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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
A 700-YEAR-OLD MYSTERY IS ABOUT TO BE SOLVED.
BUT HOW MANY MUST DIE FIRST?
A former President’s son is kidnapped in a brazen attack on the streets of Potomac by the very ancient organization that murdered his father, convinced he knows the location of an item stolen from them by the late president.
A close friend awakes from a coma with a message for Archaeology Professor James Acton from the same organization, sending him along with his fiancée Professor Laura Palmer, on a quest to find an object only rumored to exist, while trying desperately to keep one step ahead of a foe hell-bent on possessing it.
And seven hundred years ago, the Mongol Empire threatens to fracture into civil war as the northern capital devolves into idol worship, the Khan sending in a trusted family to save the empire—two brothers and a son, Marco Polo, whose actions have ramifications that resonate to this day.
From USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy comes The Venice Code, the latest installment of the hit James Acton Thrillers series. Join James Acton and his friends, including the Delta Force's Bravo Team, and CIA Special Agent Dylan Kane in their greatest adventure yet, an adventure seven hundred years in the making!
"James Acton: A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"
Though this book is part of the James Acton Thrillers series, it is written as a standalone novel and can be enjoyed without having read any of the previous installments.
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
"A writer who tells what we are thinking but sometimes afraid to say." — Bruce Ford
"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
"One of the best writers today." — Johnny Olsen
"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
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Find out more at www.jrobertkennedy.com.
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The Protocol Brass Monkey Broken Dove The Templar's Relic Flags of Sin The Arab Fall The Circle of Eight The Venice Code Pompeii's Ghosts Amazon Burning The Riddle Blood Relics Sins of the Titanic Saint Peter's Soldiers The Thirteenth Legion Raging Sun Wages of Sin Wrath of the Gods The Templar's Revenge
Rogue Operator Containment Failure Cold Warriors Death to America Black Widow The Agenda Retribution
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“I believe it was God’s will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world, since, as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.”
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, 1299 AD
“Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things.”
Marco Polo was only seventeen when he left on his now famous journey to the Orient. Led by his father and uncle—the brothers having already spent many years in what is now China—their journey was long and hard, but the rewards tremendous at the end, the leader of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan, already having befriended the brothers on their first trip.
Their journey was eventful though predictable, a near straight route east to what is now known as Beijing, except for one strange detour that had them suddenly head north. Bearing gifts and messages from the Pope for the Khan, this deviation delayed their delivery significantly, something unimaginable unless the Polos had good reason to stray from their planned route.
And only one reason would be found acceptable.
If the Khan himself asked them.
Approaching Karakorum, Mongol Empire March 23rd, 1275 AD
Most would have screamed, but it wasn’t in Giuseppe’s nature to do so, even if a knife was pressed against his throat, the blood already dripping from where the tip of the blade had penetrated. Instead, he glared at his attacker—at their attackers—his eyes flicking over to his master who seemed to be taking their current predicament in stride, his face barely registering any surprise at these turn of events, their guides having betrayed them.
Why did my master ever agree to this side trip?
It had made no sense at the time—at least not to him—why they would change such well-laid plans on such short notice, but he was a slave, a mere servant to his master and not always privy to such things. Though his master was kind, never beating him, never depriving him, never raising his voice, he was still a slave. Yet after serving his master for over a decade, since a boy, he had come to think of the man as a brother, the two nearly the same age. His master was twenty-one, but he wasn’t sure what his own age was. He was certain it was something similar, though when he had been sold into slavery, he had known little of himself beyond his name—Joseph, which his new masters had changed to Giuseppe, the Italian version of the name.
He was just fortunate to have been sold into the family he had, their kindness and generosity known throughout their home of Venice.
That was why he eyed his master with concern, now held at knifepoint by three of their attackers, two holding his arms behind his back, the other searching him for valuables as a heavy snowfall engulfed them all.
A triumphant shout from the searcher as he held up a long, narrow gold tablet engraved with words Giuseppe could not read, though knew by heart. It had been presented to the master’s father, Niccolo, and uncle, Matteo, when they had stayed with the leader of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan, in Khanbaliq years before. It guaranteed them safe passage through the Mongol Empire, including access to any provisions as needed—with no need to pay.
