The rain had been blanketing the sea for more
than three hours, but they couldn’t abort the
mission until they had foolproof verification of
the wreck embedded on the ocean floor. Their 200-foot
heavy lift vessel pitched and rolled in the choppy waters;
the moniker on its stern pronounced the business at hand:
“Gold Diggers Exploration.”
Charlie Rocklin monitored the dark storm clouds swirling overhead, wondering if or when his life would actually begin. With his birthday just days away, he was soon to find out what the wrong side of 40 felt like; not something he gave much credence to, consciously that is, but it was no doubt brewing under the surface like the sunken 17th century galleon and its alleged treasures to which they had come nearly a hundred miles east of New York City to lay claim.
Charlie was ruggedly handsome, as if sculpted from tanned bone, with a wavy shock of black hair and a permanent five o’clock shadow; a face inanimate as a statue, with a reserved pirate’s smile, and brilliant sapphire eyes as cautious as they were curious. A consummate nautical archeologist, well versed in underwater science, history, and mythology, he was most at home on the ocean, or be- low, shouldering the same three aspirations since his first excavation: to discover a noteworthy wreck that would change history; to recover a treasure that would forever free him from unrelenting financial burdens; and to find his significant other, a lover who would last longer than a season or two.
Unfortunately, his professional and romantic pursuits had all too often ended without resolve, or badly, a succession of disappointments that he was convinced would soon end. After all the wasted years, endless stagnation, close calls, near misses, derailed dreams, and broken hearts, he attributed his lack of synchronicity to plain old bad luck. But that was his explanation alone: There were dozens of women left in his wake with dozens of other interpretations.
Gold Diggers Exploration, Inc. was Charlie’s newest venture and by far the best funded. It promised state-of- the-art robotic equipment—the best underwater technology available—to locate shipwrecks previously considered too deep or too eroded to get to. This meant that Charlie could be the first nautical archeologist with the resources to reconstruct lost ships of yesteryear with three-dimensional imaging—to make history by virtually recreating the past. And because it was one of the first publicly held marine exploration companies that wasn’t solely driven by research, but primarily, and unabashedly, committed to recovering the billions of dollars in lost fortunes lying on the floors in the vast oceanic abyss, it also meant that he could soon become richer beyond his wildest dreams.
And this day was purportedly going to prove that Gold Diggers Exploration was for real, an endeavor of sub- stance, as well as profit. Charlie and his crew were poised to unveil a 400-year-old Spanish galleon and its rumored fortune in plunder. If they were successful, two of Char- lie’s three unwavering dreams could be realized, a pos- sibility that oddly made him more anxious than excited.
Deep down, Cyclops, their remotely operated vehicle, raked along timeworn lumber lodged only a hundred feet down, but right on the edge of the mile-deep Hudson Canyon. Eight powerful hydraulic thrusters pushed the R.O.V. through the ruins while high-resolution video cameras sent brilliant fiber optic telemetry to the surface.
Twenty-seven crew-members worked the surface craft, a mix of oceanographers, researchers, and tech-hands, sorting through the debris sent up by the mechanical sea cranes. All of them were full time employees of Gold Diggers Exploration, Inc. All were committed to the cause and loyal to a fault—all except one, and he was about to reveal himself, as bad apples always do.
Sterling Ray was a salty sea dog with a shaggy gray beard and a burning cigar stub fixed in the corner of his mouth. He was an unlikely partner for Charlie, with a brash, used car salesman demeanor, but he was able to raise the capital, and he was eager to handle all of the public relations and marketing aspects of their business— Charlie’s least favorite part.
Just over a year ago, Sterling Ray had approached Charlie after a highly publicized debacle in which Charlie had found a collection of the oldest known biblical texts, potentially one of the most significant archaeological finds of the century, only to have it stolen before he could authenticate it. Treasure hunting tended to bring out the worst in people, especially since underwater engineering technologies had recently turned the ocean floors into a gold rush that hadn’t been seen since the West went wild.
So when Sterling Ray had come to the rescue, a ce- lestial saint appearing out of thin air, offering a limited liability company with means, the most advanced high- tech tools money could buy, a staff that could support his vision, and a partner who would protect his integrity, Charlie couldn’t resist—even though none of his peers had ever heard of Sterling Ray or the venture capital firm he engaged.
And now they were on the cusp of their first major coup. The lower-level cabin had been converted into an R.O.V. control room, and the co-captain of Gold Dig- gers Exploration turned from a bank of monitors that dis- played faint images of the wreck below.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Sterling Ray announced to a dozen journalists crowding the monitors. “In this case, it’s worth several million. The San Martin was the flagship of a Spanish fleet transport- ing the largest colonial-era bribe across the Atlantic when it sank in a gnarly storm back in 1622. Ladies and gentle- men, you have been invited here today to witness the biggest treasure ever recovered from the sea!”
A reporter from the Staten Island Advance raised his pad and pencil with a note of skepticism. “The Maritime Trade Organization estimates more than three million shipwrecks on the oceans’ floors, most of which are Spanish. How can you prove this is the San Martin?”
Sterling Ray wasn’t easily shaken, bullied, or cornered. He knew when he sounded authoritative, and he knew when he risked looking transparent, so he wisely deferred this question. “My partner, Charlie Rocklin, is one of the most renowned nautical archaeologists in the world, and best suited to answer that. Charlie?”
Charlie didn’t take his eyes off the controls, and he didn’t appreciate Sterling Ray dragging him into the circus either.
“We can’t definitively prove anything until we bring it all up and examine it thoroughly,” Charlie said as he pushed past the reporters and headed up toward the deck, as always, more preoccupied with the excavation than the self-promotional grandstanding.
This was the quality Sterling Ray most liked about Charlie and the reason he pursued his partnership so ag- gressively when he forged the company: Charlie Rocklin was the real deal. His expertise would give Gold Diggers Exploration credibility, and his blind passion would keep him sufficiently distracted.
Sterling Ray quickly turned the reporters’ attention to the marine precious metal detector. Its indicators were blinking rapidly, always a great distraction. “Truth is, we can’t tell if it’s gold, platinum, bronze, or whatnot, but as you can see, we’re reading seventeen tons of metal down there...seventeen tons!”
