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The Mark of the Crown

By dcriemer All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Thriller

Blurb

“We should probably hold off on the autopsy, huh?” Cater asked. Katharine’s eyes snapped open. She rolled over onto her side, swung her legs out over empty air and placed her feet on the ground as she pushed herself upright. Two men all dressed up in Colgate blue medical scrubs stood staring back at her—one older and the other considerably younger. They looked pretty close to what Katharine had pictured in her mind’s eye. The junior man opened his mouth as if to say something, but before he could utter a single word his eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed in a heap upon the ground. The doctor paid him no mind. He pointed one gloved hand at her and without missing a beat he declared, “You’re dead.” Her words came out as a mumbled croak. Katharine licked her lips, but her tongue was swollen and parched. She took a deep breath and tried again. Her words were barely audible, but she managed to rasp a defiant, “I am not.”

Chapter One

1912

As usual, the alchemist’s reputation preceded him.

He was the man who had turned a barrel of rainwater into brandy in Dublin. In Paris, spectators had witnessed him turning a bronze bell into stone. His feat in Madrid—turning a live bull into solid gold—was one of the most popular stories, even though it had happened long ago. Of course, the details were wrong, they always were. For instance, he had turned the barrel of rainwater into a fine whiskey, not brandy. He had no desire to ever turn anything into brandy. On the contrary, he had no hesitations at all about changing that vile liquor into something a bit more palatable if it was served.

The bronze bell had been an experiment which had gone disastrously wrong. Whenever it was mentioned now, however, it was glorified as if he had been making some profound statement by the act.

The bull story was never told properly.

Only the horns of the animal had ever been transformed into anything, and they had first been turned to steel. Gold had not entered into the picture until a royal order had been handed down demanding the alchemist compensate the family of the fatally gored matador. The alchemist had relented not to keep the peace with the king or make amends with the grieving relatives of the slain bullfighter, but rather to prove to the princess he had been smitten with the depths of his compassion. She had not been swayed, however, and the relationship was soon ended which was fine with the alchemist who had merely gold-plated the horns anyhow. In his opinion, the worth of that particular metal was grossly overvalued. It was pretty, but then what?

He asked the audience before him.

“You’re only dismissing the importance of gold because you can have as much of it as you want,” said the attractive, millionaire widow from Chicago—the most vocal soul in the crowd. She also happened to have a front row seat.

“And you, dear Miss Rachel, are arguing my point for me.”

Her lips parted for a breath then sealed shut, one corner upturned.

Peter turned his sparkling gaze to the rest of the spectators, lingering no more than two seconds on each set of eyes. There were a dozen curious bodies this night, including the confrontational young woman and, of course, the Franklins, in whose drawing room tonight’s exhibition was taking place. After completing his circuit and ensuring he owned everyone’s attention, he held the book in his hands high. Five by seven inches and bound in a bright red cover, he rifled through the pages several times; the paper rippled. “Our good host has donated this fine volume for tonight’s demonstration.” He glanced at the cover. “He said he couldn’t get through this horrible drivel, but I didn’t think it was as bad as all that.”

Polite chuckles humored him.

“It had some interesting ideas. It made me think.” Peter pressed the book flat between his palms. “And any piece of literature that can do that is worth more than its weight in gold.” Once more he held the hardback high, turning the book this way and that, letting the light from the electric lamps dance along the gilded edges for the viewing pleasure of his new friends. He had seen the same reactions countless times over the years: wide stares and bright smiles on the amazed, narrow leers and thoughtful frowns on the jealous. Occasionally he was surprised by who fell into which category, but not often.

In the back was the lawyer-turned-congressman from the new state of Arizona, Mr. Smith. He had a solid poker face that betrayed nothing beyond a cool calm. That was the individual with whom Peter would like to speak alone. The other men, whom Mr. Franklin had suggested, were all powerful in their own right, but Peter had done his homework on these individuals. A few of them might prove beneficial at some point, but they were not irreplaceable, and they would most certainly never understand the quest. Or be loyal to it.

