A new adventure of Peter Crossman, special agent of the Knights Templar—a man prepared to administer last rites with one hand while wielding a flamethrower with the other. Now an ancient manuscript of peculiar power has surfaced, and Crossman’s assignment is simple: Get it for the Temple at all costs. This will lead to conflict with entities secular and otherwise—and to a new encounter with Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares.
This short story was acquired and edited by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Thomas put down his beer and asked, “Who’s the best linguist we’ve got?”
The question caught me off-guard. To cover and give myself time to think, I asked, “Who’s ‘we’? The Church in general, or the Knights Templar in particular?”
“If you’re looking for something like proficiency in conversational Assyrian,” I said, “Brother Consolmagno at the Holy Office is probably your man. He did some good work with the Balphamagor exorcism in ’97. For text-based stuff, if you want to stick with our own people, there’s always Mark in the Jerusalem Documents section. First-rate paleographer.”
We were speaking Latin ourselves, though that isn’t any big trick. It’s like French, only without the attitude. Latin is the day-to-day language of the Knights of the Temple. Which is what I am, and what Thomas Cheapside was. This Tuesday afternoon in November found us sitting in the coffee shop of a hotel in Rye Brook, New York. A report that you could walk from the second floor to the fifth floor of the hotel without going up a ramp or a stairway had turned out to have a mundane explanation, so we’d retired to the coffee shop to catch lunch before heading back to the city.
Thomas pulled a TEMPEST-compliant smartphone out of his pocket, opened the photo viewer, and handed it to me. I thumbed through the picture set rapidly. Some of the pics appeared to have come from a security camera in an airport. The first showed an elderly nun walking through a crowded concourse. She was from the generation that still wore nun suits—in her case, a brown robe, a white cloak, and a huge rosary. Other pictures, apparently taken using a telephoto lens, showed the same nun in close-up from various angles.
“That’s Sister Mary Thérèse, Discalced Carmelite,” said Thomas. “She arrived through Kennedy airport yesterday afternoon. Interesting woman; best linguist the Church has. Studied at the Sorbonne, taught at Paris and Heidelberg, has a reading knowledge of almost every human language there is, plus some other languages that aren’t so human. She’s been retired to Montmorency for years.”
“A bankruptcy sale at an upstate auction house was announced sixty hours ago. SIGINT had a spike in traffic around Montmorency beginning within twelve hours. Sister had a passport and visas issued on a crash-priority basis in under twenty-four hours, and now here she is.”
I looked Thomas in the eye and said, “We didn’t come out here to look at a mis-numbered elevator, did we?”
“Nope,” said Thomas.
I could tell that he was waiting for me to ask the next question. I decided to oblige him. “Blue-on-blue op?”
“I’m not your boy for this one,” I said. The last pic in the series had a younger nun dressed in grey, with a wide white guimpe and a white rope belt, hovering at the old nun’s shoulder and carrying her bags. I zoomed in on the second nun and handed the phone back to Thomas. “I know her, and she knows me. I’d be made twenty seconds after I showed my face.”
And that was in dim light, at long range, if Maggie was distracted. You don’t see Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares in full uniform too often. Her magnificent red hair was covered by a black veil, and her amazing body was concealed by her habit, but nothing was capable of concealing the sharp attention she turned on the world. Habit or no, I was willing to bet she had some kind of lethal hardware no farther than one-eighth of an inch from her hand.
“That’s not a problem,” Thomas said. “You’re going in open. If you want, you can wear a name tag that says, ‘Hi! My name’s Pete! I’m with the Temple! Ask me how!’”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head. Non nobis, Domine. Not for us, Lord. “Sister Thérèse already has the Holy Father’s top assassin for her bodyguard. What’s my role?”
“You’re their guardian angel. If anything goes wrong, you make sure they get out.”
“I’m sure they’ll be grateful,” I said.
“The chancellery has requested a Templar on-site. We’re doing a favor for an allied service.”
“And—?” I waited for the punch line. There’s almost always a punch line in an op like this, and it usually isn’t all that funny.
“And there’s an artifact,” Thomas said. “High value. Get it if you can. If you can’t, make sure it doesn’t fall into unfriendly hands.”
There’s almost always an artifact, too. “Priceless anthropological object, I presume? Mankind the poorer if it’s destroyed? Fate of the world rests on our shoulders?”
“That’s right. And any hands other than the Temple’s are unfriendly. That includes the Vatican’s.” He leaned closer. “Plausible deniability is desired but not required.”
“Whatever it is, it isn’t in Temple hands right now,” I pointed out. “Why not launch an air strike and call it a day?”
I wish I could say that Thomas didn’t look tempted by the thought. But he shook his head. “We’d prefer to have the thing itself.”
He opened a document file on the phone and passed it back to me. “Let me give you the highlights. There’s a book. It’s about six inches by nine, the size of a modern trade paperback. Vellum, sewn into quires of sixteen pages each. First documented in Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf the Second’s library in Prague back in the sixteenth century, but could be much older. Cataloged by Dr. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth the First’s personal astrologer. Here’s the thing: It’s written in no known language, in no known alphabet. It’s illustrated with pictures of no known plants, and with star charts showing no known constellations.”
“The Voynich manuscript,” I said, skimming off the backgrounder file on the phone. “Named for the last collector who owned it. Currently located in the Yale Library in New Haven.” I looked up at him. “None of that is classified. Word is, it’s a hoax, a fraud created by a sixteenth-century mountebank named Edward Kelley in his never-ending quest to get into Doctor Dee’s bank account and Mrs. Dee’s pants.”