A newsman from El Diario with a thick Puerto Rican accent butted in: “The U.N. grants nations sovereign immunity over sunken warships in international waters. Spain will surely claim it as theirs.”
“Al contrario,” Sterling Ray shot back. “Technically, the San Martin wasn’t being used as a war vessel when it sank, so the ‘finders-keepers’ law prevails. The fortune below now belongs to Gold Diggers Exploration.”
“Then why are you loading everything into that motor boat tied up to the port side of this vessel?” the reporter from El Diario pressed.
“We will transfer all the valuables to an undisclosed location to protect them from any false claims or looters, the reason for the power boat you noticed. That’s just a company policy. Just a precaution. So please, everyone, help yourselves to the lox and bagels, and I’ll keep you posted as this marvel unfolds.”
As Sterling Ray climbed up to the deck, the reporters scrambled to their smartphones to tweet about his proclamation.
Up on deck, Charlie observed a half-dozen crewmen working a harness automaton under tarpaulins, distribut- ing silver and gold coins and other artifacts into sturdy metal storage compartments bolted onto the power boat that the El Diario reporter had alluded to, a 35 foot Sea Ray sport cruiser duly named “The Booty Call.”
Sterling Ray approached Charlie in a huff. “What the hell, Charlie? We have to convince them. Our stock will quadruple the second this hits their blogs.”
“And it will sink just as fast if we’re wrong. We still don’t have an ounce of proof that the San Martin is down there.”
“I’ve been patient through all your excessive preparation—the endless studies of currents and tides, size of the waves, wind patterns in the winter months compared to the summer, computer generated models recreating how the ship could have broken up in a storm, how the wreck would scatter—and truth be told, all you’ve come up with is a bad case of analysis paralysis.”
Charlie was about to respond to the shortsighted com- plaints of his partner when he noticed one of their divers breaking the surface with a handful of gold bars, so he went to the rail and shouted down: “Can I take a look at one of those?”
The diver complied, tossing one up.
Charlie examined the bar with his magnifying loupe and then brought it over to Sterling Ray.
“Look. This has a stamp.”
“It shows they paid taxes on it,” Charlie explained.
“We know the San Martin was delivering a bribe for the king, right? That loot wouldn’t be taxed.”
Sterling Ray seethed through clenched teeth. “We’ve talked about not discussing such matters in front of the others.”Indifferent to his plea, Charlie laid out his scuba gear and began to suit up. “And another thing troubles me. The pictures that Cyclops sent up show frame dimen- sions no bigger than seven or eight inches, indicating a much smaller ship than the San Martin.
“Charlie, listen to me—”
Charlie called out to Jimmy Ballard, another rugged, hard-fought-looking adventurer of Charlie’s ilk: “Jimmy, wanna take a look down there with me?”
Jimmy gave Charlie a finger-to-thumb okay sign, and following ingrained protocols with uncanny preci- sion and speed, they each stepped into their dry suits and streamlined the prep of the old-school tools: Buoyancy Control Device, regulator, tank, weights, fins, and mask. And then Charlie explained his old-school reasoning to Sterling Ray: “Only way to find out what’s really down there is to see for ourselves.”
“But everyone believes it’s the San Martin. That’s all that matters.”
This pushed Charlie’s button, and if he realized how loud he was when he replied, he surely didn’t care. “I had only two conditions when we started this company. One, we don’t destroy any historical sites. And two, we don’t lie or mislead anybody about our finds, especially to drive up the stock price.”
Sterling Ray turned to see if anyone was in an earshot, and then got into Charlie’s face. “Loose lips sink ships, partner.”“As does greed, ‘partner’,” Charlie hissed before plac- ing his regulator, adjusting his mask, and rolling back- wards off the side of the boat.
Jimmy Ballard followed suit, and both divers bobbed in the erratic currents until they dumped air from their BCD’s and sank out of view.
Sterling Ray took a deep breath to recompose, and then hurried back down to the R.O.V. control room to prepare for his exit strategy.
Charlie and Jimmy fell further away from the distorting bottoms of the heavy-lift vessel and The Booty Call, sinking deeper and deeper toward the still-unidentified, moldering shipwreck.
The Cyclops continued to circle; its lens protruded like a one-eyed creature, scouring the perimeter, send- ing images of the divers canvassing the wreck up to the bewildered journalists above.
As the reporters crowded the monitors, the man from El Diablo was first to notice Sterling Ray reentering the R.O.V. control room. “What are they doing down there?” Sterling Ray’s demeanor shifted back to optimistic media mode and he proudly declared: “Ladies and gen- tlemen of the press, I am honored to tell you that our dis- covery has been confirmed. The San Martin not only lies below us, as we had expected, but it is significantly more valuable than we previously thought.”
“You’ve already claimed this is the biggest treasure ever recovered from the sea. How can it possibly be more valuable?” the newswoman from Newsday asked.
“Because the San Martin isn’t the only ship down there,” Sterling Ray feigned with authority. “The entire fleet is buried below! You see, all four ships went down in a severe storm, and so it had been previously assumed they were scattered over many miles. But that’s not the case. They’re all right here, and my partner, Mr. Rocklin, was so elated that he took it upon himself to retrieve the first crop of jewels.”
“The entire fleet?” mumbled the reporter from the Staten Island Advance through a mouthful of bagel and cream cheese. “Why can’t we see the other ships on these monitors?”
“The currents are rough and that can blur the camera sensors.”
“Then how the hell do you know that the entire fleet is down there?” the reporter snapped back.
Sterling Ray was quick on his feet, a master of prevari- cation. “We have retrieved several stamped gold bricks, among other things, that we know were carried exclu- sively on each of the four ships.”
The Daily News reporter wanted all the details, as he held up his digital recording device. “And what are those ‘other things’ exactly?”
“Sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, the best way to verify a wreck, to nullify all the skeptics, is to bring up the evidence the old fashioned way. That’s why my partner is diving the site now, to personally claim this historic find.
And that proof will be on deck in just a few minutes. I congratulate you all for bearing witness to this great day.” Sterling Ray gathered some belongings from the cab- in as the reporters’ thumbs texted away to announce this news to the world, unaware that they were duly reporting nothing more than a pack of lies.