“Miss Rachel,” Peter said, looking directly at her now, a satisfied smirk on his jaw. He brought the refined book down to her level and presented it for her approval.

She cautiously took the work into her own hands, let the weight settle in her lap, and opened it wide to the middle. She ran her fingers over the pages and raised her eyebrows; she held her breath. Paper and ink were gone, replaced by ivory and bronze. Every letter was beyond precise—they were exact right down to the flaws of the publishing house.

Composure returned to her along with her wind, but she could not hide from Peter the youthful glow of awe dwelling deep within her. Closing the treasure delicately, she relinquished possession and wonder to the neighbor on her left.

As the good Captain Fortescue and his wife examined the marvel, Peter remained fixated on his own object of desire, and she on him. An amused, lopsided grin spread across her lovely, pale face. When she spoke, her words were loud and crisp. “You surprise me, sir.”

Peter stiffened his spine. “My dear lady, did you think I was not capable of so much?”

“On the contrary, I thought you capable of so much more.”

Every ear now turned to her words.

It wasn’t just anyone who could borrow his limelight, let alone steal it outright.

“I disappointed you?”

“Tremendously.”

“How so?”

“You turned the cover into solid gold.”

Peter dipped his chin. “I did.”

“I thought you didn’t care for that particular pretty metal.”

He smiled broadly and held his arms open wide. “Despite my personal opinion, Miss Rachel, it does make the world go round.”

The creator of the model earth had a marvelous talent. Perfectly balanced within a gyroscopic cradle, the world had been constructed so that the explorer could spin the globe any which way, fast or slow. And though the jigsaw borders painted on the surface were a good twenty-five years out of fashion, the craftsmanship was excellent—the product of genius. Whenever Peter visited with the Franklins he offered to buy it, doubling his price each time. Mr. Franklin always declined. Peter would then leave the purse on the table, telling his old friend he could have it if only he provide the woodworker’s name, but this offer was also repeatedly refused, politely so. “Why won’t you sell it to me?” Peter had asked once, to which Mr. Franklin had replied, “Because if I do, you won’t ever come back.” He was probably right.

“Are you the devil?” Mr. Smith asked from across the study.

Pressing his finger down firmly, Peter landed near the border of Brazil and Peru. He looked up at the man in the high-back chair. The senator filled his seat without taxing its integrity, and Peter offered him an amused grin before returning his attention to the southern hemisphere and all the empty regions yet to be explored. “Some people would be grossly insulted by such an accusation, Senator.”

“That’s not a denial.”

The world was given one final spin before Peter devoted himself fully to the night’s most important guest—the one he had invited. Ever gracious to his hosts, Peter had naturally treated the Franklin’s company like his own friends to the last, but he had not been sorry to see them go. A few had been polite enough to take their leave early, but behind them lingered a procession of enthusiastic well-wishers harboring badly hinted at hopes that the alchemist would elect to turn one last, little trinket into a nugget of solid gold for them.

He hadn’t.

“Senator, I assure you I am not the devil,” said Peter as he made his way to the neatly cluttered desk—the heart of the room. After moving a book from the chair to the top of a stack of papers, he took a seat and made himself comfortable, straightened several pens nearby. “Neither am I in league with him.”

“I apologize.”

“Accepted.”

“You must get that a lot.” The senator raised his tumbler to his lips, took a sniff of the whiskey, and set it back down on the armrest without taking so much as a sip. “The accusations, I mean.”

“All the time.” Peter brushed his fingertips across the keys of a typewriter that was perched on its own little stand off to the side. “I’m either Satan or one of his minions.” He looked up and smiled. “Or some gutter trash who sold his soul.”

“And it doesn’t bother you? The finger pointing and the whispered words?”

“My abilities are derived from our Lord and his Son, Senator.” Curious hands pried at the top drawers only to find them locked. “Now, some might find this explanation blasphemous, but it’s the truth. Perhaps they find it easier to believe that my origins derive from something more sinister because, surely, if there is a god he would’ve given this power to them and not me. Their doubts are their doubts. I have no desire to feel guilty for my gifts.”