“Somebody showed that it could be a hoax,” Thomas countered. “How many things do we have in the archives right now that are covered with the legend that they’re hoaxes?”
That slowed me down a bit. I’d been involved in ops like that myself: the Rood of Grace, the Shroud of Turin, a couple of others.
“Here’s the thing about the Voynich manuscript,” Thomas said. “Several pages have been missing for who-knows how long. Now they’ve turned up. With an interlinear gloss.”
It wasn’t hard to guess at the implications. “Those pages could be a Rosetta stone.”
“Exactly,” Thomas said. “The key to what might be incredibly powerful magic, or to an angelic tongue. The glosses are in Crimean Gothic, which is what you could call a rare language all on its own. But Sister Thérèse speaks it like a native.”
I put that information away for the moment and asked, “So what’s the op?”
“The person who currently holds the artifact is offering it for sale to the highest bidder,” said Thomas. “He’s invited all the heavy hitters from the Three Letter Agencies and representatives of every religious group from the Albigensians to the Zoroastrians.”
“Even if Voynich itself isn’t a hoax,” I said, “what makes us think this particular document is the real deal? No chain of custody, previously unknown, all of a sudden it turns up in New York. Why do we care?”
“Efficient agencies are acting like it’s real,” Thomas said. “We can’t afford not to. Be that as it may, you have a ticket to the auction. If it turns out to be a hoax you’ll have had a nice drive in the country. You’re going to a private conference center upstate near Apalachin. To date we haven’t gotten anyone through the door, so you’re going in blind. Snoop around, see what you can find, keep the nuns alive, and make sure that if the Temple doesn’t get that document, no one does.”
“‘There are some things Man was not meant to know’?”
“Or woman either. Sister Thérèse can sight-read the text. If she does, she comes home with you. As far as the auction itself is concerned, your bidding limit is the entire Templar treasury. Let us know if we need to start liquidating assets.”
Speaking as an asset myself, that didn’t sound good.
I must have looked worried, because Thomas said, “Prester John selected you personally for this op, Pete. You have his complete confidence.”
He put a set of car keys on the table, then laid a credit card and a keycard for a room in the hotel beside them. “You’re on the guest list under the name ‘Crossman.’ Directions to the site are on the phone. You’re expected there straight up on noon tomorrow. Car’s parked out front. Luggage is upstairs in your room. Stay tonight and leave for Apalachin in the morning.”
I picked up the cards and the car keys. “Thanks.”
“Not for us, Lord,” he said. “Not for us.”
“But to Thy name give glory,” I answered.
After he left I ordered a Black and Tan, then sat back and watched the bubbles rise until it was flat.
The next morning I swept the car for bugs and bombs, and found nothing. Either I hadn’t yet shown up on anyone’s radar, or so far nobody thought that I was worth the trouble. The car itself was a sporty little two-door, red, with a rental slip in the glove box telling me to turn it in at LaGuardia a couple of days hence. I put the two suitcases the Temple had been good enough to supply me with into the trunk: toiletries, a couple of changes of skivvies, a suit, a cassock, and enough technical gear to break into a Russian embassy if I took a mind to do so.
The trip up to Apalachin took about three hours, heading west on Route 17 through rolling hills that a week or two earlier would have been gaudy with autumn leaves. I was in civvies with Templar crosses on my blazer buttons. My .45 revolver was a comforting lump in its shoulder holster.
The conference center was a big Victorian pile situated at the top of a hill, up a winding gravel drive past iron gates where a uniformed guard checked my invitation and ID. Dead leaves were falling from the trees that lined the drive, blown into drifts by the autumn winds. The grounds of the estate were surrounded by a high yew hedge backed by tangles of multiflora roses—almost as good as a chain-link fence and concertina wire for discouraging unwanted visitors, but a lot easier on the eyes.
The nice young man behind the desk (blond, pinstripe shirt, maroon blazer, gold-tone name badge that said ‘Mort’) inquired how many beds; I took one single. He asked incense or no incense; I took incense.
“And will you be needing any special accommodations?”
After the incense question, I had to wonder what counted here as special. “No, thanks. I’m okay.”
He nodded, and another nice young man, identical clothing, name badge that identified him as ‘Sam,’ took charge of my bag, and I followed him up. The place didn’t appear to have elevators; I wondered about their ADA compliance. Then I recalled that the Temple hadn’t been able to get anyone inside. Maybe building inspectors couldn’t get in either.
The room was clean and brightly lit with compact fluorescent lamps, like a room in any upscale conference center. If previous occupants had taken advantage of the incense option I couldn’t smell any traces of it lingering on the air. The carpets weren’t tacked down, and the floor was solid hardwood underneath. The bathroom had a locked door on the far side that could turn this room and the one adjoining into a suite if needed. Curtains covered walled-over patches where windows used to be. The only unusual feature besides the not-windows was another absence: no room phone. I checked the phone in my pocket. No signal. Someone was running a jammer. I swept my room for bugs and did a quick exorcism, flinging Holy Water into all four corners. By the time I had finished, it was nearly one p.m.—time to scout out the lay of the land and learn the details of the auction.
I spotted a familiar face by the indoor pool. A spectacular redhead was lounging poolside, sipping a tall drink decorated with a little umbrella, and wearing a black bikini cut to “why bother?” proportions. Since I wasn’t supposed to be covert, I went right over.
“Hi, Mags. Providing temptation to bad thoughts?” I asked.
