The Hunt Begins
Lara fought hard to focus in the darkness. The air was cool outside of her blankets. She brushed against them. They were the rough, warm wool blankets of the old military surplus brand. They were not hospital blankets.
A shaft of yellow light appeared above and to her left. A door had been opened and with it everything became clear. She was lying in a makeshift bed at the base of a stone staircase. A figure appeared in the doorway above and flipped a switch. Bare bulbs illumined the area around her. She was in a cellar. Her cellar. The figure was Winston.
“The police came by to look for you. I had to hide you down here. I brought you some food.” He knelt beside her and offered a glass and some soft bread.
“Bless you Winston,” she whispered. “How long has it been since I left the hospital?”
“Two weeks,” came the swift reply. Lara's heart jumped into her throat. Two weeks? No, it can't be. “Oh, and this came for you.” Winston handed her a small box.
No. It can't be. With trembling hands she opened the brown paper flaps. Ten fingers fell into her lap. “No! It can't be!” Lara screamed. Winston shook her.
“What have you done Lara? What have you done? You've killed them!”
Lara did not respond. Her vision simply closed to black and she collapsed back into her bed.
“Lara? What's the matter?” A distant, kind voice asked. Her eyes opened but this time there was not darkness. Afternoon sunlight drifted onto her bed. She was in her bedroom in Surrey. She tensed as Winston once again appeared at her bedside. What did he have this time? Paul's digits?
“Lara you were shouting. What's the matter?”
The tension eased slightly. “Winston how long have I been home?”
“Not more than six hours.”
“And how long was it between the time we last spoke and my arriving home?”
“About ten hours.”
Lara did the calculations in her head. She had a little more than three days left, if her sense of reckoning hadn't been lost while at the hospital. “Three days. That's not much,” she mused. Especially since I have no idea where to start looking for Caruso.
Winston frowned and rose to fill a pitcher of cool water in the bathroom. He returned and placed a soaked washcloth on her forehead. “You're running a fever.” His voice was even, flat and emotionless. Lara could tell this seeming indifference was in fact vexation.
“How did you get me out?” A change of subject was needed.
“I didn't. I called an old friend, Major Terrence Lott. I knew if you needed something of dubious legality performed he was the one to call. He knew someone who could alter the hospital's computer records to make it seem as if you were transferred to a different location. When the transfer order came through Terrence and I escorted you out. But the ruse won't last. As soon as they find out you didn't make it to your destination there will be a warrant out for your arrest.”
“By that time I'll be out of the country.”
“You are not fit to be going anywhere.” Winston's tone was severe. “You need rest.”
“Winston—,” Lara began her defense.
“You can make some calls,” Winston interjected. “But for the time present you need to stay put.” As if on cue the phone rang. Winston shuffled into the hall. As soon as he was gone Lara tried to sit up. It proved to be much more difficult than she had expected. The movement alerted her to all kinds of soreness in her arms, legs and neck as well as the all-too-familiar throbbing in her head. Her stomach had also developed a feral growl. As gently as possible Lara eased herself out of bed and into the bathroom. She threw open the door of the medicine cabinet so as to avoid looking at herself in its mirror. A few painkillers were tossed back and chased with a glass of water. Painkillers were her panacea; just to have taken some had a placebo effect.
“Lara,” called Winston's perturbed voice from the bedroom. “The phone is for you.”
“Who is it?”
“He says he'll only identify himself to you.”
With a raised eyebrow she took the handset from Winston. “Who is this?”
“I'm sorry, I can't tell you over the phone.” The voice was familiar but Lara couldn't quite place it. “Can you meet with me tonight?”
“Why should I?” Lara's tone was clipped.
“I have some information about Ryan Caruso.”
Lara paused for only a brief moment. “Where do you want to meet?”