The senator sat forward and cupped his drink in both hands. “If you don’t mind my asking, Mister Silicis, how did it happen? Were you born like this?”

“No.” Peter looked off into the past. He laughed. “I most definitely was not born like this.”

“Did God appear before you and bestow this ability upon you?”

“That would’ve been grand, wouldn’t it?” Peter let the conversation breathe. He turned half of his attention to a large roll of paper spread out over Franklin’s normal clutter—a map of the Amazon, mostly blank. While he took in the notes freshly scribbled here and there, he kept one eye trained on the westerner, discovering a sharper interest in the senator once the man had risen to his feet. He was a good head taller than Peter and he could’ve been mistaken for an English pugilist until he started moving; like most Americans, he had heavy steps devoid of grace. On the plus side, Mr. Smith had been on Capitol Hill long enough that he didn’t waste time—he was soon standing before Peter, his chest puffed out.

The alchemist ignored him another moment longer then looked up. Finding the other man’s eyes, Peter examined what lay behind with a well-honed sharpness. The politician held his own longer than most, but backed down and glanced away after not quite a minute. He sought refuge in the depths of his liquor, examining first its color, then the aroma, and finally its taste.

“When I was younger,” Peter explained as he watched his guest fidget, “my uncle brought me to a temple, far from . . . everyone. Inside, he said, was one of the holiest of the holies—an ancient artifact which straddled the line between man and God.”

“A holy relic?”

Reaching out across the desk, Peter grabbed the tabletop lamp by its base and aimed all fifty of its watts at his face. Polite company would refuse to acknowledge the cross-hatch of scars upon his brow until he was believed to be well out of earshot, and yet word always made it back to him of their mutterings. The fancy of the masses was a curious thing, never wavering from the strange and macabre, never failing to make him out to be a pitiful monster. But by the look on the politician’s face—the way his jaw dropped ever-so-slightly—Peter knew Mr. Smith’s imagination had landed safely at the truth. This particular American was a smart man and Peter was now absolutely certain that taking him into his confidence had been the thing to do.

“That’s incredible,” the Senator said once he had himself composed.

Peter put the lamp back in its place.

“And it still exists? To this day?

“To this day.”

The Arizona lawmaker backed away, his legs wobbly for the briefest of moments before they firmed up and carried him over to Mr. Franklin’s arrangement of spirits. He poured himself another serving of what had once been their host’s finest brandy. Peter watched him reconsider his portion several times. Finally settling on a rather generous helping, the senator returned to the high-back chair and settled in. After consuming half of his drink, the fire was back in his spirit.

“Where is it, now, Mister Silicis?”

Taking his pocket watch out, Peter flipped open the cover and did basic math to adjust for timetables and time zones. “At this moment, Senator? I’d say it’s approximately halfway across the ocean. Perhaps a bit more.”

“Coming or going?”

“Coming.” Peter closed the timepiece and stowed it safely away.

“To America?”

“Yes.”

“To Washington?”

“Not necessarily.”

Mr. Smith took a long sip of his drink, trying to get more out of his glass than it had to offer. When he was able to accept that it was empty, he lowered the cup, clasped it tightly between all ten fingers, and asked, “Why?”

Peter rested his arms atop the desk, mindful of Mr. Franklin’s property and careful not to crease any of the paperwork beneath his weight. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Why are you bringing it to America? If it were mine, sending it across the ocean would be the last thing I’d consider. I’d have it locked up in some vault under heavy guard.”

“Not a bad idea, Senator, but it’s not that simple.” Peter reached for an unused cigarette that was resting on the southwest side of the map; with two fingers, he picked it up. “You see, the relic is being brought to America by its owner.”

“Who’s the owner?”

“Annabelle McGowan,” he answered, his attention focused on the surrounding clutter.

“Who’s Annabelle McGowan?”