“Providing a source of grace to those who resist,” Maggie replied. “I do what I can for the salvation of mankind.”
“Where’s your friend?”
“Taking a nap. Can’t say I’m surprised to see you here. What are your orders?”
“To control a package. Yours?”
“To put the talent in the same room as the package for five minutes. Anything else? Am I going to have to kill you, or are you going to try to kill me?”
“No. To both.”
Lying is against the eighth commandment, and breaking the commandments tends to run into mortal sin territory. I don’t like it when I have to sin.
Maggie rose gracefully from the lounger and wrapped a towel around her waist, sarong style. “Generally my room number is on a need-to-know basis, but in case you have a need to know, my friend and I are in three-zero-one. Have you had lunch?”
“The Vatican’s buying. See you in the restaurant, ’kay?”
I nodded. She sashayed out; I strolled back to the lobby, where a sign directed me to a basement dining room made up to look like a grotto, with tables in various side-rooms off of the rocky chamber. The server—yet another nice young man, who looked like he’d come in a matched set with the guy behind the front desk and the guy who’d taken me up to my room—showed me to a booth in the back.
Before too long, Maggie, once again in full habit, and Sister Thérèse arrived and joined me.
“I wonder if a flashlight comes with the menu?” Maggie said, eyeballing the cave-like decor.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “as long as they have shrimp cocktail and martinis.”
They did. The shrimp was fresh and the martini was dry. Both the cook and the bartender had resisted any temptation to get cute with the classics. I followed up with a steak, rare, and a baked potato; Sister Thérèse had the broiled chicken with saffron rice. Maggie had the Cobb salad.
We talked of this and that, places we’d been, things we’d done, people we’d met, all on an unclassified basis. How much Sister Thérèse knew about Maggie’s job and mine, I couldn’t tell. She didn’t say much, except for a few brief anecdotes of life in an unnamed resort town somewhere on the coast of France some time in the middle decades of the twentieth century—the sort of reminiscences that you might expect from someone who had once signed a piece of paper that said she would never reveal anything that was classified or could be classified. I decided that Sister Thérèse had hidden depths.
As we were finishing up, a guy in a full cassock with a Roman collar came over to our table. He was tall, thin, and nervous-looking; he gave the appearance of being the sort of socially inept soul who’d find the sight of nuns in full habit reassuring.
“Join you?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said—I was fairly certain his nervousness was an act, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t be polite while I tried to figure out his angle—and slid in to give him room. That pinned me against the wall, but it also put him directly across from Maggie. “What’s on your mind?”
“Aloysius Laurence, S.J.,” he said, by way of introduction. “I’ve been here since yesterday and you’re the first Catholics I’ve spotted.”
“What can you tell us about the setup?” I asked. “Have you had a chance to see the goodies?”
“If you’re asking about the pages, no one’s seen them. There’re supposed to be private showings sometime this evening, before the auction. The auction proper starts at nine o’clock sharp tonight.” He glanced around, leaned closer to me, and said in a stage whisper, “If the chicks in chitons invite you to a party in their room, do not go.”
While he was talking, his hand dropped below the table, and I felt him press a folded piece of paper into my palm. Then he lifted his hand back up, brushed his hair behind his ear, and went on with his spiel.
“Best of luck with the bidding tomorrow,” he said.
“Thanks,” Maggie replied. “We’re the Vatican’s reps, so if you want to sit it out, that’s okay with us.”
“I don’t think the Superior General would go for that,” Aloysius said. “But thanks anyway. It’s always good to see some friendly faces. If it’s just us bidding, let’s not push it too high, okay?”
With that, he stood and departed.
“Really?” Maggie commented as soon as he was out of sight.
“Apparently so,” I said. “Feeling out the opposition.”
“He seemed like a nice young man,” said Sister Thérèse. “But a bit out of his element.”
“Right you are, Sister,” I said, and thought again, Hidden depths.
We declined dessert and went back up to the ground floor, where another sign directed us to the auction room, a reception hall down a short corridor off the lobby. The hall had a dais and a lectern at one end, with a bunch of comfy-looking leather chairs arranged facing it. A dour-faced rent-a-cop stood guard at a door off to stage right. No one else was in the room, but before long one of the interchangeable nice young men showed up to ask if we required anything.
“Could we get a private showing of the merchandise?” Maggie asked.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “All the slots are filled.”
“In that case, no.”
He escorted us out. On the other side of the lobby and around a corner we came to a solarium, the first place I’d seen inside that had natural lighting, where a long table of coffees and teas was laid out. The place wasn’t crowded, but it wasn’t empty, either. Clots of men and women stood about, most of them wearing either sober dark suits or religious vestments. Hijabs beside yarmulkes beside turbans. A smattering of military uniforms. The blonde, brunette, and redhead wearing long unbound hair and antique Grecian gowns in dazzling white, who stood facing each other at the far end like an etching of the three Fates at afternoon tea, must have been who Father Aloysius had meant by the Chicks in Chitons. I figured them as possible Bacchantes, and moved on.
The billiard room and the library were similarly occupied. This auction had brought a lot of interest. “If you see Colonel Mustard clutching a candlestick,” Maggie said under her breath, “back away slowly.”
I didn’t laugh; I’d been thinking the same thing.
After that brief reconnoiter we went back up to our rooms. As soon as I entered mine I opened the note Father Aloysius had slipped me. It was brief: “Room 472. Twenty minutes. Important.” The word ‘important’ was underlined three times, so heavily that it dented the paper.