Though it had been granted to his elders, his master’s father had given it to his son on this side journey, in case the need of its protection should arise. His master would never use it to purchase goods, that an abuse of the trust placed in his elders by Kublai Khan so many years ago, though the inscription and the symbol engraved might buy them out of situations such as the one they now found themselves.
“What is this?” demanded the man now holding the tablet.
“It is a ‘gerege,’ given to my father and uncle by Kublai Khan himself.”
A hush settled over the narrow canyon they now occupied, in retrospect it an ideal location for an ambush. Giuseppe wondered how many travelers had fallen prey to these scoundrels, and hoped their modus operandi was to merely steal rather than steal and kill.
The warm blood trickling down his neck and beneath his fur-trimmed jacket had him thinking the latter.
“What does it say?” asked the man, his voice subdued, the fear the man now felt, palpable, even the tip of the blade in Giuseppe’s throat retreating slightly.
“It says, ‘By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan's name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.’”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that Kublai Khan himself is a friend of the person who possesses this gerege, and Khan himself guarantees their safe passage and any provisions they should need.”
“I don’t understand,” whispered the man, backing away slightly, suggesting he did have at least an inkling of what was meant by the words his master had spoken.
“It means that should you harm us any further, should you disrupt our passage in any way, you will have made an enemy of Kublai Khan himself, and you will die.”
The man stepped back, waving over several of his men—Giuseppe guessed his lieutenants—and an animated discussion was soon underway. They were speaking Mongol, a language Giuseppe had become proficient at for the journey, the tidbits he could hear terrifying, to say the least.
It appeared the decision was leaning toward the option of killing everyone so there would be no witnesses.
Giuseppe eyed his master who remained calm during all of this, his eyes never still, taking in everything around them as if searching for hope, yet no hint of desperation seen. Then again, Giuseppe couldn’t remember seeing his master perturbed in the least on any occasion, though this was the most difficult position he recalled them being in, despite over four years on the road. At times, he forgot what Venice looked like, the lagoons of the city state the only home he remembered, his youth a memory purged, its horrors only revisiting him in his dreams now, those thankfully forgotten quickly.
His only clear memory was his mother, her beautiful face and her long black hair framing her smile as she gazed down at him, tucking him into bed.
And the horror on her face as she had been hauled out of their humble home, her arm outstretched, trying to hold on to him, never to be seen again.
Where that was he didn’t know, what had happened to her he dared not imagine, and how old the memories of her he could merely guess—he only knew they weren’t old enough to fade away with the rest of his childhood.
The small group of renegades broke from their meeting, the leader approaching Giuseppe’s master, a grin on his face.
“We will kill you all,” he announced, the tip of the almost forgotten blade now pushed tightly against Giuseppe’s throat once more.
Giuseppe’s heart slammed as he realized they were all about to die. He wished the master’s father and uncle had accompanied them. At least then their party might have been large enough for these marauders to have let them by unscathed, or at least a better fight might have been made of it. Instead, they had been surrounded within moments, and not even a blade clashed with another before they had been subdued.
But not if the brothers had been here!
The brothers and the master together were a force to be reckoned with, and with them rallying the troops, the servants and guides would have fought at their side, to the death if necessary.
At least that’s how he felt about it.
Yes, he would die for his master. He wasn’t sure how the others felt about that; it wasn’t a topic that came up often while preparing the meals or performing his other duties that involved interactions with the other servants. He only knew how he felt. He loved his master like a brother and would happily give his life to the family that had given him a home and treated him with respect all these years.
“That is one option,” replied his master, his voice still calm. “It’s not the path I would have chosen, but then I have the benefit of education and foresight.”
The man seemed confused, apparently not used to hearing one of his victims speak so calmly and with such eloquence. A surge of pride filled Giuseppe’s chest and swelled through his body as he watched his master bravely face down these fiends.
“You annoy me!” screamed the man, raising his sword in the air, the fatal blow moments away. “Kill them all!”
