THINGS WERE WRONG AND VINCENTI KNEW IT. BUT IF HE SAT tight, kept calm, and was careful, this could play itself out. O'Conner would handle things, like always. But Karyn Walde and Grant Lyndsey were another matter.
Karyn was pacing the lab like a caged animal, her strength apparently returning, fueled by anticipation.
"You need to relax," he said. "Zovastina needs me. She won't be doing anything stupid."
He knew the antiagents would keep her in line, which was precisely why he'd never allowed her to learn much about them.
"Grant, secure your computer. Password protect everything, like we discussed."
He could see Lyndsey was even more anxious than Karyn, but where she seemed fueled by anger, Lyndsey was gripped with fear. He needed the man to think clearly, so he said, "We're fine down here. Don't sweat it."
"She resented me from the start. Hated having to deal with me."
"She may have hated you, but she needed you, and still does. Use that to your advantage."
Lyndsey was not listening. He was pounding on a keyboard, muttering to himself in a panicked frenzy.
"Both of you," he said, voice rising. "Calm down. We don't even know if she's here."
Lyndsey stared up from the computer. "It's been a long time. What are those troops doing here? What the hell's going on?"
Good questions, but he had to rely on O'Conner.
"That woman she took from the lab the other day," Lyndsey said. "I'm sure she never made it back to the Federation. I saw it in her eyes. Zovastina was going to kill her. For amusement. She's ready to slaughter millions. What are we to her?"
Or at least he hoped.
STEPHANIE TURNED OFF THE HIGHWAY ONTO A PAVED LANE guarded by tall poplars lined like sentries. They'd made good time, driving the hundred and fifty kilometers in less than two hours. Ely had commented on how travel had changed over the past few years, road quality being a top priority for the Federation, along with tunneling. A new system had been blasted through the mountains, greatly shortening the distances from north to south.
"This place is different," Ely said from the rear seat. "It's been two years since I was here. This road was rock and gravel."
"This asphalt is recent," she said.
A fertile valley floor, checkered with pastures, spread beyond the trees, ending at stark rolling foothills that steadily rose into highlands, then mountains. She spotted shepherds tending flocks of sheep and goats. Horses roamed freely. The road stretched straight between the trees, taking them due east toward a distant gallery of silver flanks.
"We came here on an exploratory mission," Ely said. "Lots of chids. The local Pamiri house, built of stone and plaster with flat roofs. We stayed in one. There was a small village out there, in that valley. But it's gone."
She'd not heard any more from Malone, and she dare not try and reach him. She had no idea of his situation, other than that he'd apparently managed to free Cassiopeia and compromise Viktor. Edwin Davis and President Daniels would not be happy, but rarely did things go according to plan.
"Why is everything so green?" Henrik asked. "I always thought of the Pamirs as dry and barren."
"Most of the valleys are, but where there's water the valleys can be quite beautiful. Like a piece of Switzerland. We've been dry lately with warm temperatures. Way above normal for here."
Up ahead, through the thin line of trees, she spotted a massive stone structure perched on a grassy promontory, backdropped by mountain spurs devoid of snow. The house rose in sharp verticals, broken by steep gables topped with black slate, the exterior a mosaic of flat stone in varying shades of brown, silver, and gold. Mullioned windows symmetrically broke the elegant facade, each outlined with thick cornices, reflecting ribbons of light from the afternoon sun. Three storeys. Four stone chimneys. Scaffolding wrapped one side. The whole thing reminded her of one of the many mansions that dotted north Atlanta, or something from Architectural Digest.
"That's a house," she said.
"Which was not here two years ago," Ely noted.
Thorvaldsen stared out the windshield. "Apparently the new owner of all this is a person of means."
The dwelling loomed about a half mile away, across a green valley that steadily rose toward the promontory. Ahead, an iron gate blocked the drive. Two stone pillars, like compact minarets, support a wrought-iron arch that displayed the word "Attico."
"Italian for attic," Thorvaldsen said. "Seems the new owner is attuned to the local designation."
"Place names are sacred in this part of the world," Ely said. "That's one reason why the Asians hated the Soviets. They changed all of them. Of course, they were changed back when the Federation was created. Another reason Zovastina is so popular."