Meanwhile, the mechanical cranes below them prod- ded along the side of the ship, scooping through the murky haze and bringing up more useless fragments of its remains.
Charlie and Jimmy swam around the gyrating appara- tus and traversed the length of the hull until they found a break. The opening wasn’t large enough to squeeze through, so Charlie pointed his thumb down and they dropped to the cloudy ridge floor. It didn’t take long for each of them to find large stones, and then they ascended back up to the crack and pounded at the decaying wood until the gap was big enough. Charlie pointed his dive light and peered inside. His visibility was limited to about twenty feet—just a gloomy haze, and more blackness be- yond—but he saw no apparent dangers. When he turned back, Jimmy was already pointing both his forefingers in succession: “You lead, I’ll follow.”
And they became the first men to board this ship in nearly four centuries.The reporters watched Charlie and Jimmy disappear from view
“Where did they go?” The Staten Island Advance cor- respondent asked.
“The camera only circles the exterior,” the enthusiast from El Diablo said. “It can’t go inside.”
The woman from Newsday turned to Sterling Ray. “Is that true?”
“That is correct. Just keep your eyes on the monitors and you will see when they emerge from the ship with real artifacts from the entire fleet! Now if you’d excuse me, I must prepare for the big reveal—”
Sterling Ray head back up to the deck, smiling to him- self, knowing that he had played this press like a piano, and they would be left in the dark just long enough for him to execute his Plan B.Charlie led the way inside the scoured confines only to find a few more scattered bricks of silver, broken crates, olive jars, and some splintered wood. He picked up one of the silver bricks and displayed it for Jimmy, showing that it also had a tax stamp, more proof that they had not discovered the San Martin.
They exited through a hole in the bow and immedi- ately came to the edge of the shelf. This drop off angled steeply down a hundred feet to another shelf, and when they looked down, a huge ovate formation was just vis- ible, apparently metallic, the real reason their detectors had measured tons of metal.
Charlie checked his dive computer. They were already at 150 feet. If they went all the way to the new shelf, they’d be truly pushing the limit, even for Charlie and
Jimmy who boasted several of the deepest dives amongst the east coasters.
Charlie held up seven fingers, signaling that a descent that deep would only give them about seven minutes of air left, even if they conserved well in these strong cur- rents. Jimmy quickly replied with two signals: a hand tugging on his regulator, reiterating that they didn’t have enough air, and a fisted outstretched arm, to drive home his point: Dangerous!
Charlie looked into Jimmy’s nervous eyes, giving as- surance. Jimmy had done enough risky dives with Charlie to know that he would go with or without him, and since he couldn’t live with the latter prospect, he conceded.
Charlie extended himself vertically, his fins push- ing him downward, and Jimmy followed closely. Other- worldly quiet enveloped them as they hastened deeper and deeper toward the colossal, oviform shape. And then they saw the metallic marvel in its full glory:
A World War II submarine.
Charlie’s heart raced and he trembled with excitement as he stared at the enormous warship gravesite, a piece of history discovered—the first of his three dreams realized.
Jimmy, too, had a hard time containing himself. But they both knew that they didn’t have a second to waste with their air supply ticking away, so they simultaneously signaled for the descent and split off to explore.
Charlie found the escape hatch. It was slightly ajar, so he pulled on it until it gave way enough for him to squeeze through. He then turned on his dive light and entered the control room, dark and cavernous, and shone the light around, throwing shadows.
Jimmy finned the length of the ship, too incredulous to maintain his reverence, gravitas, or composure. He searched for a way inside and eventually came upon an open hatch. He turned on his dive light, propelled him- self into a separate vestibule, and faced a massive door with a fitting to accommodate an elaborate, finely de- tailed three-pronged key. He assumed this was some kind of security pad, but nevertheless, he tried to push the door open. It wouldn’t budge, but he noticed a fracture in its hinge, squeezed diagonally, revealing a small opening.
He pulled out his large divers’ knife, shoved it in the breach, and pried with all his body weight – but the thick steel was immune and his blade just bowed. Frustrated, he stabbed the entire blade inside the crack and a cloud of debris burst out, enveloping him. Once the detritus settled, he pressed his mask up to the small opening to look inside.
There was a slight glow coming from within. His eyes widened with childlike wonder, his heart beat faster and faster with unadulterated excitement, and his breathing became frantic as he peered inside and the brilliant sheen of gold bullion.
In the meantime, Charlie searched through a pile of crushed cases and rubbish, finding nothing more than rusting tools and shreds of disintegrated cloth. But when he pushed away some shattered tableware, he spotted something gleaming brass in his dive light’s beam. He lifted it out of the rubble, and to his delight and amazement, it was the ship’s bell, the only foolproof means of identification.
Charlie rubbed off some corrosion to reveal the en- graving: “U-2008, 1945” followed by some German words: “Von dem einen kommen die vielen.” Since he was trained to identify nearly any vessel at a glance, its historical significance, country of origin, and vintage, he was more than surprised to learn that this submarine was German since it had propeller guards and deck guns which were more typical of American subs.
He then noticed a leather strap sticking out from under a pile of sandy rubble. He tugged at it but it was stuck. So he yanked it harder and a uniformed skeleton appeared, shaking off its sandy sediment. Charlie jerked back and watched the skull detach from the shattered col- larbone, and as a captain’s hat with decorations floated away, a necklace fell off the brittle, scattering fragments.
Charlie reached out and grabbed the necklace before it sank.
It was a crest with three finely embedded symbols: a windmill with keys as blades; an eagle flying over moun- tains; and the third was simply an old-style key. On the circumference of this crest were three gaps, three slits that looked as if they were meant to fit missing extension pieces.
He stuffed the ship’s bell and this crest adorned neck- lace inside his mesh dive bag, moved out of the escape hatch, and snaked the perimeter.
Then he noticed another open hatch that extended from the bottom of the submarine.
To get there he had to go deeper, so he checked his computer. Time was ticking away, and descending fur- ther would use up air faster, but he went for it neverthe- less: 195, 220, 225...
He meditated on his slow and steady breaths, remain- ing calm in the face of the unknown, isolated from the world, at one with the underwater world, his only true peace, his only reprieve from the unpredictability of life. Diving had limits and boundaries. It was predictable, and he took refuge in that notion.
