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To get to the warehouse, you had to take the freeway an hour south into Virginia, then exit at a town called Farmville and take winding dirt roads for half an hour. Inside the warehouse looked like a combination of an office and an auto-body shop, packed with Humvees, MRAPs and cubicles. Surrounding the building were twenty foot metal poles, like flagpoles, with circular discs at the top.

When I pulled up, the Shaved Man was standing outside, finishing a call.

“Solar panels?” I asked, motioning toward the discs.

“Negative,” he said. “These babies will keep anyone from taking satellite photos of us and let us know if anyone comes within a half mile of the facility.”

I followed him through the cubicle farm to a desk he had set up for himself beside the vehicles.

“We’re heading out tonight,” he said, glowering. Ever since I had introduced the Aniyah Jackson condition, his attitude toward me had cooled. “You, me, Bucovitch and a small support team will fly to southern Italy. Then we continue by helicopter to a small island off the coast called **** ****. You and Bucovitch will be dropped on the beach. We’ll expect you back by sunrise.”

My mouth went dry.

“Italy?” I said.

“Italy, yes. We looked at some candidates in Massachusetts but there was no way to do a discreet extraction. This island has been abandoned for centuries. You won’t be interrupted.”

I nodded.

“Do you have any questions?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said finally. “Although I guess it’s not really a question. I just think, before we move forward, you should drop the innuendo and tell me what it is we’re looking for.”

“Alright,” he said. “You want literal? No innuendo? It’s a brain, pickled in a jar. Find the right jar with the right brain and your delinquent friends go free.”

There was a projector set up in the warehouse. For the rest of the day I sat in a one person seminar while a woman who never introduced herself ran through slides about the island. I learned its history, its topography and about the way the tides and currents ebbed and flowed, making it nearly impossible to access by boat.

I sipped almond milk coffee and ate donuts as I learned about the rugged island’s first and only inhabitants, a militaristic sect of monks who, well into the Age of Enlightenment, refused to accept that the Inquisitions were over.

At the monastery they founded on the island, the monks kept a famous collection, known in those days as the Biblioteca Nera. I didn’t need a translation on that one.

It was a library of contraband collected in the Crusades and Inquisitions, everything from Islamic texts to heretical screeds and unauthorized gospels. The monks kept their books under lock and key. They believed that no one else in the world could be trusted with the knowledge they hoarded.

The monastery burned under mysterious circumstances, but most historians agreed that the Vatican had probably sent a hit squad to torch the place. A new age was at hand, and while the monks had once been useful, their fanaticism was becoming an embarrassment. Their order was shattered and, other than what the individual monks could carry with them, their collection of forbidden texts was lost.

There was a theory, based on the diary of a monk that survived the great fire and lived to become a missionary in Haiti. In his diary, the monk described his former order as the final line of defense for the true faith. In his eyes, the collapse of the order could mean the disappearance of Christianity from the world, and the guaranteed damnation of every soul born thereafter. That was why they felt justified in taking extreme measures to gather intelligence on their enemies.

According to this monk, beneath the monastery was a laboratory, a controlled environment where monks would risk their immortal souls to dabble in the blackest rituals and traditions known to man. Sometimes they worked out of their books. Other times, they required assistance. Those that could help them were kept as prisoners underground, forced to give over all their knowledge until they died, alone in the dark.

I present you with the exact wording of the woman in charge of the slideshow:

“In contemporary terms, we would call it a Black Site.”

After three hours of slideshows, I spent some time with a physical combat instructor, a field medicine instructor and a firearms instructor. It was routine stuff, a series of exercises to confirm that yes, office-girl still remembers her basic training. I was garbage as always in physical combat (spaghetti arms) passable in field medicine and an absolute slayer in firearms. I had a boyfriend in high school who would drive me out to the woods where we would pop cans from 100 yards away with his brother’s gun. I rarely missed.

Three paper targets were set up on metal frames in a barren, yellowed field behind the warehouse. The firearms instructor, an ice-blonde white lady with an undercut and a gravely voice, was visibly impressed as I hit all the targets on the first try.

“You go to the range often?” she asked, taking back the desert-tan M17 handgun I had been practicing with. I shrugged.

“We’re supposed to practice with the carbine, but I’ve seen enough. We can move on unless you want to shoot some more.”

I figured what the hell and asked to shoot the carbine. She took it out of its case and started removing a black apparatus attached to the top.

“What’s that for?” I asked. She chuckled.

“Mounting a grenade launcher for heavy combat. Not something you need to worry about. It’s fun though. Let me show you.”

She opened up a steel case full of what looked like jumbo-sized sleeping pills. After loading one of the pills into the apparatus attached to the top of the carbine, she took careful aim at the target I had just hit with the M17. She breathed in, deep, then exhaled and pulled the trigger. There was a popping sound and the steel pill shot across the fallow field. It lodged itself in the target with a thunk, a foot above the target’s center and six inches to the right.

“Watch,” she said.

The pill turned red, then blue, then white hot. The hole it had punctured in the target turned red at the ridges, and in seconds it was molten. The paper target was consumed in white fire. Seconds later, the entire frame liquefied, melting into a steel puddle.

“Thermite grenades,” she said, offering me the rifle. “State of the art. Wanna try?”

I melted both the remaining targets. It was very cool.

Evening crept up without me realizing it. Someone had gone into town to pick up burritos and I was happily eating when an SUV rolled up and the Shaved Man announced that we would be rolling out to a private airfield in an hour.

“You’ll leave your vehicle here,” the Shaved Man said, and I suddenly found myself thinking of Monica Lewinsky’s point of no return moment. That dick you can’t un-suck.

I had gut-rot all the way to the airfield. (Virginia burritos are all expired cheese and gristle.) After an hour on country roads, we arrived at a dirt strip in a field. There were two futuristic aircraft, unlike anything I’d ever seen, and yet another black SUV. As we pulled up, two men got out of the SUV with a zip-tied Lydia in tow. She had shaved her head and she was wearing the dress and jacket she had bought at the mall. No one wasted time with hellos or handshakes. Everyone but the SUVs' drivers boarded the aircraft. We strapped into our seats and took off.

“Ever been in one of these?” the Shaved Man asked me as the aircraft ascended and the SUVs shrank into shiny, bug-like things in the grass below. I shook my head.

“Never flown,” I said. He chuckled.

“She has everything she might need once you’re on the island,” he said. “Sit back and close your eyes. The vibrations put you right to sleep. We’ll be there soon.”

The Shaved Man was write about one thing. I fell asleep in my seat and woke up as we touched down at an airfield in southern Italy. It was my first time outside the United States since the day my mom walked across the U.S.-Mexico border holding me in her arms.

After another hour of driving we arrived at the helicopters. As we waited to board I sidled up to Lydia.

“How are you doing?” I whispered.

“Fine,” she said, staring straight forward.

“We’re almost there,” I said.

“Sure,” she said. We boarded the helicopters. The island was two square miles. We were being dropped on its shores to find a piece of meat in a jar that had been buried underground for over two hundred years.

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