The man gasped in pain, his shoulders jerking back, his neck hyperextended, his gaping mouth and wide eyes revealing the shock he now felt as he slowly turned away from Giuseppe’s master. He heard a thud then the knife at his own throat jerked. He refused to shout out the horror he felt, instead keeping his eyes focused on his master who stood less than ten feet away, a slight smile on his face.
That was when Giuseppe’s captor collapsed to the ground, finally forcing his eyes from his master. The man was now at his feet, an arrow protruding from his chest. Giuseppe looked at his master then the leader of the ruffians, and saw another arrow protruding from the man’s back.
It had all happened in seconds, and now several more thuds were heard, more of their attackers collapsing, including the two holding his master, who dropped to the ground, grabbing a blade and rushing toward one of the few remaining targets. Giuseppe grabbed the blade from his own attacker’s scabbard and rushed forward to join his master as the surviving ruffians looked about in confusion.
A confusion that only lasted seconds, decisions quickly made.
They fled into the dusk, the ever thickening snowfall obscuring their escape.
Giuseppe rushed to his master’s side, warily eying the lengthening shadows and wondering who had come to their rescue. A shape moved, and Giuseppe instinctively placed himself between it and his master. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder then heard his master’s voice.
“Do you not think that those shadows might be friends?”
The thought had occurred to Giuseppe, though he was unwilling to put his master’s life at risk again. “They might very well be friends, Master, but they may also be the same scoundrels who just fled, returning in greater numbers.”
The hand patted Giuseppe on the shoulder, then he saw his master step forward, his sword drawn, even with Giuseppe as the number of shadows approaching increased.
“Then we shall fight them side by side as brothers.”
Giuseppe’s eyes glistened at the words, and he couldn’t honestly say that a tear hadn’t escaped, the snow melting against his flushed cheeks perhaps mixing with a salty bead. He was just happy his master hadn’t seen his moment of emotional weakness. Yet the pride he felt at that moment was unrivaled in his lifetime of service. To be called a brother of his master? He could imagine no greater honor, and any words he said at that moment would trivialize what had just been said, so instead, he merely nodded, squaring for any possible attack.
“Are you okay?” came a voice from the darkness that Giuseppe recognized as his master’s father.
Giuseppe’s shoulders sagged as the tension of the past ten minutes was wiped away with those three simple words. He turned toward his master who grinned at him as he tossed his commandeered weapon and retrieved his own, Giuseppe doing the same.
“We’re fine, Father,” replied his master as the shadows cleared with the approach of the rest of the traveling party he had thought left behind. The master’s father and uncle emerged from the darkness along with their servants, all armed, all still on their guard.
Hugs were exchanged among the family, Giuseppe standing respectfully aside, instead turning his attention to the leader of the ruffians who lay on his side, moaning nearby. He kicked him onto his back, the arrow pushing deeper into his body with a gasp.
The three kinsmen circled the man, gazing down at his agonized form.
“Wh-who are you?” he gasped, looking from man to man.
The master’s father took a knee, prying the gold tablet from the man’s hand.
“I am the rightful owner of this, not you,” he said, rising and handing it back to his son.
“I think it’s perhaps best if you held on to this, Father.”
He shook his head. “No, I think you have earned it. Your suspicions were correct, and you were indeed ambushed. If it were not for your foresight, we would have all been captured and murdered. Instead, your idea of having us follow you proved genius. When you meet the Khan, I have no doubt he will honor you with one of your own.”
Giuseppe’s master smiled, taking the tablet and returning it once again to the security of an inner pocket.
“Who am I?” interrupted his master, taking a knee beside the dying man. “Who am I, the architect of your destruction?” He leaned forward, his mouth at the man’s ear. “I am Marco Polo, and you are no more.”
And with those words, Giuseppe’s master slid a knife between the man’s ribs, ending his suffering.
River Road, Potomac, Maryland Present day
Grant Jackson’s head vibrated against the glass of the large Cadillac, his legs stretched out in the back seat, his eyes closed as his left hand cradled a glass of eighteen-year-old Macallan, the ice clinking against the edges of the crystal. His throat was sore, and a glass of water would do him better, but until they invented water that helped numb the entire body while quenching your thirst, he’d stick to the scotch.