The depth readout read “229” when he arrived at the entryway. He had never broken 230 feet, so he kept one eye on his dive computer as he searched for a way inside. He realized he had come upon an annexed, separate and secured compartment. On the bulkhead door was another elaborate three-pronged keypad like the one Jimmy had found. The crest he had found on the necklace seemed to match the center—same shape, same fine detailing. So he reached inside his bag and tried to see if it fit.
But only the center part. Apparently, the missing ex- tensions were also needed.
On the other side of the submarine, Jimmy maneu- vered for a better view through the massive hatch, angling around the cracked steel, aiming his dive light, shedding a fragmented beam that revealed:
Stacks of radiant bricks, layers of glistening gold bullion.
This was a loon’s loot, a fortune uncovered, the most thrilling, awe-inspiring moment of his life.
Without hesitation, he shoved his hand into the cracked steel, reaching farther and farther, harder and harder, forgetting that the more he strained, the more energy he exerted, and the faster he would use up what little air supply was left.
Inside the hatch at the bottom of the submarine, Char- lie tried pushing on the heavy steel door.
It wouldn’t budge.
And with his air supply now pushing into the red zone, time was dangerously running out, and they still had a hell of an ascent to worry about.
As he turned away to find Jimmy, he noticed that his depth gauge was reading 231 feet. He must’ve dipped. Another boundary broken, another personal best he would keep to himself as he finned upward along the side of the submarine.
Jimmy noticed Charlie approaching through the dis- persing cloudburst, pointing at his computer, demanding their ascent. But he ignored him and continued to shove his arm through the opening until he finally latched onto one of the gold bricks.
Charlie stopped and hovered when he noticed the golden glow reflecting off Jimmy’s mask as he hummed into his regulator, an exuberant melody he had exhaled whenever he was excited. Charlie glanced at his computer once more. Time to ascend. Now! And when he looked back up:Jimmy’s tune turned into a wrenching gasp and all the color drained from his face.
Years ago, Charlie had witnessed a 12 foot tiger shark attack from a dark cave, ripping one of his divers’ legs off in the blink of an eye—and Jimmy now had the same look of sheer terror.
Jimmy pulled his arm out of the opening and blood gushed from the stump of his wrist. Something had just sliced off his right hand.
And then his air supply ran out.
Charlie swam through the dark red cloud that envel- oped his buddy. When it cleared a bit, he saw Jimmy’s traumatized gaze as he watched his dismembered hand float away with the undercurrent.
Charlie moved quickly, stuffing his spare regulator into Jimmy’s mouth so he could breathe air once again, and then he wrapped his arm around Jimmy’s mid-section and finned upward. When he checked his computer for the first equalization stop, Jimmy flailed so wildly, he had no choice but to forfeit a proper ascent. Charlie knew this would risk a severe case of decompression sickness—“the bends”—but it took only a second to weigh the risks: His buddy was certainly bleeding to death. The bends had a chance of survival.
So Charlie adjusted his grip, kicked hard, and scaled as fast as he could until they broke the surface.
The ship’s cook was first to spot the divers as they
broke the surface, soaked in Jimmy’s blood, the rain in full force gushing over them. The cook ran across the hull shouting, “All hands on deck...Starboard!” And the crew was fast to respond.
Divers jumped overboard and brought them up to the deck. The two onboard medics went to work on Jimmy, who had gone into shock, and prepared him for the de- compression tank. Other crewmembers hovered around Charlie to find out what had happened.
And on the far side of all the tumult, relentless rain, panic, and confusion, Charlie noticed Sterling Ray fir- ing up the engine on The Booty Call, the alongside sport cruiser that stored the sparse loot brought up from the wrongly identified shipwreck.
Sterling Ray saw his partner watching him, and as if to antagonize him, he spoke loudly, clearly, and shamelessly into his cell phone: “The fish swims at noon,” a cryptic message only his investment banker could interpret.
Over the short time that Charlie and Jimmy had been on their dive, much had transpired back on land: The east coast news services had received the messages from the reporters on board the Gold Diggers Exploration vessel and the bogus word of the entire Spanish fleet discov- ery had spread like wildfire over the Internet. This had pushed the Spanish Head of State into a possession cri- sis, sent the world diving community into a booty tizzy, and turned a bad day at the NASDAQ into a spectacular turnaround when a little known stock, GDXX, soared straight through the roof.
“What the hell did you just do?” Charlie shouted.
“Liquidated my stock at an all time high and wired the money to an untraceable off-shore account,” Sterling Ray said with a sordid grin as he untied the two lines that had connected The Booty Call to the heavy lift vessel, pulled in the fenders, and pushed off. “Your obsession with finding the truth is endearing, ‘partner,’ but one day you’ll learn that business is really only about finding the money.”
And with that, Sterling Ray hit the throttle.
Charlie was dumbfounded, but not completely sur- prised. The deal had always seemed too good to be true, and now he knew why.
The Booty Call disappeared into the raging storm and a very wealthy Sterling Ray dropped off the grid for good.
Or so he thought.Chapter Two
It had been a dreary spring but the relentless storms had finally cleared and the sun brightened over Man- hattan. Washington Square was busy with its usual mix of students, street performers, dealers, and drug in- duced loiterers.
Ariel Ellis emerged from Bobst library and hurriedly traversed the south side of the park. She had a habit of being late to her classes, but her extraordinarily exotic looks got her mostly male students to arrive early—hap- py to wait—a small price to pay for the hour they would spend gawking at her gorgeous face and sexy form while she delivered her bi-weekly discourse.
She was a senior lecturer, going on three years now, and although she was by far the youngest of her colleagues, she was talked about more than anyone in the history department. Rumors about her exotic vocations prior to earning a PhD at NYU were a fascination amongst stu- dents and faculty alike: Brigade Commander in the Is- raeli Army (partially true), assistant to the very last Nazi hunter who captured the remaining SS Members from ODESSA, the secret society known as Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehorigen (true), Circus Ole trapeze art- ist (wishful thinking).