A knock sounded at my door before I’d quite finished reading the note; I stuffed it in my pocket and turned the knob.
The man standing outside was one of the suit-wearers, rather than one of the vestment-wearers or uniform-wearers. He looked like a mid-level lawyer or stockbroker, carefully groomed to be as unmemorable as possible—Generic White Male Business Person, One Each.
“May I come in?” he asked.
“Are you a vampire?” I asked.
He stepped inside. “I might have been lying,” he said.
“Wouldn’t have helped you,” I replied. I gestured to a chair. “Take a load off. What’s on your mind?”
He unbuttoned his jacket before sitting.
“I represent Google Research,” he said, pulling up the knees of his sharp-pressed trousers as he sat. Which was probably a lie; he had a No Such Agency look to him. “We have an interest in this document, as we do in all documents. We already have a fair idea of the contents, but we need to confirm our decrypt. Therefore, I am prepared to make it worth your while to ensure that we win the bid.”
“I’m not sure—”
“Worth your while personally,” he said, the last word heavy with obvious significance. I hoped that his bosses didn’t plan to use him for actual fieldwork any time soon. If they did, their standards were slipping.
“I don’t need any money,” I said. Which was true. Looked at one way, I owned nothing, but looked at another way I’d never lack for anything I needed.
“I wasn’t aware that I was talking about money,” he replied. “You don’t even need to agree. If, and only if, my company wins the auction, and if in retrospect your bidding or failing to bid brought about that result, our gratitude will be boundless.”
“And if you fail to win it?”
“Consider only the case where you win it,” the gentleman said. “I can assure you that our resources are greater than those of any other organization on the planet—so please believe that if you somehow win the bid, our considerable resources will be devoted solely to your ruin.” He leaned closer. “Personally.”
“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Thank you for seeing it my way,” he said, standing. “I’ll let myself out.”
I waited a moment to give him time to clear out down the corridor. The twenty minutes had come and long gone, so I hung a DO NOT DISTURB sign on my door and made my way to the fourth floor.
Something wasn’t right. A second later I saw what: Room 472’s door was ajar. I flattened myself against the wall adjacent, said an Act of Contrition, put my right hand on the butt of my piece, and pushed the door open with the knuckles of the other hand.
The hardwood floor of Father Aloysius’s room was exposed. The rug had been rolled up against the right-hand wall. The bed was propped on its side against the left-hand wall. And someone had chalked a pentagram inside a circle on the polished wooden floorboards, filling almost the entire room.
Candles burned in the corners of the pentagram, with letters and symbols chalked between them. And in the center of the circle lay the mortal remains of Father Aloysius. His mouth gaped open as if he’d been screaming, and his torso ended in a bloody stump of ragged flesh and spilled entrails. The rest of him was missing. Over the scents of hot wax and cooling blood I caught a smell like burnt matches.
The circle. The tooth marks on the body. The smell of sulfur. Demon sign. I firmly resolved to light a candle to the Virgin first chance I got.
Like my own room, this one had no windows and no obvious entrances or exits aside from the doorway to the hall.
My phone might be useless for calling out, but its camera still worked. I grabbed a quick picture for later and turned to go. No sense being Suspect Number One the minute some random character ambled down the passageway. I pulled the door closed and let the lock click, smearing my fingers to make the prints hard to recover. By the time DNA came back, if anyone was looking, the situation would have already resolved itself.
My next stop was the basement bar for a drink. I called for a shot of The Macallan and turned to face the door while sipping it. Jesuits don’t usually get ripped in half by demons. That was hitting pretty close to home. Father Aloysius had said that the four of us were the only Catholics on scene.
What I’d found in his room, now . . . I tried to reconstruct the crime. Aloysius couldn’t have known in advance that we were coming. So he spotted us in uniform, and decided to get rid of the competition. He went up to his room, chalked a circle on the floor, stood in it, and raised a demon to greet me when I arrived. And something went wrong. Maybe he was rushed. Maybe he was already planning to use the demon to steal the book. But now he needed to use it for something else. Because . . . ? Lots of possibilities, but none of them really persuasive.
I tossed back the rest of the Scotch, thought about calling for another, but slid off the bar stool instead. I did have another clue: The Jesuit hadn’t wanted me to talk with the Chicks in Chitons. That meant maybe I should.
I paused at the maître d’s station long enough to arrange for the kitchen to send a slice of chocolate cake up to Maggie’s room with the message ‘From Peter,’ then went in search of the Sorority Sisters.
I found them where I’d left them, in the solarium. I walked up to the center one, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hi! My name’s Pete! I’m with the Temple! Ask me how!” Corny, but maybe Thomas had been trying to give me a recognition phrase for some deep-cover Temple asset.
The lady I’d addressed, the blonde, met my grip with a firm one of her own. “Professor Barbara Renwald,” she said. “Classical languages department, Bryn Mawr. You can call me Barbie.” She nodded to the redhead. “This is Cathy.”
“Professor Cathy. McIntyre.”
“Dr. Marguerita Trastámara,” the brunette said, sticking out her hand. “But mostly I go by Rita.”
“Can I buy you guys a drink?”
“I have a better idea,” Rita said. “Why don’t you come up to our room? Make it a party.”
“Best offer I’ve had all day.”
You don’t often see a trio of Ph.D.s grinning. I wondered if it was as bad as a laughing nun and decided probably worse.
Their room, when we came to it, was like all the ones that I’d seen already: small, square, no windows, bathroom that could connect to the room next door if someone wanted to turn it into a suite.