“An actress.” Spotting a lonely ashtray near the typewriter, Peter snatched this up, placed it on the map and deposited the cigarette inside; its placement was exactly where it had been, just in case this was important. “To be fair, she doesn’t know she has it.”

“And you do?”

“Yes.” Peter stood up, tapped the desk one last time and moved back to the globe. He took up his former position on the far side of the earth and gave the world another good spin. Beyond the horizon, the Senator did little more than wait for a better answer. “As I’ve already told you, Senator, it’s not a simple matter. You can rest assured, however, that the pieces are finally falling into place and my organization will soon be in possession of the Crown. That’s why you’re here.”

“Is it?”

When the friction from his finger brought the model to a stop, he was pointing to the American Southwest as it was several decades ago. “Once we have this relic, Senator, we—that is, my organization and the Church—would very much like to store it within the borders of your fine State.”

The politician absorbed the request, smiled broadly, and after some additional consideration he laughed. It was a deep chuckle, full of skepticism. “You don’t need my permission to bring your treasure to my State, Mister Silicis. This is America.” He waved his hand towards the window. “Go. Buy a parcel of land. Erect a temple. Place your relic therein.”

Peter walked his hand down the spine of the Western Hemisphere, from the Canadian Rockies to the Andes. “We could do that, Senator. Don’t think we didn’t debate the point. But there are certain perils one takes on when housing an object of such . . . immensity.”

“Perils?”

Turning the earth halfway around on its axis, Peter found the empire he was looking for, though the town he wanted wasn’t listed. “There is a small village on the shore of the Caspian Sea, Senator, which boasted for over two hundred years to be home to a church constructed entirely of the wood from Noah’s Ark. Of course, it wasn’t. But for generations pilgrims and travelers who had heard the rumors came, and they paid a handsome price for the honor of carving a sliver of the sacred wood to take home with them as a keepsake. One day, a very powerful man from far away showed up with an army. He tore down the entire structure, carted off the wood, and rewarded anyone who protested his actions with death.”

Mr. Smith nodded. “Perils.”

“Yes. And, remember, it wasn’t even genuine. So. We—my Order and I—wouldn’t dream of trying to store the very real Crown within your borders without the knowledge or consent of the proper authorities.”

“That’s very decent of you.”

“I know.”

The senator ran a hand along his lap, smoothing wrinkles or perhaps brushing away some lint. Either way, when he was satisfied with the results he looked up, a cold seriousness supplanting the curious surprise he’d so readily displayed up until then. “So what do you need from the State? Land? Protection?”

“Discretion. And autonomy.”

“From?”

Peter folded his hands on top of one another above the North Pole. He was very careful not to settle too much of his weight on the fine art, but he did lean towards the senator ever-so-slightly. “We will buy the land or rent it, whichever is more desirable to your state treasury. But once the borders have been agreed upon, we will expect the government to respect our territory as if it were a sovereign nation. On our land, your politics and your laws will bow to the needs of the Order. Beyond this sovereignty we require nothing. We will supply our own protection and utilities. Why, there’d be nothing for the great state of Arizona to do except to collect a regular, rather large, stipend and pretend we didn’t exist.”

“Mister Silicis, this is sounding like a conspiracy.”

Spinning the world one last time, Peter let a smile escape and very casually admitted, “It is.”

The sage found the alchemist exactly where he was told he would find him, along with his wife and daughter, which dismayed the sage in that he didn’t even know the man had a family. Information was his trade, and to discover omissions was a blow to the pride he had in his operations. Besides which, they were friends, he and the alchemist—of a sort. He had thought that they were long past secrets.

He waited until mother and daughter moved away on a distraction before he approached Peter, hat in hand, paper tucked tightly under his arm. No effort was made to conceal his steps—it wouldn’t have helped anyway. Yet the alchemist did not turn, he ignored the sage; he kept his nose in his book and turned the page. When he reached the end of the paragraph he marked his place and set the book down on the blanket beside him. The alchemist nudged it until the corners were aligned with the checked pattern. Only then did he turn around and acknowledge the new arrival.