He took a sip blindly, the smooth liquid setting fire to his mouth as he rolled it around, enjoying the flavor. Finally, he swallowed the smoky brew and sighed in satisfaction, returning the glass to its perch on his knee. He had never had a drop of scotch until his dad had died, and in a fit of anger and sorrow, he had grabbed a bottle of his father’s favorite and drank it until he learned to like it.
It was definitely an acquired taste with him.
He had thrown up that night, and he thanked the malt masters that had created the golden liquid for their skill in brewing excuses, for he wasn’t certain it was the alcohol that had made him vomit. The fact that his father, the President of the United States, was dead was shock enough, but to find out he had been murdered, in the White House, by a man Grant had known since he was a baby was even more shocking.
His mother had nearly become a recluse, retreating from society and refusing to speak of it, and whenever he asked questions about what had happened, he was stonewalled at every turn. He considered himself an intelligent man, and something wasn’t right. There was no way Lesley Darbinger, his father’s closest friend and most trusted advisor, would just kill his father for no reason. There had to be a reason. The Secret Service had killed him moments after they heard the shots, yet they had been too late to save his father and too effective in their response to gain any intelligence from the shooter.
The investigation after the fact indicated Darbinger had a brain tumor and likely wasn’t in control of his actions, which would explain his ordering US Special Forces troops to assassinate a group of students in Peru under the guise they were a terrorist cell, and to pursue the survivors to London, England to eliminate them, all under the supposed orders of his father.
To Grant it sounded like bullshit, but what was the alternative? If Darbinger wasn’t guilty, then did that mean his father was? He wanted to know the answers, he was desperate to know, and there was only one way he would find out, and that was from the inside.
That was why he was now running for Congress. He’d ride his father’s coattails into the inner sanctum and try from within to get answers, and if he couldn’t get them, he’d run for President if he had to. He had the looks, the education and the pedigree to win, and he was determined to do so.
The car jerked to a halt sending Grant flying forward, his glass slipping from his hand. His head smacked the B-pillar, stunning him momentarily as he heard shouts from the front of the car, then another slam, this one sending him backward as they were hit from behind. He pushed back into the seat, rubbing his head with his hand as the sounds of the front doors opening seemed far too distant.
“This is Sierra One, we’ve got a situation, send backup immediately, over!”
It was Mike, one of the Secret Service agents assigned to him whose voice brought Grant back to reality.
What the hell is going on?
Several shots rang out, and Grant’s heart leaped into his throat as his pulse raced. His shaking hands reached for the door, but it was torn open, Mike’s free hand reaching in and grabbing him by the shirt. He was hauled out onto the pavement and into a puddle, the light rain from earlier in the evening still making its presence known.
Several shots were fired over his head, and he looked at where the gun was aimed. A large black SUV was jammed against their bumper, a man using the passenger side door as cover. He glanced behind them to see another SUV blocking the street, perpendicular to the Caddy. He was about to open his mouth to warn Mike when one of their attackers raised a weapon and shot. Mike’s shoulder blades jerked together, his chest bursting forward in pain and confusion as he dropped to his knees. His eyes met Grant’s as he collapsed.
“Run!” he gasped before his face hit the pavement. Grant leaped to his feet and sprinted toward a nearby alley. As he reached the entrance, something slammed into his back and he flew forward, smacking the pavement hard. The sound of footfalls rushing toward him was all he could make out as a sudden warmth spread through his body, his muscles relaxing as he slowly blacked out.
And as his eyes flickered shut, he saw a man’s hand reach down to grab him, his watchband slipping slightly, revealing a small tattoo made of three parallel lines, the third slightly thicker and rounded up toward the other two.
Approaching Karakorum, Mongol Empire March 24th, 1275 AD
About the only good thing that Giuseppe could say about the past day was that their attackers hadn’t returned. And that was all. What had started as light snow flurries had turned into a squall that had lasted all night. It was unlike anything Giuseppe had experienced before, Venice not known for its snowstorms. His master, Marco, seemed thrilled with it, volunteering to take the first watch and letting his father sleep through his turn.