“Make mine ambrosia,” Rita said, as Cathy went over to the mini-bar and Barbie sat on the bed, crossing her legs so the chiton opened high.
A clock was ticking, I was pretty sure, so I didn’t waste time with small talk.
“Father Aloysius says you’re a lot of fun to party with.”
“Like he’d know,” Cathy said, returning with a couple of glasses of something pale yellow. She handed one to Rita and turned back to me. “What was your impression of him?”
“I think he was a fake,” I replied. “If we checked all the dumpsters in town, my guess is we’d find the real Father Aloysius Laurence stuffed into one of them.”
“We concur,” Barbie said. “We made him after dinner last night. He was wearing his clothes like they were a costume.”
“You’ve been checking out the talent here?” Rita asked me.
“Yeah. Hasn’t everyone?”
“I suppose so,” Cathy said. She paused. “What was your clue?”
“He mispronounced ‘khit?n’,” I said. “Whoever the Jesuits sent would be a linguist. This guy wasn’t.”
“You’re a linguist?” Cathy asked. “I wouldn’t take you for one.”
“I’m not. I’m just muscle.” Which was close enough to true to not even be a lie. “But I’m interested in what brought other people here. What’s your angle?”
“A bit of pride for the Seven Sisters. The library at the Mawr could use something to rival Yale’s collection.”
“And,” Rita offered, “I’ve always wanted to practice my Gothic on something that no one has ever translated before.”
“That’s it? I didn’t think that the Mawr had a big enough endowment to pay for this kind of item.”
Barbie sipped from her glass. “I’m not concerned with that. Are you sure you don’t want that drink?”
“Do you think we could join forces?” I asked.
“Almost certainly,” Barbie said. “I have a way of knowing things. Almost certainly.”
“Did you know things about Father Aloysius?”
“There’s all kinds of knowing out there,” Cathy said.
“True enough,” I said. “Know anything about demons?”
“What?” Rita’s surprise looked genuine.
“Aloysius is dead. You have anything to do with that?”
Barbie set down her glass.
“I think,” Cathy said, “that it’s time for you to leave.”
I knocked on Maggie’s door. She opened it carefully. “What brings you here?”
“Already ran into one surprise today. Don’t want to make it two. Anything happen while I’ve been going round about the earth and walking through it?”
“The world, the flesh, and the devil have come by, offering us kingdoms, power, and glory. If you’re going to ask me to throw the auction, or to share the loot, or to privately re-sell the document afterward—well, you won’t be the first.”
“Wonderful to know that it wasn’t just me.”
Maggie stood aside so I could enter. She gestured at a slice of cake on the desk. “So, you’re telling me that someone either has beeb or will be consumed by the devil. Cute.”
She was dressed in black, like before, only skin tight, with a subdued cross on her collar to show her vocation; a balaclava covered her hair. Two shoulder rigs held heavy automatics butts-foremost in her armpits.
Sister Thérèse was sitting in an armchair, rosary in one hand, breviary in the other, eyes darting from me to Maggie and back again. She was wearing her traveling cloak.
“I was hoping that you’d figure out the cake,” I said.
Sister Thérèse sniffed. “The dining room menu calls it ‘Chocolate Decadence’ and claims that it is ‘sinfully delicious.’ Decoding your warning wasn’t hard. The carrot cake with cream cheese frosting would have presented more of a challenge.”
Code and cipher snobs . . . the good sister was probably disappointed that I hadn’t used a one-time menu with a randomly generated pastry.
“We do what we can,” I said, and filled in Maggie and Sister Thérèse on Father Aloysius’s fate.
“That’s bad,” Maggie said. “Wonder when the body will be found?”
“Probably not until check-out time tomorrow, unless someone stops by to remind Aloysius about the auction.”
“You said you had a photo,” Sister Thérèse said. “May I see it?”
“Yeah, but it’s got some nasty stuff in it.”
“Young man,” said Sister Thérèse, “I’ve been quietly contemplating my own death for decades. I think I can quietly contemplate someone else’s.”
She took the phone and examined the photo. Blew it up, cocked her head.
“The writing is in hieratic script,” she said after a moment. “None of the text that I can see deals with summoning a demon for the purpose of asking it questions. Portions of it deal with identifying the friends of God. And . . . I believe the word ‘wisdom’ is there as well. Though there are other translations.”
She looked more closely. “Something behind the mattresses?”
“Can’t tell for sure.”
“Only one door?”
“Only one, not counting the bathroom.”
“Then there is a secret door.” She smiled. “The people who used that script were quite fond of secret doors.”
“Which implies a secret door in every room,” Maggie said.
“Which means,” I concluded, “that we have to get the talent out of sight, in case someone comes gunning for her next. The best way to avoid getting caught is to be somewhere else.”
“Way ahead of you. We need to go dark.” Maggie went to the closet and shrugged on a heavy leather jacket “So—how long after we go missing does someone come looking?”
“Quite a while, I hope. I have a way to make folks think they know exactly where we are. No one chases you if they don’t know you’re running. I have some stuff I want down in my room. I was hoping you’d help me make a tactical entry, in case there’s a demon waiting.”
My room still had the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside and, thankfully, no one else on the inside; we locked the doors and propped the furniture against them. I pulled an iPod with a pair of external speakers out of my bag and set it to playing an audio file called “Priests’ and Nuns’ Ball.”
Maggie regarded the lash-up with a quizzical expression. “So you just happened to have this with you?”
