Lara fought to keep her pace steady. A running target would attract too much attention, but then a walking target would be questioned, delayed, and caught. The frenzied march of her thoughts did not make the swift amble she was attempting any easier. As she made her way to the rear of the hotel past rows of nondescript rooms her mind churned like a loose train but every attempt to assemble facts was derailed by glaring thoughts of escape. The result was a never-ending train wreck in her head. Was he telling the truth? What might his motive be? Could I trust him? Can I afford not to?
Finely-tuned ears picked up the sounds of commotion in the lobby. There must be scores of police. Lara had a significant head start but no doubt the maitre d' had given away her direction of egress. She would have to hide; running was out of the question, especially in a dress and heels. Why do I even wear the stupid things?
Too wrapped up in her own thoughts Lara did not notice the abrupt end of the corridor. The only way out was the way she had come and that way was swarming with police by now. Lara's heart began to pound. This benign hotel corridor had become as a tomb to her, unassumingly deadly. Only this time it was not her death at the hands of competitors or fanatics or wild animals at stake, it was the death of two of her friends.
Lara was startled by a door opening across the hall. A maid walked out and pulled some cleaning supplies from a large gray plastic cart. She looked at Lara and Lara pretended to be disinterested. Lara stared at the door in front of her as if it was about to open and reveal someone expecting her. The maid turned back to her work, sliding a magnetic passcard into the next door in the hall. Just as in a tomb Lara saw her opening and took it instinctively. Before the door could close completely she placed her foot in front of the jamb. Once she heard the maid making the bed Lara quietly eased open the door and stepped inside. Timing now was critical, the police wouldn't be too far behind. From the small anteroom adjoining the bathroom she picked up a metal ice bucket. She held it firmly, reflexively feeling its weight and balance. “You always have weapons.” Lott.
Seamlessly Lara came in behind the unsuspecting maid and crashed the bucket against her right temple. The woman crumpled as if her legs had been swept out from under her. “I'm truly sorry,” Lara said as she eased the woman onto the bed. She stripped the uniform from the unconscious woman and slipped out of her black evening gown. She could hear footsteps in the hall, some cautious, some not so cautious. Her breaths came quick and shallow as her heart leaped into her throat. This was going to be the performance of a lifetime.
With tenuous calm Lara rolled the maid under the covers of the half-made bed, careful to lay the right side of her head against the pillow. She slipped into the gray and white striped uniform and took as much care as possible in the dwindling seconds to hide her chestnut tresses under the maid's bonnet. Solid white sneakers replaced black heels and the heels and dress were swept under the bed. As a final necessary precaution Lara extinguished the lights. Just seconds later the room's door unlocked and opened. Lara took a deep breath. Here we go.
The light from the corridor highlighted the neon green police vest of the man standing in the doorway. Lara stepped forward, careful to remain out of the stream of light but close enough not to merit the lights being turned on. Her uniform and not her face would be the most obvious thing to the officer. As he began to speak Lara placed her index finger vertically over her lips while uttering a half-gentle “shh!”
She motioned with an arm towards the bed and the sleeping woman. “Can you imagine?” Lara carefully eliminated the refined cadence of her voice and swapped it for a more working-class tone. I am Lott's chameleon. “She calls for turn-down service and before I can get here she's in bed asleep.” Then as an afterthought. “What is the matter, sir?”
The man was slightly startled by the frank manner of this hotel employee. “Have you seen anything suspicious in the past few minutes?”
“Have you seen this woman?” The officer produced a photocopy of her picture. Lara's breath froze. She would have sworn the officer could hear her heartbeat as it pounded in her own ears.
“No, sir.” Lara fought for control. Her body began to tremble. The moment stretched on interminably. Lara was quite certain she would pass out before the policeman left.
“Alright,” he placed the photocopy in her momentarily stable hands. “If you see her alert us immediately.” He turned back into the corridor and left. A tremulous breath rushed out of Lara; her legs felt like they would buckle. She leaned against the wall for a moment to steady herself. But she could not rest for long, time was still against her and the charade was not yet complete.
Lara walked purposefully into the hall and steered the gray cleaning cart to the next room in the corridor. Half a dozen more officers were questioning other guests all with that same photocopy picture of her. Steady, steady, Lara reminded herself as she neared the door. She slid the magnetic passcard and let herself in, careful to take some cleaning supplies with her. Fortunately, the room was occupied but devoid of guests. She bolted the door behind her and rifled through the closet space. Her hands alighted on a dark green dress about her size. She swapped it for the maid's uniform and found some matching flats. They were a little tight on her feet but they would have to do. After a quick glance out into the dark street Lara eased through the window and moved, again fighting for a steady pace, away from the hotel. There were a dozen police cars up and down the street with lights twirling and flashing like a kind of carnival attraction.
About a block away Lara found a disinterested taxi driver she assumed was safe. “Where to?” he asked as she climbed in.