Stephanie searched for a way to contact the house from the gate, a call box or a switch, but saw nothing. Instead, two men appeared from behind the minarets. Young, thin, dressed in camouflage fatigues, bearing AK-74s. One pointed his weapon while the other opened the gate.
"Interesting welcome," Thorvaldsen said.
One of the men approached the car and motioned, yelling something in a language she did not understand.
But she didn't need to.
She knew exactly what he wanted.
ZOVASTINA ENTERED THE PASSAGEWAY. SHE'D RETRIEVED THE controller from O'Conner's dead grasp and used it to close the portal. A series of bulbs, linked by wire, hung inside iron brackets at periodic intervals. The narrow corridor ended ten meters ahead at a metal door.
She approached and listened.
No sound from the other side.
She tried the latch.
The top of a stone staircase, chiseled from the bedrock, began on the other side and dropped steeply.
Her opponent had certainly thought ahead.
VINCENTI CHECKED HIS WATCH. HE SHOULD HAVE HEARD FROM O'Conner by now. The phone affixed to the wall provided a direct line upstairs. He'd resisted calling, not wanting to reveal himself. They'd been ensconced here now pushing three hours and he was starving, though his gut churned more from anxiety than hunger.
He'd occupied the time securing data on the lab's two computers. He'd also brought to a conclusion a couple of experiments that he and Lyndsey had been running to verify that the archaea could be safely stored at room temperature, at least for the few months needed between production and sale. Concentrating on the experiments had helped with Lyndsey's apprehension, but Walde remained agitated.
"Flush everything," he said to Lyndsey. "All the liquids. The keeping solutions. Samples. Leave nothing."
"What are you doing?" Karyn asked.
He didn't feel like arguing with her. "We don't need them."
She rose from the chair where she'd been seated. "What about my treatment? Did you give me enough? Am I cured?"
"We'll know tomorrow or the next day."
"And if I'm not? What then?"
He appraised her with a calculating look. "You're awful demanding for a woman who was dying."
"Answer me. Am I cured?"
He ignored her question and concentrated on the computer screen. A few flicks of the mouse and he copied all of its data onto a flash drive. He then enabled the hard drive's encryption.
Karyn grabbed his shirt. "You're the one who came to me. You wanted my help. You wanted Irina. You gave me hope. Don't let me hang."
This woman may prove more trouble than she was worth. But he decided to be conciliatory. "We can make more," he calmly said. "It's easy. And if we need to, we can take you where the bacteria live and let you drink them. They work that way, too."
But his assurance did not seem to satisfy her.
"You lying son of a bitch." She released her hold. "I can't believe I'm in this mess."
Neither could he. But it was too late now.
"Everything done?" he asked Lyndsey.
The man nodded.
Glass shattering caught Vincenti's attention. He turned to see Karyn holding the jagged remains of a flask and lunging toward him. She brought the improvised dagger close to his belly and stopped, her eyes alive with fire. "I need to know. Am I cured?"
"Answer her," a new voice said.
He turned toward the lab's exit.
Irina Zovastina stood in the doorway, with a gun. "Is she cured, Enrico?"
MALONE SPOTTED A HOUSE ABOUT TWO MILES AWAY. VIKTOR HAD flown them in from the north, after veering east and skirting the Chinese border. He assessed the structure and estimated forty or so thousand square feet spread over three levels. They faced its rear, the front overlooking a valley that scooped a cul-de-sac out of the mountains on three sides. The house seemed to have been situated intentionally on a flat, rocky hillock overlooking the broad plain. Scaffolding wrapped one side where, it appeared, masons had been working. He noticed a sand pile and a mortar mixer. Beyond the promontory, iron fencing was being erected, some already standing, more stacked nearby. No workers. No security. Nobody in sight.
A six-bay garage stood off to one side, the doors closed. A garden that showed evidence of careful tending sprouted between a terrace and the beginnings of a grove that ended at the base of one of the rising peaks. The trees sprouted brassy new spring leaves.
"Who owns that house?" Malone asked.
"I have no idea. The last time I was here, maybe two or three years ago, it wasn't there."
"Is this the place?" Cassiopeia asked, looking out over his shoulder.
"This is Arima."
"Damn quiet down there," Malone said.