Giuseppe merely shivered in his furs, sitting at Marco’s side through four hours of the storm, huddled at the entrance to a cave they had discovered, a substantial fire continually fed by Giuseppe merely taking the edge off the icy wind.
“I’ve never seen such snow!”
It was at least the third time Marco had uttered these words, the excitement suggesting he was unable to contain himself, each outburst a release that would slowly build again over time, to be relieved temporarily by the next outburst.
“Neither have I, Master.”
It was the third identical reply, nothing else said until the next utterance from his master.
“I guess you’re wondering why we left our planned route.”
Giuseppe’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at the unexpected statement. “It is not my place to wonder why.”
“Come now, Giuseppe, we have known each other long enough to be honest with one another,” said Marco with a smile and a wink.
“I have always been honest with you, Master!”
As if sensing his shock at the accusation, Marco leaned forward and grabbed Giuseppe’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “Relax, Giuseppe, I’m only joking with you!” He laughed then let him go. “We have known each other since we were children. We have played together, drank together and fought together. There can be no greater bond between men!”
“I serve at the master’s pleasure.”
“Hmm,” was the reply, Giuseppe’s heart racing as he could detect the displeasure in Marco’s tone.
“I’m sorry if I offended you, Master.”
Marco shook his head. “No, you didn’t offend me. I sometimes forget your station, that is all. It is not my choice, you understand. If it were up to me, you would be a freeman, and we would be equals on this journey. But my father says that cannot be. Only family and servants will be permitted at the palace in Khanbaliq, all others will be denied entry.” Marco grinned at him, a gleam in his eye. “And you know I wouldn’t survive without my trusted Giuseppe by my side in the great city!”
“Your words honor and humble me, Master.”
“I wish you would call me ‘Marco.’”
“I could never.”
Marco batted the words away with his hand. “I know, I know.” He stared at the entrance, the wind howling to gain entry. “I will tell you why we are here.”
Giuseppe said nothing, instead leaning forward.
“Kublai Khan has asked us to undertake a mission for him of the utmost importance.”
Giuseppe’s jaw dropped. There was no hiding his shock at the news, or the renewed awe he felt for his master. If the Khan had asked the Polo family for this favor, it surely indicated the esteem in which the great leader held them.
And yet he still remained silent, not daring ask the questions that filled his head.
“As you know, my father and uncle returned from their journey with a message from the Khan for the Pope. We currently carry the reply to that message along with many gifts from the new Pope Tedaldo for the Khan. This makes our journey important, as we have an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the Khan’s territory.” Marco lowered his voice. “You remember the envoy? The one that met us before we changed our route?”
“Of course, Master.”
“He had a message from the Khan. Apparently, there is a problem in the former capital of Karakorum which is where we are heading now. What you might not know is that Karakorum was built by Genghis Khan to be his capital after he defeated the Khwarezm Empire. His successors built it into a great walled city with a large palace that made it a center for politics that spanned the entire Mongol Empire.
“But something went wrong, and when Kublai Khan claimed the throne, he abandoned the city, relocating the capital several times, finally settling on Dadu which we now know as Khanbaliq. What wasn’t known before was why he abandoned the former capital. The messenger provided the answer, an answer I can hardly believe.”
Giuseppe had been given the benefit of an education thanks to his masters, though only in the basics. He could read and write in several languages, he understood mathematics but not to any great degree—he could handle himself in a market—and knew the Bible and the history of the Church. But world geography, that beyond Europe, and history outside of his own continent? He had almost no knowledge. He had made every attempt to overhear the stories told by his master’s father and uncle upon their return, and when he had been informed he would be accompanying them on their second journey along the Silk Road, he had been thrilled.
And this little tidbit of history and world politics had him enthralled.
“What is it, Master? What was the reason?”
“It appears that the locals, pagans and Saracens alike, had turned to idol worship.”
Giuseppe’s head jerked back, the thought of it abhorrent, the worship of an idol heresy, a sin and violation of one of the Ten Commandments. “What kind of idol?”