“I downloaded the file last night,” I said. “In case I needed it.”
“I won’t ask what you might have thought you’d need it for,” Maggie said. “Planning to visit your Father Confessor when we get back?”
“I always do.”
She looked at her watch. “We aren’t getting paid by the hour. Let’s do this.”
I tapped around the walls, listening for hollow places. Sister Thérèse fired up a censer and filled the air with smoke, while Maggie lit a candle and moved it close to the walls, looking for slight air currents.
Working together, it didn’t take us long to find the sliding panel opposite the hall door that I should have looked for earlier. I checked my own watch. Coming up on six pm. That gave us three hours of sneak-and-peek time before the auction. Someone coming to surprise us would hesitate to enter the room if he thought someone was in it. I already knew there weren’t any electronic bugs. What I needed was three hours’ worth of protection against a Mark One Earlobe pressed to the wall. A recorded conversation that didn’t take three hours to make would have obvious repeats that would blow the gaff—but between the sounds of squeaking bedsprings in the rhythm that said “missionary style” and some guy moaning “O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!”, we had the time covered.
I pulled two sets of infrared goggles and an IR flashlight out of the heavier of the suitcases the Temple had given me and handed them to the nuns, then took a night-vision device and a low-intensity light source for myself. Then Maggie and I worked the catch on the secret door, slid it open, and slipped out with Sister Thérèse between us.
While the conference center itself was all old wood and carpet and William Morris wallpaper, on the other side of the door the construction turned to concrete and steel; stairways and corridors going from black to black in either direction, up and down. I put a chalk X on the opposite wall so we would know the spot again, checked my watch, and turned right to see where the corridor went. My thought was to find Father Aloysius’s room and do some snooping around.
“What’s your plan if we find someone else out here?” Maggie whispered.
“Stand between them and the talent while you guys skedaddle,” I said. “Either that or ask if this is the way to the bus stop. Meanwhile . . . up two flights, and turn left.”
We retraced my path from earlier that afternoon, only outside the rooms rather than through the central hall. Maybe this was the maids’ access so the guests wouldn’t be bothered by laundry hampers and trolleys full of clean towels, but I doubted it. Every twenty feet or so another sliding panel beckoned, obvious from this side under infra-red. They were unmarked. The maids would have had to have phenomenal memories to keep the rooms straight.
“I think this is—” I began.
“Someone’s coming,” Maggie said, in a voice so low I could barely hear it. We were standing beside another panel. No sounds came from inside the room, but from around the corner, in that outside passageway, I could hear the footsteps of several people approaching.
Father Aloysius won’t mind the intrusion, I thought, pushed the panel, and slid it aside. A moment later the panel was sliding closed again with us on the inside.
It was the wrong room.
The open closet held suits, three of them, in identical charcoal gray. The bedside table had a crystal ball on an ornate stand. And the bed held a desiccated corpse lying on top of the coverlet. At the bed’s foot, a meter-tall jar of white glazed porcelain, topped with a lid shaped like a jackal’s head, gazed out into the room.
“That’s something you don’t see every day,” Maggie said.
“I’m more worried that whoever’s out in the passageway saw the light when we opened the slider,” I said. I walked to the hall door, pulled it open, and checked the number on the outside.
“We’re off by one. Father Aloysius is next door.”
“The bathrooms connect. Are you any good with locks?”
I pulled the leather case with my set of travel lockpicks from my pocket. “I like to think of myself as a talented amateur.”
The Jesuit’s room, on the other side of the bathroom once I’d unlocked the connecting door, was as I’d left it. The smell of sulfur hadn’t gone away, though the smell of death was stronger.
Sister Thérèse looked at the circle-and-pentagram design. “This wasn’t built to keep something out; it was built to keep something in.”
Maggie edged around the circle and examined the side closest to the hall door. “Whaddaya know,” she said, pointing. A black feather was duct-taped to the bottom edge of the door, set to sweep over the chalk lines and break them the moment the door was opened. “Booby-trapped.”
I reshuffled my hypotheses. “Someone comes in from the sliding door, tapes on the feather, draws a circle, raises a demon inside it, and departs. The next man through the door breaks the circle, and the demon breaks his fast. Sound reasonable?”
“They could have entered this way,” Sister Thérèse said, nodding in the direction from which we’d come. “The fact that we have another corpse over there doesn’t rule it out.”
“And look here,” Maggie said. She was pointing to the bed, or, rather, the floor where the bed made a lean-to against the wall. Another jackal-headed jar stood there. “Trouble O trouble in the Promised Land.”
“Check the next room,” Maggie said, pointing. “In and out through the secret passageway. Two seconds. And if we meet anyone, we deal.”
A plan. I like having plans.
The next room over had another corpse. This one was wearing US Army mess-dress blues, General’s stars, and three bullet holes in the center of his chest. Scorch marks on his shirt said close range. And another jackal-jar.
“I’m sensing a pattern here,” I said.
“Each death appropriate to the person,” Maggie said. “I wonder what they have planned for us?”
“I’d get burned at the stake. Don’t know about you.”
A rattle sounded at the door, like someone trying the knob. I pointed at the corners of the room on the side closest to that door; Maggie took one, I took the other, the older nun ducked into the bathroom. I pulled my revolver; Maggie had both of her pistols out.
The lock clicked over and the door opened. The Chicks in Chitons walked in, dressed much as I’d seen them before, only Barbie had an olive-drab messenger bag marked with paratrooper wings hung over her shoulder, Rita had replaced her sandals with combat boots, and Cathy had a hand-and-a-half bastard sword strapped to her back.