"The mountains shielded our approach," Viktor pointed out. "Radar's clean. We're alone."
Malone noticed a defined trail that routed through a bushy grove, then worked a path up the rocky incline, disappearing into a shadowy cleft. He also saw what looked like a power conduit marching up the rock waste, parallel to the trail, fastened close to the ground. "Looks like somebody is interested in that mountain."
"I saw that, too," Cassiopeia said.
He said, "We need to find out who owns this place. But we also need to be prepared." He still carried the gun that he'd brought with him into the country. But he'd used a few rounds. "You have weapons on board?"
Viktor nodded. "The cabinet in back."
He looked at Cassiopeia. "Get us each one."
ZOVASTINA ENJOYED THE SHOCK ON BOTH LYNDSEY AND VINCENTI'S faces. "Did you think me that stupid?"
"Damn you, Irina," Karyn said.
"That's enough." Zovastina leveled her gun.
Karyn hesitated at the challenge, then retreated to the far side of one of the tables. Zovastina turned her attention back to Vincenti. "I warned you about the Americans. Told you they were watching. And this is how you show your gratitude?"
"You expect me to believe that? If it wasn't for the antiagents, you'd have killed me long ago."
"You and your League wanted a haven. I gave you one. You wanted financial freedom. You have it. You wanted land, markets, ways to clean your dirty money. I gave you all those. But that wasn't enough, was it?"
Vincenti stared back at her, seemingly keeping a tight grip on his own expression.
"You apparently have a different agenda. Something, I assume, not even your League knows about. Something that involves Karyn." She fully realized Vincenti would never admit any allegations. But Lyndsey. He was another matter. So she focused on him. "And you're a part of this, too."
The scientist watched her with undisguised terror.
"Get out of here, Irina," Karyn said. "Leave him be. Leave them both be. They're doing great things."
Bewilderment attacked her. "Great things?"
"He's cured me, Irina. Not you. Him. He cured me."
Her curiosity rose as she sensed that Karyn may provide the information she lacked. "HIV is not curable."
Karyn laughed. "That's your problem, Irina. You think nothing is possible without you. The great Achilles on a hero's journey to save his beloved. That's you. A fantasy world that exists only in your mind."
Her neck tensed and the hand that held the gun stiffened.
"I'm not some epic poem," Karyn said. "This is real. It's not about Homer or the Greeks or Alexander. It's about life and death. My life. My death. And this man," she clutched Vincenti by the arm, "this man has cured me."
"What nonsense have you told her?" she asked Vincenti.
"Nonsense?" Karyn shot back. "He found it. The cure. One dose and I haven't felt this good in years."
What had Vincenti discovered?
"Don't you see, Irina?" Karyn said. "You did nothing. He did it all. He has the cure."
She stared at Karyn. A bundle of raw energy. A tangle of emotions. "Do you have any idea what I did to try and save you? The chances I took. You came back to me in need, and I helped you."
"You did nothing for me. Only for yourself. You watched me suffer, you wanted me to die-"
"Modern medicine had nothing to offer. I was trying to find something that might help. You ungrateful whore." Her voice rose with indignation.
Sadness clouded Karyn's face. "You don't get it, do you? You never got it. A possession. That's all I was to you, Irina. Something you could control. That's why I cheated on you. Why I sought other women, and men. To show you that I couldn't be dominated. You never got it and still don't."
Her heart rebelled as her mind agreed with what Karyn said. She faced Vincenti. "You found the cure for AIDS?"
He glared at her, unresponsive.
"Tell me," she shouted. She had to know. "Did you find Alexander's draught. The place of the Scythians?"
"I have no idea what that is," he said. "I know nothing about Alexander, the Scythians, or any draught. But she's right. Long ago I found a cure in the mountain behind the house. A local healer told me about the place. He called it, in his language, Arima, the attic. It's a natural substance that can make us all rich."
"That's what this is about? A way to make more money?"
"Your ambition will be the ruin of us all."
"So you tried to have me killed? To stop me? Yet you warned me. Lost your nerve?"
He shook his head. "I decided on a better way."
She heard again what Edwin Davis had told her and realized its truth. She motioned at Karyn. "You were going to use her to discredit me. Turn the people against me. First, cure her. Then, use her. Then, what, Enrico? Kill her?"