The Grosvenor Lounge in central London's Victoria Thistle hotel was almost filled to capacity. Dusk had set in leaving the large, late-19th century room in an odd half-light cast by the fireplace at the far end. Copies of fine artwork reminiscent of John Constable hung from the walls next to thickly-framed mirrors and gold light fixtures. Red and green velvet chairs intermingled with low tables of dark wood.
As Lara strode into the lounge the feral rumble of her stomach made her wish she'd opted for a change of venue to the French restaurant across the lobby, Chez Gerard. Grilled French veal escalope sounded very appealing. But the more leisurely atmosphere of the lounge was probably what her informant was looking for. She was wearing a simple black evening dress, modest enough to avoid attracting too much attention but flattering enough to give her an edge over this mystery man. Her hair was put up with a few silver pins. If word did get out that she had escaped hopefully the subtle change might throw off the casual observer on the look out for her. She wore large bracelets to hide the bruises on her wrists and plenty of cover-up to hide the cut by her eye.
The maitre d' recognized her immediately. “Miss Croft, how nice of you to join us this evening.” So much for disguises, Lara thought. “We have a table reserved for you.” He guided her to an out-of-the-way, corner table beyond the reach of the firelight. “Shadows for shadowy conversations.” Was it Lott who had said that? Lara couldn't remember.
A few long minutes passed before the maitre d' returned with the man she assumed was her informant. He was a short, thick fellow with wavy black hair and a slightly olive complexion. His features were a mix of European and Latin. The eyes were light cafe brown but the chin, nose and cheeks were more German.
After the man had likewise sized her up he ordered a bottle of cognac and two ham on rye sandwiches. “You must be starving,” the man began congenially as soon as the maitre d' disappeared.
“I don't know how much you know but I'm on something of a schedule so if you'd kindly get to the point I'd be much obliged.” Her tone did not match the kindness of her words.
“My name is Daniel Hunter. I write for The Daily Telegraph. A few months ago I stumbled onto a very big story.” He produced a photocopy of a newspaper clipping from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table to Lara. The title read “Professional Hitman Wages War on Drugs.” Encased in the text was a small color picture of three body bags surrounded by London police.
“Groundbreaking journalism Mr. Hunter,” Lara replied blithely.
Hunter leaned across the table and lowered his voice considerably. “Ryan Caruso killed those men.”
“It seems like he's been doing us all a service.” “Skepticism forces someone to prove their point. They can't help but talk.” That was definitely Lott. It was odd how his teachings came back to her at times like this, times when she was forced to delve into the underworld for something she wanted. Whether it was bribing a corrupt government official or pumping a lowlife for information or finding where someone was hiding snips of Lott's survivalist catechism would come to her. This tough underworld persona had become more comfortable for Lara to slip into as the years passed. Those who only knew Lara the academic would have been frightened by the facility with which she switched between the two. At the current moment it was even easier because her dip into this twisted, trashy criminal world was not for herself but for two people she loved.
“There is a place. A dark place. A dark place inside you that you don't look at,” A malice-laden voice called from shadowy memory. I do these things but they do not constitute me, was Lara's inner rebuttal.
“We shall see,” came the reply.
Lara winced. Her head began to throb. Abruptly she turned outward, grateful to find the cognac on the table between herself and Hunter. She poured a substantial glass and gunned it down. Hunter's eyes widened.
“Are you alright?”
“I'm fine,” Lara half-gasped as the fire died in her throat. Slowly the throbbing subsided. Lara made a mental note not to take so many painkillers so close to drinking. “Please continue.” Lara's tone was not as sharp as before.
“It may seem like Ryan Caruso is doing a service to the greater London area but the fact is he's not just some vigilante. He killed several more than those in the pictures. He used those killings to lure out the big fish, the men who lost a lot of money when they couldn't make supply equal demand. When they came out he killed them and seized control of the whole operation. Now he uses it to finance something much more sinister.”
“And how did you come to know all this?”
“That is unimportant,” Hunter said evenly. The way he spoke those words...