No one, however, would ever learn the reality of her past, which was actually more astounding, and which she kept secret for good reason. She fended off their probing inquiries with humor and vague responses, often coming off as mysterious, which she didn’t mind since it was a good way to keep her students’ attention. She had spent most of her life having to be discreet anyway; a burden when it came to forging close friendships; a curse when it came to romantic affairs.
As usual, Ariel entered the classroom in mid-sentence, carrying on from her previous lecture: “During World War II, U-boat warfare was the major component of the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted the duration of the war. Germany had the largest submarine fleet in World War II, and even Prime Minister Winston Churchill fa- mously acknowledged, ‘The only thing that really fright- ened me during the war was the U-Boat peril.’”
Her students were obediently pecking notes into their laptops and tablets, and she gave them a moment to catch up before she continued:
“With the outbreak of war, Germany built eleven hun- dred and seventy-four new U-boats and became the most efficient submariners in the world with unprecedented camouflage capabilities. Now, most of their sunken or lost remains are scattered about the ocean floors, rusting away, returning to the base elements from which they were built.”
She encouraged a dialogue in her class, so she took it in stride when one of the students in the front row ea- gerly blurted, “They found one a few years ago that they couldn’t identify.”
“But they eventually did,” Ariel responded. “The Nova Program had originally labeled it ‘Hitler’s Lost Sub,’ which certainly made for some interesting docu- mentaries and books, but it was ultimately identified as U-869, a U-boat that was ordered to a Norwegian fjord, never received its command, sunk in a storm, and then drifted with the undertow for many miles, the reason it was found so far off course. There have been, however, less publicized U-boats recovered over the years, sub- marines that had gyroscopic steering mechanisms that turned back on themselves.”
The students blankly stared back, so she clarified for them. “They sank themselves.”
One of the few female students toward the back chimed in, “Probably self-destructed to keep their sub technology from being ripped off, right?”
Ariel realized they were getting off their topic, and onto her own, so she put on the brakes. “As historians, we seek the truth. But sometimes we never learn why people bury their secrets, especially during wartime.”
The female student didn’t want to let it go. “Maybe they were hiding more than spy techniques? I saw a show on the Discovery Channel about how Nazis snuck out after the war. They said Hitler might have gone to Argen- tina in a U-boat. It’s totally possible, don’t you think?”
“Gimme a break,” a student in the back of the room blurted out with a snide laugh. “He committed suicide in his bunker. The Soviets have the remains.”
“That was thought to be true,” Ariel said, “but just a few years ago, the Russians allowed DNA tests to be con- ducted on the skull that they claimed was Hitler’s, and an international group of scientists concluded that it was a female under forty years old.”
“See!” The female student said, sneering at the young man who had the gall to laugh at her insight.
Ariel smiled, now more cognizant of her audience. “The Führer would be well over 100 years old now, so I don’t think there’s any concern about him pledging your sorority next semester. Now let’s get down to business. We started discussing World War II military strategies for the allies last week, and I had promised we would get into the strategies for the axis today...”
She finished class a few minutes early, giving her enough time to make it to midtown and catch Charlie Rocklin while he was still in the city. She had had an old colleague follow, trace and tap Charlie since yesterday afternoon when the Gold Diggers Expedition team had made it back to shore.
The reporters aboard had only written about their failure to find the San Martin and Sterling Ray’s defec- tion. But Ariel was alerted when she had read in one of the nautical blogs that one of the diver’s hands was sliced off by a swiping interior blade of a rusting submarine.
Hatch blades were a little known security measure used on specific German U-boats. And there were not sup- posed to be any MIA enemy submarines that close to American shores.
She needed to investigate. The only way she could de- termine what the divers had really found was by asking an eyewitness the right questions. Only then could she know if there was truly a reason to celebrate.
Or be very, very afraid of the consequences of what might lie below.Manhattan Financial Group invested in unusual ventures. They liked to think of themselves as more diversi- fied than most hedge funds, more speculative than most mutual funds, and less risk averse than any fund; but of course, that’s not really how they stayed in business for so long. The formula to their success was much more el- ementary than their mission statement professed or sales mantras gloated. They bought low, sold high, and were always quick to drop any investment the instant it started diving south.
And that was exactly how they now perceived their Gold Diggers Exploration, Inc. outlay.
A row of seven deadpan board members sat on an ele- vated platform across from Charlie. They had placed him diminutively at the opposite side of the room, at the far end of their long Herman Miller conference table, mak- ing him feel like he was under fire.
Which he was.
“We took you public,” the man on the far left began, “because you assured us that all your fancy equipment and knowhow could easily target the most sought after wreck sites.”
The man beside him jumped in. “We justified your overhead—the boats, the equipment, the research facil- ity—because it was supposed to make it easy for you to dig up fortunes that were unattainable in the past.”
“Your partner had promised these sites would provide uncountable artifacts that could be sold through auction houses, web sites and home shopping networks,” the man on the other end of the panel added.
“I’m sorry about Sterling Ray,” Charlie said. “As you know, it was a new partnership. I had not known him long. And I have always tried to be very clear. There are many variables with every excavation—”
“Which is why this venture proves to be a very bad risk for our blind pool company.”
“I know you gentlemen are as disappointed as I am,” Charlie persisted. “But nautical archeology isn’t about chasing a pot of gold. It’s about finding the truth about our past. We may not have found the San Martin, but we did find a World War II U-boat, which is historically sig- nificant because it was thought that the Germans never got this close to American soil.”
The board members couldn’t be more disinterested, but Charlie always fought until he was knocked out, so he put it all on the line: “If you back me on one more expedi- tion, I can find out why.”
Charlie reached into his bag and lifted the sub’s bell onto the table. Then he pulled out the necklace he found with the crest.
The board members deadpanned him.
Charlie stared back. Why weren’t these slugs gasping like he did when he first laid eyes on these stunning ar- tifacts?
He walked his loot over to the least skeptical looking board member and showed him the engraving. “Check this out. It came off a crew member.”
The man read it aloud, “Von dem einen kommen die vielen...?”
Charlie sensed that he had a kernel of interest. Maybe. So he tried to pique his enthusiasm, “Translates to ‘From the one come the many’.”