“Adrian.” The smile that followed was very nearly sincere. “I can honestly say that I never expected to see you here.”

“It’s a public park.”

“I meant here: in the World-at-Large.” The alchemist swept his arm clockwise, gesturing to the banks of the Potomac, the White House, the towering obelisk, and the great dome beyond. “Did your hermitage burn down?”

The sage watched the girl who was, perhaps, four. She was walking her toy, a stuffed lamb that didn’t so much follow her everywhere she went as it did tumble along after her—sometimes on its wheels, sometimes on its head, this side or that.

“You didn’t tell us you had a daughter.”

“No. I didn’t.” There was nothing but calm in the alchemist’s voice, but he did take the opportunity to rise to his feet. He was taller than the sage, if only by an inch, and the scars around his brow were slightly straighter. The trace of a frown he wore turned into a broad grin that was not reflected in his eyes. “What do you want, Adrian? Or, I’m sorry, are we still playing the game? Should I call you Malcolm?”

“I go by Adam, now.”

The alchemist tsked. “That’s not very original.”

“And you, I assume, are still Peter.”

“You know me by now, Adam. I’m always Peter.”

“Of course.” The sage let his gaze linger on the wandering daughter a moment longer then turned to the wife who was hovering protectively at the girl’s side. She was maybe twenty-one. She was a native beauty with sharp features that were tanned by the desert sun. Her raven hair was tied up in a bun. Poised and pretty as a picture in her vogue attire, there was nothing demure about her body language and her narrowed eyes, cast in Adam’s direction, offered no mistaking her opinion of him.

“Are you hungry?” Peter asked.

Focusing on his old friend again, Adam found Peter had taken his seat and was going through a large picnic basket, pulling out various items and settling them on the blanket. The ingredients were arranged alphabetically in Latin—butter, cheese, bread, pickles, chicken; the knives were arranged by size.

Adam stood his ground.

After spreading a blue kerchief by his side and a white one over his lap, Peter retrieved the long serrated knife from its place at the head of the line. He grabbed the wheat loaf and with this in one hand and the blade in the other, he sawed off four slices of equal thickness. The few crumbs that fell landed directly in the center of the apron. When Peter was done, he set each piece of bread on the blanket in the middle of its own square, the remainder of the loaf he returned to the basket.

“What brings you to Washington?” the alchemist asked as he set the knife aside on the blue towel. He then folded up the white napkin into a tight square which went into a smaller basket. A clean silk cloth came out with his hand and he spread the fresh towel over his slacks with great care.

“The same thing as you.”

Peter glanced up briefly, amused, and then returned his attention to the work at hand. Palming the cheese, he picked up the next knife in line and proceeded to carve from the wheel two slender slices, which balanced on the blade all the way to the bread. When they were positioned just so, he discarded the knife on the blue towel, precisely parallel to the first. The cheese wheel joined the loaf out of sight.

Reaching for the deli meat, Peter paused. His fingers dangling, he looked up at Adam. “I thought you wanted nothing to do with the Crown?”

“Just because I’ve never led a crusade to reclaim it? Or because I’ve never had any desire to hide it away in some exclusive collection out of reach from the common man?” Adam put his hat back on his head and pulled it down snug. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want anything to do with it. In fact, my interest in the Crown revolves very closely around your own.”

A guilty hue tugged at the corner of Peter’s lips as he picked up the package of chicken. Pealing the tape back and unwrapping the shaved meat, he commented, “You just can’t stomach the idea that we might get a hold of it.”

We? Would that be the Church or your Order, Peter? Because I couldn’t care less if the Vatican got its hands on it again. This time they really would stick it in a vault and let it collect dust. You, though. It used to frighten me, thinking of all the little schemes you and your cronies might have had planned for it.”

“Should I be flattered?” Peter asked as he used a clean knife to scrape the top layers of meat onto first one sandwich and then the other. “An admission that I threaten you?”