“Some crystal carving. The Khan isn’t certain what it is, except that it was brought in by a trader who claimed it had great powers. The city administrator purchased it and later claimed it spoke to him. At first, it was his inner circle that worshiped the idol, then word spread through the servants of its power, and soon much of the great city had devoted themselves to this false idol. When Kublai Khan returned from an expedition to the north, he found the mosques and temples abandoned, the famous Silver Tree missing from the city square, and instead a temple in its place with a crystal form at its center. Troops once loyal to him held him back, and he was forced to retreat from the city.”
“The Khan was defeated?” Giuseppe’s heart slammed. If the Khan was defeated by the followers of this pagan idol, what hope did this tiny expedition have?
“No, but he was forced to retreat. He returned in force, sacking the leadership, but not before the skull was hidden away somewhere. It wasn’t until recently that the Khan learned where it has been hidden, but everyone he sends to retrieve it is met with suspicion, and the idol is never found.”
“What can we, I mean you, with all respect, Master, hope to do that the Khan couldn’t?”
“As Europeans, we will be met as scholars. It is hoped that we will be able to gain access to it through the local priest. Apparently, he knows where it is located from time-to-time. They move it regularly to keep ahead of the Khan’s soldiers.”
“What does he want with it?”
“He wants it removed then transported to the Holy See in Rome. Apparently, the city’s economy is now failing, worshipers looking for answers from the idol rather than from themselves, leaving their duties and businesses to decline in favor of seeking blessings from this crystal figure in the hopes of instant gratification.”
“Does it work?”
Marco recoiled at the question. “Of course not! What kind of Christian are you?”
Giuseppe’s chest tightened, his face slackening at the thought of insulting his master. He opened his mouth to apologize when a grin spread across Marco’s face.
“You should see your face, my brother.” Marco reached forward and slapped Giuseppe’s shoulder. “I asked the same question of the messenger. All he would say is that enough rumors of it working have spread that the truth no longer matters.”
“You said he wants it sent to the Holy See. Why?”
“I personally think he’s too superstitious to destroy it himself. If I had to guess, he hopes the Church will deal with it for him.”
“I’m certain they will. I can’t see the Pope being scared of some crystal carving. I could see him saying some prayers over it, though, just in case!”
Marco made the sign of the cross, silently apologizing for the subtle insult to the Holy Roman Church’s leader. Giuseppe did the same, rewarded with a smile from Marco.
“In all seriousness, this is a dangerous journey as we’ve already seen, and that had nothing to do with our ultimate purpose. First, we must reach the city, infiltrate it, meet with the priest, find the idol, overwhelm its guards, exit the city with the idol, and escape its worshipers’ pursuit.”
“It sounds impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible, my brother, as my father and uncle proved with their first journey. Nearly impossible? Absolutely. I suspect we may not survive the attempt.”
“Then why do it? Why not let the Khan take care of his own problems?”
Marco smiled, shaking his head. “Giuseppe, we must. A great trust has been placed in our family by a greater man. For us to deny his request would be to dishonor our family name forever. If we fail, we die with honor, and that I can live with. But if we succeed, we shall go down in history. And in time, no one will forget the name Polo.”
A strong gust of winter wind howled through the cave opening, the fire almost forced out, only small blue flames able to resist the wind battling it. Giuseppe covered his mouth with his hand so he could breathe, then the wind stilled inside, the fire springing back to life, and he found himself sitting alone, his master having risen.
“Let us sleep, brother, for tomorrow we have a difficult journey.”
Giuseppe leaped to his feet and walked deeper into the cave, his master shaking the shoulder of his uncle, waking him to take the next watch. Giuseppe prepared Marco’s bedding then retired himself, visions of crystal demons haunting his dreams, the repeated image of a laughing crystal skull waking him throughout the night.
Wellington Hospital, London, England Present day, one day after the kidnapping
Professor James Acton held his fiancée’s hand as they walked down the hall of Wellington Hospital. His hands were clammy, which was uncharacteristic of him. He hated being here, not because of a fear of hospitals, but because he felt it was his fault the man they were visiting had been a long-term guest of the facility.
Professor Laura Palmer squeezed his hand. “Are you okay?”
