone beneath a pale pink comforter.
Karyn Walde breathed with the help of bottled oxygen and a respirator. An intravenous bag fed one arm. He removed a hypodermic, inserted the needle into one of its IV ports, and let it dangle.
The woman's eyes opened.
"You need to wake up," he said.
She blinked a few times, trying to register what was happening. She then pushed herself up from the pillow. "Who are you?"
"I know they've been in short supply lately, but I'm a friend."
"Do I know you?"
He shook his head. "No reason why you would. But I know you. Tell me, what was it like to love Irina Zovastina?"
Surely an odd question from a stranger in the middle of the night, but she only shrugged. "Why would you care?"
"I've dealt with her many years. Never once have I ever felt any affection either from or toward her. How did you?"
"It's a question I've asked myself many times."
He glanced around at the room's decor. Elegant and expensive, like the rest of the house. "You live well."
"Yet when you became ill, knew you were HIV positive, you returned to her. Came back after several years of estrangement."
"You know a lot about me."
"To come back you must have felt something for her."
She laid herself back on the pillow. "In some ways, she's foolish."
He listened closely.
"She fashions herself Achilles to my Patroclus. Or worse, she's Alexander and thinks of me as Hephaestion. I've listened to those stories many times. You know the Iliad?"
He shook his head.
"Achilles felt responsible for Patroclus' death. He allowed his lover to lead men into battle, pretending to be him. Alexander the Great felt great guilt over Hephaestion dying."
"You know your literature and history."
"I don't know a thing. I've just listened to her ramble."
"How is she foolish?"
"She wants to save me, yet can't bring herself to say it. She comes, stares at me, chastises me, even attacks me, but always she's trying to save me. When it came to me I knew she was weak, so I returned to where I knew I'd be looked after."
"Yet you obviously hate her."
"I assure you, whoever you are, that someone in my shoes has little choice."
"You speak freely to a stranger."
"I have nothing to hide or fear. My life's about over."
"You've given up?"
"Like I have a choice."
He decided to see what else he could learn. "Zovastina is in Venice. Right now. Searching for something. Are you aware of that?"
"It doesn't surprise me. She's the great hero, on the great hero's quest. I'm the weak lover. We're not to ask or challenge the hero, just accept what's offered."
"You have listened to a lot of nonsense."
She shrugged. "She imagines herself my savior, so I allow it. Why not? Besides, tormenting her is my only pleasure. Life's choices and all that bullshit."
"Sometimes life is fickle."
He could see that she was intrigued.
"Where are the guards?"
"And my nurse?"
"She's fine. I believe she actually cares for you."
A slight nod. "She does."
In her prime this woman would have been formidable-able to seduce both men and women-easy to see how Zovastina would have been attracted to her. But it was also easy to see how the two women would have clashed. Both alpha-females. Both accustomed to having their way.
"I've been watching you for some time," he told her.
"There's not much to see."
"Tell me, if you could have anything in this world, what would it be?"
The gravely ill soul lying before him seemed to seriously consider his inquiry. He saw the words as they formed in her mind. He'd seen the same resolution before, in others long ago, facing similar dire consequences, clinging to little or no hope since neither science nor religion could save them.
Only a miracle.
So when she drew a breath and mouthed her answer, he was not disappointed.
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