When they saw the corpse, they halted. Rita said something unladylike in Koine Greek. I answered in the same language from behind them: “Hands where I can see them.”
The three turned, slowly. We all froze for a moment. Then, “I don’t suppose this guy would mind if I raided his mini-bar,” Rita said, with a nod at the general. “Want something?”
“Thanks, I’m good.”
Sister Thérèse came out of her hiding place and addressed the three in a language I didn’t recognize. Barbie replied in what sounded like the same tongue. A few more seconds of jabber, and Thérèse turned to me and Maggie. “You can put up your weapons. They’re on the side of the angels.”
“As are you,” Cathy said. “You mentioned joining forces. Now seems like a good time.”
“Know anything about this?” I pointed at the guy on the floor.
“I know that the last four rooms we’ve been in have held similar,” Barbie said.
“This is our third,” Maggie said.
“Okay,” I said. “Theories about the jars?”
“That’s easy,” Cathy said. “Someone’s collecting souls.”
“Devotees of Neith—Egyptian goddess of war and wisdom. Watch and listen.” Cathy pulled on the lid of the jar. It gave way with a pop; a moment later I heard a sigh.
“Yeah.” She put the lid back on the jar.
“Any idea what they’re collecting souls for?” I asked.
“No idea,” said Cathy. “But some of the souls here today do not belong to very nice people.”
Maggie looked pointedly at the location of the secret door. “I say we clear the hot zone before somebody stuffs our souls into jars.”
“One thing to do first,” I replied. “My orders are not to leave without those pages from the Voynich.”
“Great. We grab ’em on the way out,” Maggie said, “and I’ll be mission-accomplished too.”
“Three gets you seven there’s an easy way into the auction room from that secret passageway.”
“Which will be crawling with unfriendlies.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Cathy said, putting one hand on the hilt of her sword and pulling it up a couple of inches out of its sheath to reveal glistening steel. “I delight in the truth.”
“Let’s motivate before the hostiles return,” I said, heading for the secret panel. “I’ll take point. Maggie, you bring up the rear; everyone else, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you. If you hear shooting, hit the deck. And . . . go.” I flipped off the room lights, pulled on my night-vision goggles, slid the panel, and exited. The others followed.
I retraced our path to the stairway going down. One hand on the rail, one hand on my piece, and Barbie’s hand on my shoulder. It was warm, soft, and comforting. I shook my head to clear it, and descended. We weren’t as totally silent as I’d have liked; still, we continued down, then down again, and . . . I froze and flattened back against the wall. Someone was coming. A bunch of someones. From up ahead, I could hear the sound of footsteps. I killed my light; Maggie did the same. Anyone out in this Stygian space would have to be using technical aids to vision.
But they weren’t. The footsteps belonged to Sam and Mort and a half-dozen more well-groomed young men in identical conference staff blazers and gold-toned name tags. Each of them had a Cyalume glow stick pinned to his lapel, and each of them carried one of those jackal-headed jars. In the green light of the glow sticks the porcelain shone like jade. The young men turned a corner ahead. They looked like they knew where they were going, which was more than I did. So I followed them, and my retinue followed with me.
Sam and Mort and their brethren proceeded down a short hallway, down another set of stairs, and through a door. We followed some twenty feet behind. For eyes adapted to the dark, the scene beyond the opened door was brightly lit. For someone like me, wearing night goggles, the light was almost too bright to bear. I could see, however, that the room they had come to was the auction room, cleared of chairs. There each staff member put down his burden, adding his jar to the scores of others already waiting. Then, one by one, they exited the auction hall through the door to the lobby.
The rent-a-cop still stood beside the other door by the stage. With my goggles in place I could see that he had three heads.
The last of the young men exited; the outer door snicked closed behind him. I said a Pater Noster and knelt in the gap where our door hadn’t quite closed.
“Trouble?” Barbie whispered.
“Pass to Maggie: Come forward,” I whispered back to her. The word went back, the quiet susurration of the order, the shuffling, and Maggie was at my side and peering through the gap.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Sometimes, violence is an answer,” she replied. “I want to see what’s behind the stage.”
“Shoot our way in, shoot our way out,” I said. “It has a simple joy. This guy is mine; you take the door to the left.”
“Negat, Pete. Violence is my specialty.” Her lips were so close to my head she was damn-near nibbling my earlobe. She pushed the door open a trifle wider, said, “Cover your ears,” hauled out her pistols, and put a round each between the guard’s eyes. All three sets.
We pushed into the room.
“Okay, people, we’re on minus minutes,” Maggie shouted over the ringing in our ears. “Go get ’em!”
I ran up to the door beside the stage. It yielded to my size 12 brogans. On the other side was a closet containing a leather case on a wheeled cart. A quick check inside the case revealed what sure looked like pages from Voynich, augmented with words written in a thin, spidery hand in red ink between the lines. I didn’t recognize the language, but the letters were Roman. I grabbed the sheaf of manuscript pages and stuffed them into my inside jacket pocket.
“Okay,” I said, “got it.”
Maggie said, “Then let’s get out of here before the rest of the balloon goes up.”
Out in the auction room, the three professors and Sister Thérèse were busy taking lids off jars and releasing souls. “Ladies, we are leaving!” I shouted as Maggie and I ran to the main door.