"Didn't you hear me?" Karyn said. "He saved me."
Zovastina was beyond caring. Taking Karyn back had been a mistake. Lots of foolish chances had been taken for her expense.
And all for nothing.
"Irina," Karyn yelled, "if the people of this damned Federation knew what you really were no one would follow you. You're a fraud. A murderous fraud. All you know is pain. That's your pleasure. Pain. Yes, I wanted to destroy you. I wanted you to feel as small as I do."
Karyn was the only one to whom she'd bared her soul, a closeness she'd never felt with another human being. Homer was right. Once harm has been done, even a fool understands it.
So she shot Karyn in the chest.
Then again, in the head.
VINCENTI HAD BEEN WAITING FOR ZOVASTINA TO ACT. HE STILL held the flash drive in his closed left hand. He kept that hand resting on the waist-high table, while his right hand slowly opened the top drawer.
The weapon he'd brought from upstairs lay inside.
Zovastina shot Karyn Walde a third time.
He gripped the gun.
ZOVASTINA'S ANGER SURGED WITH EACH PULL OF THE TRIGGER. Bullets ripped through Karyn's emaciated frame, pinging off the block wall behind her. Her former lover never realized what happened, dying quickly, her body contorted on the floor, bleeding.
Grant Lyndsey had sat silent throughout their exchange. He was nothing. A weak soul. Useless. Vincenti, though, was different. He would not go down without a fight, and surely he realized he was about to die.
So she swung the gun in his direction.
His right hand came into view, holding a pistol.
She shot him four times, emptying the magazine of its remaining rounds.
Blood roses blossomed on Vincenti's shirt.
Eyes rolled skyward and his grip on the gun released, clattering away as his bulky frame fell to the floor.
Two problems solved.
She stepped close to Lyndsey and pointed the empty weapon at his face. Horror stared back. It mattered not that the magazine was empty. The gun itself was more than sufficient to make her point.
"I warned you," she said, "to stay in China."
STEPHANIE, HENRIK, AND ELY WERE BEING HELD INSIDE THE house. They'd been driven from the gate to the mansion, their car stashed inside a separate garage. Nine infantrymen guarded the interior. Stephanie had seen no staff. They were standing in what appeared to be a library, the room spacious and elegant with towering windows that framed panoramic views of the lush valley beyond the house. Three men with AK-74s, their hair cropped into a utilitarian black brush, stood at the ready, one by the window, another by the door, and a third near an Oriental cabinet. A corpse lay on the floor. Caucasian, middle age, perhaps American, with a bullet to the head.
"None of this is good," she whispered to Henrik.
"I can't see an upside."
Ely appeared calm. But he'd lived under a threat for the past couple months, probably still confused as to what was happening, but willing to trust Henrik. Or, more realistically, Cassiopeia, who he knew was nearby. It was obvious the younger man cared for her. But any reunion was not going to happen soon. Stephanie hoped Malone would be more careful than she'd been. Her cell phone remained in her pocket. Curiously, though she'd been searched, they'd allowed her to keep it.
A click attracted her attention.
She turned to see the Oriental cabinet rotate inward, stopping halfway and revealing a passageway. A small, impish man with balding hair and a worried face emerged from the darkness followed by Irina Zovastina, who held a gun. The guard gave his Supreme Minister a wide berth, retreating to the windows. Zovastina pressed a button on a controller and the cabinet closed. She then tossed the device onto the corpse.
Zovastina handed her gun to one of the guards and gripped the man's AK-74. She walked straight to Thorvaldsen and rammed the butt into his stomach. The breath left the Dane as he doubled over and grabbed his gut.
Both Stephanie and Ely moved to help, but the other guards quickly aimed their weapons.
"I decided," Zovastina said, "instead of calling you back, as you suggested earlier, to come in person."
Thorvaldsen battled for breath and stood upright, fighting the pain. "Good to know...I made such...a strong impression..."
"Who are you?" Zovastina asked Stephanie.
She introduced herself and added, "U.S. Justice Department."
"Malone works for you?"
She nodded and lied, "He does."
Zovastina faced Ely. "What have these spies told you?"
"That you're a liar. That you've been holding me against my will, without me even knowing." He paused, perhaps to summon courage. "That you're planning a war."