“And from the many, they lost the war,” another board member said. “You convinced us that there was a ship loaded with seventeen tons of precious metals. That might have put your company in the black for the first time. You came back empty handed, your partner joins the S.E.C.’s most wanted list, and now you’re asking us to finance the excavation of a World War II grave site that by law cannot be disturbed, cannot be dived upon, and cannot be recovered.”
“But this could rewrite history,” Charlie said.
And the first board member who started this meet- ing decided it was time to end it. “We’re in business to make money, not to rewrite history. I’m sorry Mr. Rock- lin, we’re going to have to cut our losses, organize a fire sale, unload the equipment, break the lease on the office space, terminate the payroll...”
Charlie blocked out the rest of the executive’s rant. He just sat there thinking about all the people he had hired for this venture, their shared passion for marine explora- tion, the long list of sunken vessels they were poised to recover that would shed light on the past, the priceless treasures that had been, until now, impossible to retrieve. Gold Diggers Exploration was truly the first company set up with the right knowledge, desire, and technology to bring up the trove our ancestors lost at sea or left behind, but without backing, it was dead in the water, literally and figuratively.
Charlie gathered his things, remembering all the ad- vice his father gave him when it came to business: Don’t shit where you eat; don’t burn any bridges; and always be polite.
He shook hands with every one of the bureaucratic bean counters and forced a smile. “Thank you for your time, gentlemen.”Charlie walked toward his Gold Diggers Exploration
van parked on 49th street and Avenue of the Americas, grabbed the parking ticket tucked under the windshield, and tore it to shreds. More bad luck, he thought, maybe the butt of some bad karmic joke.
And that’s when he heard a voice from across the street calling out his name.
When he turned, Ariel was coming toward him, virtu- ally stopping traffic as she crossed the street. At first he could only think about the obvious: her raven hair, sultry lips, piercing green eyes. Here was the same feeling he got when a scoured dive site finally unveiled a treasure. Only different.
Could the tides may have turned and his luck be changing? Synchronicity, he reminded himself, was all he needed for things to start working out, just a little syn- chronicity.
She shook his hand with a firm, businesslike grip. “Name’s Ariel Ellis. I teach history at NYU. I’d like to talk to you about the submarine you found. Buy you a cup of coffee?”
She was hard to say no to and his dance card was emp- ty. So he weighed his options. He could sit in the traffic snarl-up back to Jersey and deliver the bad news about the loss of financing to his employees or he could kill an hour with a gorgeous woman who seemed like the only person alive interested in what he had found yesterday.
“Sure. Why not?”
They didn’t have to walk a half a block to find the clos-
est Starbucks. Once their grande lattes were ready and they found two cushy chairs, Charlie showed Ariel the necklace with the crest.
Her reaction was entirely different from the money- men: She was awestruck and her emerald eyes bright- ened. “I knew it. It’s an escape crest. You found U-2008.”
He hadn’t even shown her the bell, so he was aston- ished that she identified the sub. The night before, Char- lie had begun to search for information on U-2008 and had found absolutely nothing. He had also scoured many sources to ID the crest and come up empty on that, too.
“An escape crest?” he asked, more doubting than curi- ous.
“Von dem einen kommen die vielen. From the one, come the many,” Ariel explained. “It was the phrase used for U- boats designated to flee Germany at the end of the war. They were built secretly, of course, highly classified, so it doesn’t surprise me that you never heard of this. Very few people have. The theory was if any one of them survived, they would have everything needed to rebuild the Third Reich. May I?”
Charlie handed it over to her. She took her time with it, turning it around and around.
“A submarine found in American waters would as- sumedly be American, no?” she asked rhetorically. “But since all American submarines from World War II have been accounted for, at least the ones that sank off this coast. This presents us with a problem, does it not?”
Charlie knew what she was getting at but he didn’t interrupt her mini-lecture.
“When I read that your diving partner’s hand was sliced off when he tried to get inside the sub, I was suspicious. That was uniquely a Third Reich maneuver. Escape ships were built with all kinds of incredible security engineer- ing. If they sank, they were supposed to be impossible to break into, meant to serve as impenetrable tombs.”
“Have any escape subs ever been located?” Charlie asked.
“A rescue crew found U-2001 a dozen or so years ago, near Cape Verde Island, close to Africa, but the German government confiscated it, took control, and denied its existence.”
“Then how do you know about it?”
“I did my thesis on this very subject. I had sources that confirmed everything I’m telling you about, off the re- cord that is, though I couldn’t get any of them to verify what I had theorized.”
“Complicated. But I can tell you that the sub they found didn’t look German at first, at least not to the div- ers who found it.”
“The one I found didn’t look German either, not from the outside at least. It had antiaircraft guns pointing up from the deck and the propeller guards were intact, which is quintessentially American.”
Ariel knew that any nautical archeologist worth his salt would have noticed that. So she continued to lead her witness. “But it was all German on the inside, Ger- man uniforms, German insignia—”
“Exactly. It was cloaked. So I assumed it was a chame- leon built to enter local waters.”
“You assumed correctly,” she responded. “What you won’t find in the public records, for obvious reasons, is that there were eight escape subs: U-2001 through U-2008 – one for each of the seven continents, plus one more to the South Atlantic somewhere. They wanted to spread out all over the world to maximize their potential to survive. We know that U-2001 was headed for Africa. And we have evidence that suggests that U-2002 was sent to Antarctica. U-2003, to Asia. U-2004, to Australia, or perhaps New Zealand. U-2005, to either Fiji, the Hawai- ian Islands, Marshall Islands, or Samoa Islands. U-2006, to Europe, but not the mainland, possibly Iceland, or even Greenland. U-2007, to South America, most ru- mored to Brazil, Argentina, or one of Hitler’s favorite islands down there. And of course U-2008, the one you found in North American waters would be the last sub on its way to the United States. All of these submarines were supposedly loaded with everything they needed in order to rebuild—”
“You mean a lot of gold?”
“I mean everything.”
Ariel noticed that Charlie was becoming more and
more intrigued. And she knew what that meant for some- one like him, so she tried to slam on the brakes. “But if you’re considering going back down there, you should know, it would be a death wish.”
“I know, it’s booby trapped,” he acknowledged. “And if there’s really that much loot in the wreck, every diver in the world will try to scrape it clean.”