Lara's eyes narrowed to slits. “Now I remember. You were the one who called me on the boat...at just the right time...with all the right information. Tell me, was that just a coincidence?”
Hunter took a gulp of his own cognac before continuing. “No. I called you because I had been following Ryan Caruso's movements ever since I wrote that article. When I found out he had duped you I had to warn you. And now I've contacted you because I'm looking out for myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I first investigated the trail of the drug murders I found Ryan Caruso. When I followed the trail of Ryan Caruso I found something I had never dreamed of; something that he and a lot of other powerful, dangerous people didn't want me to know. They knew that I knew. The contacts I had used, the questions I'd asked inevitably brought me to their attention, but I wasn't a threat until I blew the whistle. Until I warned you. Now they can't afford to let me live. That's why I've contacted you now. Because I believe you are the only one who can stop these people.”
Between the shadows and the firelight Lara could see fear on Daniel Hunter's face. Outside darkness had fallen completely. “Who are 'these people?'”
“The Knights Templar.”
Lara frowned. “You are not very good at telling jokes Mr. Hunter. The Knights Templar have been gone since the early fourteenth century. They were killed off by Papal edict of Clement V. There have been numerous myths surrounding their disappearance but what you're suggesting—”
“Is the truth.” Hunter interjected. “The Knights Templar didn't die out. They went underground. The Knights Templar in Portugal just changed their name to Knights of Christ to avoid the purges. They then secreted themselves around the world by way of Portuguese trade ships. Since then they've been growing in controlled cells worldwide in the strictest of secrecy while hiding in plain sight at the same time. They live almost normal lives. They are employed by the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and militaries; jobs that require secrecy so that no one looks to the real secret they're hiding. Once trained, they return to the private sector and pool their resources. With the advent of modern telecommunications they have been able to unite all the cells in a warped, fanatical crusade to end all evil. But what they're doing is creating more.”
Lara's jaw tensed and a fire lit in her eyes. “I don't have time to waste with the conspiracy theory ramblings of a paranoid journalist. Take your tabloid rubbish to someone with less sense and more time to kill. Excuse me.” She stood and brushed past Hunter and many other seated patrons in the crowed lounge. Hopefully no one noticed the frustrated tears escaping. She was halfway across the lobby when a hand wrapped around her forearm.
“Miss Croft wait. I have proof.”
“Take your hand off me,” Lara seethed through her teeth.
“Tell me you recognize this.” Daniel Hunter produced a small golden crucifix on a slender chain. Lara turned reluctantly and took the necklace from him. On the back of the crucifix there was a small seal inscribed with the words 'Militie Templi Salmo' around the image of a mosque.
“This is either a Templar cross or a fabulous fake. The words refer to the militia of the Temple of Solomon. The mosque in the middle is Al Aksa mosque, the earliest headquarters of the Order.” Lara was unmoved.
“Now think,” Hunter urged. “Have you seen this cross before?”
Lara shrugged. “Perhaps in a museum...” Her tired, stressed mind roamed around the recesses of memory. Wait. She had seen it. But not in a museum. “Ryan Caruso had this same cross. Where did you find it?”
“A Templar gave it to me. One who wanted out,” Hunter whispered. “And now you need to use it to stop them.” He clasped her hand and folded her fingers over the crucifix. “Find the Templars, find Ryan Caruso. They haven't gone far from their roots.” Hunter looked over her shoulder into the lounge where the maitre d' was talking animatedly into his phone and casting a nervous glance at Lara. “I have to go now. I'll be in touch.”Instead of leaving from the front of the hotel he made his way towards the back. Lara watched him go feeling more than a little lost and confused. As she turned to catch a cab back home she saw what had animated the matire d'. Behind the hotel's bar was a large flatscreen TV playing the news. Above the banner of 'Breaking News' was her picture. In the dark street outside the Victoria Thistle's opulent doors Lara could see flashing lights approaching.