She knew him so well she could sense his unease. He squeezed back and glanced at her, her auburn hair loose today and hanging over her shoulders, her alabaster skin brilliantly white and flawless, at least in his eyes. She was showing the odd line around the eyes, the signs of aging unavoidable as she lived the life of an archaeologist, her skin baking in the dry heat of desert dig sites, her body exposed to the rigors of running for her life on far too many occasions—bullets, rockets, bombs, and plain old knives and spears trying to end her time in this world.
And his too. Their introduction and romance had been a whirlwind, yet over the past few years he had finally found true love for the first time in his life, and he had never been happier, despite the innumerable attempts on their lives. The pair of them seemed to be a magnet for danger, though through it they had met each other and made some dear friends despite their ordeals.
And one of those lay in a hospital bed at the end of this hall. Detective Inspector Martin Chaney of Scotland Yard. Shot several months ago at Laura’s Egyptian dig site while trying to protect them, he had slipped into a coma due to the massive loss of blood. His former partner, Interpol Agent Hugh Reading, also at the dig site, had held a vigil at Chaney’s bedside every spare moment he had, talking to him, yelling at him, bargaining with him, all to no effect.
Three days ago, Chaney had awoken, much to the shock and delight of Reading, who had been insulting Chaney’s choice of football clubs when, according to Reading’s phone call Acton had received two days ago, the “most glorious grunt you had ever heard” erupted from their friend and soon after he was talking and moving all his limbs.
Acton had immediately boarded a plane to join Laura who was lecturing at her university in London. She had waited to see Chaney, wanting to give him time to recover and also to share the excitement with her fiancé.
“I wonder how he’s doing?” asked Acton as they neared the door.
“I talked to Hugh last night, and he said that other than the memory loss, he seems to be fine, just very weak.”
Acton frowned as he knocked on the door. “Hopefully his memory will return.”
“The doctors say it’s fifty-fifty.”
“He’s a tough cookie, I’m betting on the odds being better than that.”
The door opened and Acton found himself bear hugged by an ecstatic Reading, who then exchanged a more gentle one with Laura.
“’Bout time you two got here!” he cried, waving them into the room. “Look who’s here!” he said, turning to his old partner. Chaney was sitting up in his bed, propped up on pillows and the bed adjusted to a near-seated position. He had a food tray in front of him with various pale looking offerings, and a huge smile as he saw them enter.
“Hey Buddy, how the hell are you?” asked Acton as he rounded the bed, hand out.
Chaney extended a hand and shook Acton’s—weakly—then exchanged cheek-to-cheek kisses with Laura.
“Yes, Martin, how are you?”
Chaney pushed the food tray away. “Apparently much better than I was last time I saw you both, though this food they’re trying to force upon me is bloody awful and I’m convinced is designed to put me back into a coma.”
Reading roared with laughter, clearly delighted his friend was almost his old self.
“Tell me about the memory loss.” Acton perched on the side of the bed. “What do you remember?”
Chaney frowned. “It’s strange. I remember all of you, but not how we met. I don’t remember the dig in Egypt, or even deciding to go there which apparently was at least a couple of months before we actually went.”
“Are you remembering any bits of it, or is it a complete blank?” asked Laura who had sat in the lone chair.
“I’m dreaming about some stuff that just doesn’t make sense that I’m thinking might be memories, but who knows? They could be movies for all I know. Certainly some weird things about glass skulls have to be from a movie.” He shrugged. “Hopefully it will all come back otherwise they won’t let me back to work!”
“Don’t you worry about that,” said Reading. “If Scotland Yard won’t take you back, I’ll get you into Interpol with me. Much cushier job.”
Acton rubbed his chin, debating on whether he should ask the question he had been dying to ask. On the dig in Egypt, after Chaney had been wounded, he had said he had something important to talk to him about, and with Chaney a member of the Triarii, he had assumed it was about that, yet he had never found out what the message was, and much to his surprise, no one else from the Triarii had contacted him.
And if Chaney had no idea why he was dreaming about “glass” skulls, then he likely had no idea he was a prominent member of a two-thousand-year-old organization dedicated to protecting and preserving twelve crystal skulls they thought had special powers.