“I’m not only worried about wreck divers. How many people know where the site is?”
“About thirty or so, but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack unless you have the exact coordinates, which we keep safe on a nautical GPS.”
“And where is this GPS?”
“In a safe place. But even if it went public, I only know of two divers who can go that deep without a lot of very expensive equipment, and one of them lost a hand yes- terday.”
“Which only leaves you, right?”
“Very impressive. Really. But unfortunately, those
U-boats were built to destroy any outsider who tries to break in, even guys like you who can hold their breath for a few minutes longer than anyone else.”
“There’s got to be a way in. There’s always a way in.” Charlie’s modus operandi was that every riddle could, and should, be solved.
“There is. And truth be told, there are only a few peo- ple who can find that code. And I happen to be the only one I know of.”
Ariel held the crest up to the light and ran her fin- ger along its engravings. “May I hang onto this for a few days? I’d like to run some tests, make sure it’s authentic.”
Hell no, Charlie thought as he grabbed it back and stowed it away in his pocket. She was persuasive, seduc- tive, and downright intoxicating. But he’d been swayed before, and therefore promised himself – never again.
“I’d like to run a few tests of my own first,” was all he said, and he said it with a smile that told her he had a pretty good appreciation for the magnitude of what he had stumbled upon.
“This has been all over the news. People are going to be coming out of the woodwork.”
“Okay, look, when you learn that Germany didn’t pro- duce two-thousand-series U-boats, and that there are no records of what you found ever existing, please call me.” She handed him her card. “You wouldn’t want to open up a can of worms like this without understanding exactly what you’re getting into.”
“What do you want out of it?”
“The truth. I just want the truth.”
This was the first time anybody said this to Charlie—
something he himself had said many times to numerous partners and financier, a sentiment that never failed to fall on deaf ears. And hearing it put back on him by this strik- ing woman with a passion that could surely rival his, oddly left him speechless, wondering more about the possibility of finding his soul mate than a German escape sub.
“I hope to hear from you soon,” she said as she got up to leave.
Two younger guys at a nearby table watched her walk away, and Charlie overheard the taller one ask the short- er, “What the hell do you call that?”
And the little guy unequivocally grinned from ear to ear:
In the timeworn Center City of Berlin, from high above St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, a bell resounded, announcing the end of the day. The German flag whipped in the wind in front of the old-world Parliament building as it was lowered by uniformed military.
Chancellor Freida Matthias was poised, magisterial, graying with dignity, and about to face a daunting re- election campaign. After a lifetime of gender obstacles to overcome, she was more embattled than most of her pre- decessors. Now in her mid-sixties, she was finally find- ing a cohesive voice in policy and politics, and primed to leave an impressive legacy. Known as Bundeskanzlerin, a title never used before the new millennium since there were no female heads of government prior to the twenty- first century, she was well versed in the throes of crisis. And the information she just received had to be handled with care if she was to stay in the Bundestag’s favor.
The news was delivered in private by two operatives from two different agencies that worked in a cooperative system that often shared information, but interpreted the data differently, giving the chancellor different perspec- tives to consider. The agent from Bundesnachrichtendienst, the overseas federal intelligence agency (also known as the BND), usually warned the chancellor about the im- minent threats to German interests abroad. The opera- tive from Kommando Strategische Aufklärung, the Strate- gic Reconnaissance Command of the German Armed Forces, typically gave the chancellor a more optimistic viewpoint, offering solutions to counter. But this was dif- ferent. The two operatives both briefed Freida Matthias in a somber tone, both harping on the (potentially dread- ful) consequences.
It wasn’t the first time a chancellor had to deal with matters that emerged from The Third Reich, the inex- haustible leaks of war crime embarrassments or Neo-Na- zi faux pas that all too often needed to be handled with kid gloves. But this was something that had always lurked under the surface, ceaselessly threatening to rear its ugly head and wreak havoc on every German administration since 1945.
And so the operatives went over all the angles, politi- cally and militarily, ultimately recommending that Mat- thias deal with the problem swiftly and efficiently—draw- ing as little attention to it as possible. To do this, they suggested that she follow ordinary peacetime protocol and hand it over to her Vice-Chancellor, Michael Freund.
“In other words,” she said. “A job for ‘the chancellor’s son-of-a-bitch’.”
“Those would be your other words, Madame Chan- cellor,” said one of them. “Certainly not ours.”
“Certainly?” she smiled. “Or officially.”
“Certainly officially,” he smiled back.
“I’ll take it under advisement,” she said. “Officially.”
Freund was in his early fifties, diminutive, almost
completely bald, and best known in the regime as a sym- bolic figurehead for congressional and political public re- lations. But he thought of himself as a hatchet man who enjoyed bringing down the axe. This divide resulted in minimal involvement during Freida Matthias’s first term, and for good reason.
The chancellor and her son-of-a-bitch walked in si- lence through the lobby, exited together, and waited until they were a good distance from the ears of any press or nosy passersby before Matthias unloaded her bombshell.
“American treasure hunters found a submarine off their east coast,” Matthias said, “and the divers brought up the bell to confirm—”
Freund stopped on the walkway, eyes widened. “They found U-2008?”
“We believe so.”
“Do they have any idea what they found?”
“Other than knowing it’s German, not a clue. They
were extremely disappointed that they didn’t find a sev- enteenth century shipwreck.”
“Imagine that. Do we know when they plan to bring it up?”
“It can’t be lifted. You know that.”
“But they will surely try—”
“Their government hasn’t even responded, which con- firms that they don’t know what’s down there, the reason why we must act promptly.”
“This is very exciting news.”
Freund seemed truly elated, which made Matthias think that her son-of-a-bitch didn’t understand what she was asking him to do, so she spelled it out for him. “I want you to go there and relay our request. Deal only with the CIA so we can keep it quiet. Make them believe that it’s a sensitive issue due to military confidentiality and national pride, and that we appreciate their cooperation and good will. They’ve been accommodating in the past. There’s no reason to think this will be any different. And once they grant us control, I want it completely destroyed and buried where it lies.”
“But if the legend is true, shouldn’t we excavate?”
Matthias was losing patience. She couldn’t stand to be questioned or second-guessed, especially from such a self-serving opportunist like Freund.