The lobby outside was filled with yet more well-groomed young men in name tags and blazers—what looked like the entire conference center staff, some with firearms, others with bludgeons or knives, all of them looking pissed. I emptied my revolver, going center-of-mass on the ones with ranged weapons first, then filled my piece with a speed-loader and emptied it again.
Maggie added her twin H&Ks to the chorus of gunfire.
Behind me came the crump of an explosion, followed by the sighing noise of escaping souls as the rest of the jars shattered. One of the professors had clearly done something impressive, but I couldn’t risk turning my head to see exactly what.
“Stand aside,” Cathy said. She had that serious pig-sticker out, three-plus feet of double-edged nasty. “These guys are mine.” She swung her sword in front of her in flat figure-eights with an easy grace, blocking, parrying, and inducing arterial sprays.
We cleared our way through the conference center lobby with fire and sword, up to the outside door. It was locked, and it was heavy and solid. No exit.
Barbie came up, fishing in that canvas messenger pouch of hers. “Buy me a minute,” was all she said.
I did my best. I only had three more speed-loaders on me. No telling what Maggie had; probably not much more. Cathy was doing the bulk of the work, as more and more of the handsome young men pressed close toward us. She started singing the praises of Holy Wisdom in ancient Greek as she swung that sword in sweeping arcs, ferocity incandescent around her.
Next to me, Barbie pulled a couple of blocks of C-4, detonators, cord, and a hell-box out of her messenger bag. Rita set each charge for her in turn.
I couldn’t help myself. “What do you guys study at Bryn Mawr anyway?”
“Languages, literature, and field-expedient demolition,” Barbie said as the last charge went into place.
“Right,” I said. I’d had to ask.
“I think we need to get behind the front desk now,” she added.
We pushed our way through, Cathy in the front, Rita beside me, Barbie bringing up the rear. Maggie was in the center this time, keeping herself between Sister Thérèse and the hostile crowd. The space behind the front desk was a tight fit, but we all made it in.
Then Barbie shouted, “Fire in the hole!” and squeezed the hell-box.
The pressure wave of the explosion swept over us. Part of the ceiling collapsed. Dust billowed. But the doors that had blocked our way to the outside were gone. So was most of the conference staff.
We ran out into the gathering night.
“Time to hit the road,” I said. “We want to be out of here before they get a chance to recover and regroup.”
I located my car—I was ready to take whatever vehicle presented itself, if necessary, but the rental was parked where I’d left it, so I didn’t need to add grand theft auto to my list of sins. The three Chicks in Chitons squeezed into the back; Maggie, Thérèse, and I got up front; and I gunned it down the drive. I didn’t pause for the gate. The Temple wasn’t going to get its security deposit back on the rental.
Once we reached the main road I moderated my speed to avoid interest from the cops as the sky behind us lit up with what was probably going to be a four-alarmer.
“What do we have?” Maggie asked, as we settled back.
“The documents, I hope,” I replied.
“They aren’t genuine,” Sister Thérèse said. “I know those pages.”
“I wrote them,” she said. “In my youth, while I was still secular, and working on my first degree. It was at the beginning of the Cold War, you understand: The pages came with a legend that they had been taken from Hitler’s collection of esoterica, and that they contained a secret which would give its holder the power to rule all of Germany. It was false, of course. The plan was to put the manuscript into the hands of Lavrentiy Beria—I don’t know if you remember him—”
“I know the name,” I said. The head of Stalin’s NKVD was well before my time, but his reputation lives on in the trade.
“He was a very bad man,” she said. “But it was thought that he could be convinced to reunify Germany in return for aid from the West, especially if he believed that he could become Germany’s de facto ruler. Those pages were intended to be his lever.”
“And you people actually thought something like that would work?” Maggie said.
“I was never asked for my opinion,” Sister Thérèse told her. “I was only a student, after all, and young and a woman besides. In any case, the operation was never carried out. Stalin died and Khrushchev had Beria executed before the forgery could be brought into play, so the whole plan was filed away and forgotten. How the acolytes of Neith came across the manuscript after all this time, I can’t imagine.”
I could, though. All it needed was somebody involved in the original scheme deciding not to let a perfectly good forgery rot away in a filing cabinet when it could be sold off to a credulous buyer for a tidy sum . . . Doctor Dee’s good buddy Edward Kelley would have approved.
Out loud, I said, “The manuscript sale was never meant to be anything but bait, something that would draw potential buyers to a place where Neith’s acolytes could harvest powerful and wicked souls undisturbed.”
Maggie said, “Care to hazard a guess as to why the Neith-worshipers wanted that many jugged souls?”
“No,” I said. “But it can’t have been for anything good.”
“A honey-pot. And we nearly got caught in it.”
“The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways,” said Sister Thérèse. “If those nice young women hadn’t helped us, we might not have escaped.”
That got me to look in the rear-view mirror. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the back seat was empty.
We drove the rest of the way to New York City in silence.
I packed up the manuscript pages and forwarded them by secure courier to Châtillon, with a note that they hadn’t been touched by anyone but me.
Some while later I got a comm back: “Well done.”
I didn’t agree. The whole op had been messy as hell, and the acolytes of Neith had slipped under everyone’s radar. But I knew better than to reply.
Two months later, I was in a bar in the lower East Side. Someone sat beside me. I looked over; it was Professor Barbara, dressed in civilian rig. The glow around her might have been the light from the neon sign in the window.
“You have questions?” she asked.
“No,” I replied.
Non nobis, Domine.
“The Devil in the Details” copyright © 2014 by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald
Art copyright © 2014 by Dominick Saponaro