ZOVASTINA WAS ANGRY WITH HERSELF. SHE'D ALLOWED EMOTION to rule. Killing Vincenti had been necessary. Karyn? She regretted killing her, though there was no choice. Had to be done. The cure for AIDS? How was that possible? Were they deceiving her? Or simply misleading? Vincenti had been up to something for sometime. She'd known that. That was why she'd recruited spies of her own, like Kamil Revin, who'd kept her informed.
She stared at her three prisoners and made clear to Thorvaldsen, "You may have been ahead of me in Venice, but you're not anymore."
She motioned with the rifle at Lyndsey. "Come here."
The man stood rooted, his gaze locked on the gun. Zovastina gestured and one of the soldiers shoved Lyndsey toward her. He stumbled to the floor and tried to stand, but she cut him off as he came to one knee, nestling the barrel of the AK-74 into the bridge of his nose. "Tell me exactly what's happening here. You have to the count of three. One."
MALONE'S BAD FEELING WAS GROWING WORSE. THEY WERE STILL hovering a couple of miles from the house, using the mountains for cover. Still, no signs of activity either inside or out. Without question, the estate below cost tens of millions of dollars. It sat in a region of the world where there simply weren't that many people who could afford such luxury, except perhaps Zovastina herself.
"That place needs checking," he said.
He again noticed the trail leading up the stark mountain and the ground conduit. Afternoon heat danced in waves along the rock face. He thought again of Ptolemy's riddle. Climb the god-built walls. When you reach the attic, gaze into the tawny eye, and dare to find the distant refuge.
He decided they could not keep hovering.
So he slid off the headset and grabbed his phone.
STEPHANIE WATCHED THE MAN KNEELING ON THE FLOOR SOB UNCONTROLLABLY, as Zovastina counted to three.
"Please, God," he said. "Don't kill me."
The rifle was still pointed at him and Zovastina said, "Tell me what I want to know."
"Vincenti was right. What he said in the lab. They live in the mountain behind here, up the trail. In a green pool. He has power and lights there. He found them a long time ago." He was speaking fast, the words blurring together in a frenzy of confession. "He told me everything. I helped him change them. I know how they work."
"What are they?" she calmly asked.
"Bacteria. Archaea. A unique form of life."
Stephanie heard a change in tone, as if the man sensed a new ally.
"They eat viruses. Destroy them, but they don't hurt us. That's why we did all those clinical trials. To see how they work on your viruses."
Zovastina seemed to consider what she was hearing. Stephanie heard the reference to Vincenti and wondered if this house belonged to him.
"Lyndsey," Zovastina said, "you're talking nonsense. I don't have time-"
"Vincenti lied to you about the antiagents."
That interested her.
"You thought there was one for each zoonosis." Lyndsey shook his head. "Not true. Only one." He pointed in the opposite direction of the room's windows, toward the back of the house. "Back there. The bacteria in the green pool. They were the antiagents to every virus we found. He lied to you. Made you think there were many countermeasures. There weren't. Only one."
Zovastina pressed the gun barrel harder into Lyndsey's face. "If Vincenti lied to me. Then so did you."
Stephanie's cell phone jingled in her pocket.
Zovastina looked up. "Mr. Malone. Finally." The gun swung her way. "Answer it."
Zovastina aimed her rifle at Thorvaldsen. "He's of no use to me, except to get you to answer."
Stephanie flipped open the phone. Zovastina came close and listened.
"Where are you?" Malone asked.
Zovastina shook her head.
"Not there yet," Stephanie answered.
"Another half hour. Farther than I thought."
Zovastina nodded her approval of the lie.
"We're here," Malone said. "Looking at one of the biggest damn houses I've ever seen, especially out in the middle of nowhere. Place looks deserted. There's a paved lane, maybe a mile or so, that leads in from the highway. We're hovering a couple miles behind the place. Can Ely offer any more information? There's a trail leading up the mountain into a cleft. Should we check that out?"
"Let me ask."
Zovastina nodded again.
"He says that's a good idea."
"We'll have a look. Call me when you arrive."
Stephanie clicked off the phone and Zovastina relieved her of it. "Now we'll see how much Cotton Malone and Cassiopeia Vitt really know."
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