Lara checked her watch. “The British Museum.” Trusting Daniel Hunter or not Lara needed something to go on. Scarcely more than two days remained before she would get fingers in the mail.
I'm coming James.
Darkness enveloped the section of offices in the British Museum's administrative area. One of the benefits of being a distinguished professor's research assistant for half a decade was the ability to cut a path to that professor's office even if blindfolded, as well as the knowledge of what doors remained unlocked after hours. Lara came to Thomas Woodson's door and knocked twice before entering. A shaft of sad pale light wafted into the corridor only to be shut off by the closing of the door.
“I received your message,” the elder Dr. Woodson said preemptively. “I suppose you can afford to pay the legal expenses of a decent solicitor when I'm implicated in this nasty business,” he added with a half-hearted chuckle. He was weary, physically and emotionally. Lara could see that James' capture was as much a strain on him as it was on her. Well, almost. But the humor alluded to a perennial vibrancy in Thomas; she could count with him now.
“Do you have any leads?” Lara queried hopefully.
“I've only just begun,” Thomas sighed and gestured to the piles of books on his desk and worktable. “But with you here perhaps the work will go faster. You always were one of my brightest researchers. I'll fix us some tea.”
As Thomas slipped out into the hall Lara began to flip through the texts. Some were ancient and some relatively new. They ranged in sizes from massive tomes to smaller handbooks. The scope and breadth of these texts in and of itself was daunting. Lara prided herself on having knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep—until she researched something—but admittedly her knowledge on the Knights Templar was too limited to even know where to begin. She picked up one of the smaller comprehensive histories and began to thumb through it.
“What have you found?” Thomas asked as he set the tea tray gently within towers of tomes on his desk.
“Not much,” Lara frowned. “In their prime the Templars had establishments from Jerusalem to Portugal. Hundreds of monasteries, hospices, banks. I wouldn't know where to begin looking for Ryan Caruso. And that's assuming he's even near one of these places. Most of them don't exist anymore, or at least not in their original state.”
“Didn't that chap give you any clues?”
“Just this.” Lara pulled the crucifix from off her neck where she'd had the prudence to put it during her escape.
“That doesn't give us much to go on.” Thomas sipped his tea and turned the small golden emblem over in his weathered hand. After the perfunctory tea had been drunk the two weary scholars turned to the books. Minutes passed into hours as the night wore on. Craving sleep yet unable to take it Lara forced open yet another book with painfully small printing. As she scanned the text half-heartedly her head began to ache. Lara knew what it was before it came to full force. She slumped into a chair and viced her head with both hands. Not now. Please, not now.
“Tommy, painkillers,” she gasped.
“What?” He looked up from his own studies. “Lara you are white as a ghost!”
“Painkillers.” she more mouthed the word than said it. Her breathing became labored and sweat began to glisten on her saturnine flesh. Deep inside she knew the cause of this headache was not biological but painkillers would at least grant a superficial comfort.
“I'll find some.” Thomas leaped from his chair and flew from the room. Lara writhed trying to find some comfortable position where the pain was not so great. None such place could be found. She stood and attempted to walk it off but ended up on her knees next to Woodson's bookcase. What seemed like an eternity passed before Thomas returned.
“Here, take these,” he thrust the pills into her hand and held a bottle of water for her to drink from. Lara feebly swallowed the painkillers and with the assistance of her old professor washed them down. She couldn't help but feel a twinge of frustration at being so infant-like creep past the pain. Slowly, miraculously, the pain subsided.
“You are not well,” Thomas chided. But she could sense in his voice more concern than anger.
“Winston already gave me that lecture don't you start into me.” Lara got to her feet. On the bookcase directly in front of her was a picture of James, herself, Thomas and Winston at their graduation from Oxford. Lara pursed her lips. Her gaze fixed on the small framed photograph as the event replayed in her mind.
“He always loved you. You know that don't you?” Thomas broke in.
“Then why did he leave?” Lara turned to face him. The hurt in her eyes was deep yet fresh. She shuffled to one of the office's many chairs and slumped into it, utterly spent in every conceivable way.
Woodson came and sat beside her. “Love is a fickle thing,” he sighed. “He met Evelyn on a project just after you two graduated.” Lara cringed at the mention of that name: Evelyn. “He fell for the girl in a most peculiar way. Perhaps what moved him most was that she was so unattainable. You know that James has always enjoyed the more hard-fought way. But she left him after a while and by then you had moved on.”
“But I never moved on,” Lara whispered. “I tried to convince myself that I had but...it's no use. I was too proud to let him back into my life. Or perhaps I was just afraid that he'd find some way to hurt me again, some way only he could.”
The next few minutes passed in silence. Nothing more needed to be said. Lara struggled to tear her thoughts from James. The past was in the past. All she could do was deal with the present. She focused her thoughts on the terrified, Latino-German face of Daniel Hunter. She replayed their conversation. Something, some clue must have been given, some way...
“They haven't gone far from their roots,” Lara muttered.
“What was that?”