Acton’s eyes flitted to Chaney’s left inside wrist and noted the tiny tattoo that identified members of the organization to each other. The first time he had encountered these people he had been running for his life, and in a leap of faith, he put himself into their hands. Dozens died, but he and his newly found love, Laura, survived, along with Reading, Chaney’s partner at the time at Scotland Yard. Reading had no clue of Chaney’s secret life, and at first felt betrayed, though eventually came to accept his partner’s alternate existence, if not necessarily agreeing with it.
Acton had been thrust into the secret world of the Triarii when he and his students had discovered a crystal skull at an Incan dig site in Peru. His students were massacred by a Delta Force unit operating under the belief they were terrorists, and he was pursued across the globe before the Delta Force unit disobeyed orders and halted their pursuit. Over the years this group of men that had tried to kill him had helped him on numerous occasions, and he had even stepped in to help them. A bond had been forged between them once Acton realized they had been manipulated, their families threatened every time they questioned their orders by a former member of the Triarii obsessed with possessing the skulls.
He had even found himself thinking of some of them as friends, and knew they were all eager to make up for their actions. They were good, honorable men, who had been used, and if they had been there the night Chaney was wounded, perhaps they all would have made it out uninjured.
Unfortunately, they were too late, and now their friend barely knew who he was. Acton didn’t want to say anything about the Triarii because if Chaney had forgotten something so fundamental about his life, his memory loss must be far worse than anyone either knew, or was acknowledging.
Acton instead turned to Chaney’s recovery. “How do you feel physically?”
“Weak. Ridiculously weak. But each day is a little better. They’ve got me doing physio several times a day, stretching out the muscles and starting to use them again. I was actually able to walk a few paces this morning. Yesterday I couldn’t even stand. Hopefully, in a few days, I’ll have the run of the place. I’m climbing the walls here and can’t wait to get back to my flat.”
Acton smiled, his head bobbing. “I hear ya. I have no doubt you’ll make a full recovery in no time.”
“Bloody right!” agreed Reading. “He’ll be back to his old self and then I can start getting some sleep in my own bed for a change.”
The door opened and two nurses entered, both of whom looked like they meant business. “Time for Mr. Chaney’s therapy. I’ll have to ask everyone to leave.”
Goodbyes were quickly made, and Acton, Laura, and Reading found themselves in the hallway, walking toward the elevators. Acton turned to Reading. “What do you think?”
Reading shook his head, his face grim. “If he can’t remember that he’s Triarii, he’s forgotten far more than he realizes.”
“Have you mentioned it to him?”
“No, that was the first hint I had at it. I nearly shat my pants when he called them glass skulls.” Reading shook his head again as he pressed the button for the elevator. “Only time will tell I guess.” The doors opened and he held them for Laura then Acton. “How ’bout some food?”
Acton’s stomach grumbled in agreement and plans were quickly made. As they exited the elevator, Acton noticed a television flashing to a breaking news report.
Assassinated President’s Son Kidnapped.
“Holy shit,” he muttered, and they all turned to see what he was staring at. On the screen, footage showed two bodies lying on the ground, covered by sheets, one with the victim’s left hand still visible.
Clearly showing a small tattoo on the inner wrist.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Reading.
Acton nodded. The tattoo was clearly Triarii.
“Why would they kidnap him?” asked Laura.
“Until a few minutes ago, I would have said they wouldn’t,” replied Reading.
“Something’s wrong,” said Acton. “Very wrong.”
And he had a strange feeling that whatever secret message was locked in Chaney’s scrambled brain, had everything to do with what had just happened back home.
Fleet Street, London, England Present day, one day after the kidnapping
Proconsul Derrick Kennedy of the Triarii sat at the head of the long conference table, sucking back hard on his favorite vice, a Cuban La Corona cigar, its aromas intoxicating and apparently annoying to some of the younger generation of leaders lining the table. Which was why a special “smoke eater” had been installed during the rebuild after the Delta Force attack on their headquarters. He assumed it worked since he was no longer glared at by the more vocal complainers.
On the wall at the far end was a series of large plasma displays, several showing various news feeds from around the world, the panel embedded in the table allowing him full control, the BBC feed of the world’s top story currently being listened to.