“You only threatened the world. Never me.”

Peter’s laughter was subtle, but genuine.

It was in his ease of heart where Adam saw the truth. “You haven’t read the news today, have you?” he asked, tightening his grip on the paper tucked under his arm.

“No.” Peter stowed the re-wrapped meat. “I haven’t had a chance. Why? Did the old Rooster actually sweep Philadelphia?”

“As a matter of fact he did.” Adam held out the Post. “But that’s not why I asked.”

The look that Peter gave him suggested heavily that he wasn’t taking the sage seriously.

“Didn’t your staff brief you this morning?” Adam asked.

“I slept late.” Peter picked up the pickles, but he left the lid on the jar. “When did I wake up?” he asked himself. “Ah, yes. I woke up about noon, shortly before sneaking out with my family to spend some time with them. This”—he nodded to the food—“is my breakfast. Why?” He put the mason jar down and reached for the newspaper. “What did I miss?”

Adam studied his old friend closely as Peter unfolded the paper and perused the headlines. He found it right away—it would’ve been impossible to miss, being the lead story. His shoulders sagged slightly with an unexpected weight, and the enjoyment of the day that had so colored his demeanor faded into a pale numbness. He didn’t react as he finished the article.

As he started over, Adam spoke up. “The ship that sunk, isn’t that the one the Crown was traveling aboard?”

“Yes. Yes, it was.”

While he let Peter adapt to the truth of reality, Adam turned his attention to the woman who was still so concerned with the words she couldn’t hear and the daughter who was twirling the toy about on its string furiously. At the height of its arc, the lamb’s leash snapped and the animal went sailing. She looked confused for a moment while searching the world in front of her briefly before turning around. Ten feet away, she found her precious pet.

“You’ll send a search party?” Adam asked.

“Immediately.”

“It’s in the middle of the Atlantic.”

“I realize that.”

“You have practically no chance of finding it.”

“I have to try.” Peter handed the paper back.

“Keep it.”

The alchemist’s arm wavered with the weight of the news it contained. Then he folded the pages, made sure the creases were sharp, and rose to his feet, the white napkin falling to the ground. Ignoring the spread of food before him—the unfinished sandwiches—Peter retrieved his coat from the grass and brushed off the most obvious specks of nature.

As he slipped into formality, he was interrupted by his daughter. In each tiny fist she carried a bit of rope, the lamb hanging from the shorter span on the right. Her lips were set with a serious detachment of emotion or perhaps a deep rooted certainty as she offered up both pieces to her father.

Squatting down, Peter brought the ends of the leash together and ran his palm once over the break. His wizardry mended the threads, recreating a solid bond, doubtlessly stronger than before.

The girl dangled the lamb from the restored leash as her father placed a tender kiss upon her forehead. She jiggled the toy back and forth and then bounced it roughly up and down, testing her father’s work. Abruptly, she turned and ran back to her mother’s side, dragging the lamb behind her.

Both Adam and Peter watched her play, but it was the father who turned away first. He glanced down at himself and patted his pockets. As an afterthought, he went back to where he had already searched twice and pulled out a watch. After a quick peek at the time, he muttered, “I should leave.”

“Now?” Adam was, once again, eyeing the distrustful wife and she him.

“Every minute wasted—”

“Most likely won’t matter,” Adam interrupted. “It’ll take a miracle to find it again. You realize that, I’m sure? A genuine God-getting-off-his-throne-and-descending-to-earth, perform-it-himself miracle.”

Peter managed half a smile, “That’s not impossible.” He turned his back to his family and exhaled slowly. “Would you do me a favor?”

“Hmm?”

“Would you look after them?”

This was not the first time such a request had been made.

“But I don’t know them,” he told the alchemist.

“That’s okay. I don’t either. Not really, anyway.”

Adam glanced at the daughter and wife that were not his. He frowned at all of the possibilities to come from this, none of them good. “You’re a bigger fool than I thought,” he told Peter. But when he looked back, the alchemist was already gone.

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