Realization dawned. “They haven't gone far from their roots. Hunter said that just after he told me to find the Knights Templar. I'm not sure what it means, but I think it's a lead.”
“'Roots' as in Jerusalem?”
“Maybe. Or perhaps France. I don't know.”
“You said he mentioned that the Templars had secreted themselves across the known world by way of Portuguese trade ships. Is it possible that there was a headquarters in Portugal?”
“A kind of staging area before they went into hiding? You think the 'roots' he was referring to has to do not with the roots of the Order we know but the roots of this new Order.”
“This new incarnation yes,” Woodson smiled. Lara's own lips curled into something of a smile. It was just like the old days. Sooner or later they had a breakthrough and normally it was when they were at the end of their rope. They began to rifle through the books now searching for any mention of a Templar nexus in Portugal.
“What about this?” Lara thrust a book on top of the one Woodson was reading. “City of Tomar. On the hill there is a Templar—and later on Knights of Christ—monastery and castle: the Convent of Christ.”
“Ah, I've heard of that. Supposedly the stonework is quite remarkable. But there's one problem. It's a tourist attraction. It would be impossible to hide a modern Templar hub there.”
“Yes, but look at this.” Lara produced another book. A rather heavy and frail leatherbound text written in Latin. “This refers to some chambers that were part of the original monastery but were then sealed off when the outer castle walls were built to prevent subterranean attack.”
“An escape hatch. Or maybe a secret entrance?” Woodson pointed at the page careful not to touch it's fragile surface. “What's that there in the margin?”
“I'm not sure.”
Thomas pulled a magnifying glass from a nearby stack of books. “It's quite far gone. Something about a pagan tomb to the west? That's a rather odd reference. What do you make of it Lara?”
“I'll know when I get there,” Lara said as she hastily jotted down some notes on a nearby pad.
“You're not leaving now are you?” Again the concern in his voice.
I must look quite far gone myself, Lara thought wryly. She looked at her watch. Less than two days remained for her to meet Shark Man's deadline. “I have to go tonight. Please, don't tell anyone—“
“You were never here,” Thomas interjected. “I awoke in the middle of the night with a sudden fascination for all things Templar.” He smiled and hugged Lara. With a kiss on her forehead he sent her out into the darkness from which she had come.
Winston shambled along the dim halls of Croft Manor convinced that his ears were playing tricks on him. To his dismay they were not. As he arrived in the spacious front entry he could see a light on in Lady Croft's suite and he could hear the unmistakable sounds of packing. It was a sound whose displeasure did not lessen over the years. The vexation it caused him was particularly acute tonight. My little Lara, this has gone too far. You need rest.
He eased up the stairs, coaxing tired uncooperative limbs to move quietly. As he arrived in the doorway he saw two dismal sights. There was a large duffle bag open on the bed and Lara's gun safe was open. “I saw the news,” he began. Lara did not skip a beat. Winston guessed she'd probably heard him on the creaky, 19th century staircase. Then her hearing has always been more acute.
“Anything interesting?” Lara replied without looking up from her preparations.
“Where are you going?”
“Sunny Portugal,” Lara looked up and half-smiled.
“It's not a vacation.”
“No.” Two boxes of .40 ammunition landed in the duffle bag.
“Don't go Lara. You're not well.”
“You know something?” Lara paused in her packing and looked up. “These past weeks have been a living hell for me. I wouldn't be surprised if I am not well. Perhaps I'm even going insane, but if I am the cure for my insanity is not here in London or anywhere else but where I am going. And if there is no cure then I am going to do something useful while I have a shred of sanity left.”
There was a pause as the tension between the two evaporated. Winston looked at her in the eyes long and hard. “You're not taking a commercial flight.”
Lara began to toss clothing disinterestedly into the bag. “I was going to call Lott, see if he had a pilot friend with a small plane or something.”
Winston crossed to her side of the bed and began to fold the clothing she was tossing into the bag. “Don't use the house phone. It's been tapped. Use a pay phone in town. Do you want something to eat before you leave? I have some corned beef hash in the icebox I could warm up.”
Lara smiled faintly, sincerely. “That would be nice.” Winston kissed her on the cheek and shambled off to the kitchen downstairs. Lara crossed the room to her gun safe with a temporary levity. From it she produced an Uzi submachine gun and a box of 9mm ammo for it. It was a fearsome yet compact weapon with a laser sight slung under the barrel and a long silencer. From a different shelf she took a snub-nosed .38 revolver and a box of shells for it. It was another compact yet deadly weapon, the kind she preferred to stick in an ankle holster. Lastly she removed an old gun belt and the first pistols she had modified for two-handed use. They were H&K USP .40s like her newer weapons but these were chrome-plated; symbols of a time when she had been more brash and seemingly invincible. Lara hoped they would be a good omen for her journey.Lara placed all four weapons and their ammunition in the duffle and zipped it shut. This time I won't be caught off guard, Lara thought as she slung the duffle over her shoulder. This time I'm prepared.