“We will do exactly what the Schröder administra- tion did with U-2005. Nothing good can come from the ghosts of our past. You understand precisely what I’m asking you to do, do you not?”
“I understand,” the vice-chancellor complied. #
CIA headquarters in Langley was abuzz with terror- ist threats, airport security breaches, and another suicide bombing in Pakistan, but CIA Director Richard Goss had a more curious, peculiar situation on his hands. He sat across from Senior Analyst Simon Bryant, a steadfast and dependable workhorse, to discuss the matter.
Bryant was Goss’s go-to consultant on obscure inter- national issues. Bryant could break down intelligence faster and more thoroughly than anyone at The Agency. All analysts accessed the same information, but Simon Bryant’s diagnostic record was extraordinary due to his uncanny ability to weigh the odds of every possible sce- nario and keep all judgment and bias aside, something most people in Washington found nearly impossible to do. “It all boils down to probability,” he would say when his peers admitted that he could assess odds like no one else. Even Goss often joked that he would take him to Vegas after they both retired.
“The Vice-Chancellor of Germany will be here to- morrow to discuss this lost sub,” the CIA Director began. “What do we know so far?”
Simon Bryant opened his file. “At this point it’s all speculation.”
“Because the Navy has no record of any unaccounted for foreign submarines in the proximity. The only sunken U-boat on record sank hundreds of miles from the loca- tion these guys were diving.”
“Could the divers have lied about their location, to keep others away?”
“Possible. One of them got his hand sliced off and is laid up in the hospital half crocked. The other affirmed the wreck, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, identify what it was. He said they needed to process their data before they make an official statement, and I quote, ‘a lot of peo- ple come out of the woodwork whenever we find a new wreck’.”
“So he’s hiding something.”
“I’d be happy to fly up to New Jersey and have a talk with him in person.”
“I still don’t understand,” Goss said, ignoring the of- fer. “If the diver wouldn’t tell us anything, we have to as- sume he didn’t tell the BND anything either, so why are the Germans so certain that it’s one of their U-boats, and why is the vice-chancellor coming to discuss the matter in person?”
“The Germans must have known this U-boat sank somewhere in the vicinity and for some reason they wanted to keep it confidential so it was never on public record.”
“Everything from World War Two is an open book, has been for years. The greatest atrocities of mankind have been exposed—what more could they be hiding?”
“They wouldn’t try to hide anything that would cause more embarrassment, I agree, because that would only blow up in their faces. But they would hide something that they did not want us to have, which makes me think that if this is in fact one of their U-boats, there’s more than dead Germans lying at the bottom of the sea.”
As always, Goss’s mind went directly to the worst-case scenario. “The reason America started the Manhattan Project was because the best theoretical physics was be- ing done in Germany in the early forties. If a weapon of unimaginable power were possible, and if it had gotten this close to our shores...”
“But raids on the German uranium and heavy water production facilities showed they were far behind,” Si- mon Bryant interrupted to calm his boss. “It’s highly un- likely to be a nuclear issue.”
“You’re right, I’m sure, and as always, I appreciate your candor.”
Goss quickly realized that he had jumped to the most farfetched conclusion, what he often referred to as an oc- cupational hazard, and he truly did value analysts like Si- mon Bryant whose faith was based on probability. “Still, we can assume there’s something down there that they don’t want us to know about, that’s for certain.”
Simon Bryant knew this would be the perfect oppor- tunity he had been waiting for, so he chose his next words carefully: “I was a history major at Princeton and I’ve probably read more about World War II military tactics than anyone. You will need a knowledgeable lead agent on this, and I would love to be of service.”
Goss had been well aware of his best senior analyst’s real agenda for some time now: He had been vying to become a full time field agent. The reason he joined the CIA in the first place was to travel the world and have ex- otic adventures. The Agency, however, found his abilities and personality more suited for intelligence analysis, sit- ting in front of a computer and poring over data. And in Goss’s assessment, the Agency was probably right. Guys like Simon Bryant wanted to go into the field for the wrong reasons and didn’t really comprehend that field- work was ninety percent sheer boredom and ten percent sheer terror. Another cautionary sign was that Simon Bry- ant’s ambition to hit the road increased proportionately to his domestic stresses. He had once told Goss over a few too many beers that he believed his often-tense mar- riage would have more balance if he were home less, and that his teen-aged kids would be overjoyed to see less of the man they furtively referred to as “I spy a narc” every night when he walked through the door. Goss new damn well that agents with miserable home lives never failed to get into precarious predicaments abroad; unbridled freedom, like unrestrained power, often unleashed poor judgment. The other reason Goss hadn’t yet pulled rank to send Simon Bryant into the field was political. The Di- rector of National Intelligence so often relied on Bryant for the President’s Daily Brief, the extremely sensitive in- telligence document containing short assessments of cur- rent worldwide developments that he alone signed off on.
But Goss was running low on help these days. His best people were spread so thin on terrorist threats, and could certainly use someone with Simon Bryant’s analytical abilities.
“I wish all my field agents had your background, tal- ents, and enthusiasm,” Goss said. “But if I send you out, and it doesn’t go well, there’s no turning back for you.”
“Understood. I won’t let you down.”
Goss couldn’t blame the man for his aspirations, and the man had certainly earned his shot. “Alright. I want you in Jersey first thing in the morning.”
Simon Bryant tried to hide his emotions, but he felt his face blush and couldn’t conceal his smile. “Yes, sir. You won’t regret it, sir.”
“Let me know what you find. I want to know what we’re dealing with before the vice-chancellor arrives.”
“In case the diver doesn’t want to comply, I’ll need a warrant to sequester whatever he brought up, so we can find the location of the sub.”
“Not a problem. It’s an international security issue now. You’ll have your warrant right away.”
Simon Bryant wasn’t sure if that was his cue to leave, but he wanted to be politically correct in every respect. “Is there anything else?”
The Director shook his head, already preoccupied with the next case on his agenda.
Simon Bryant smiled as he walked out. He had finally worn Goss down.
Goss looked up once the door slammed shut, hoping his prior apprehensions about Simon Bryant were un- founded.Down the shore of Ocean Grove, joggers, bikers, and
even Jersey surfers took advantage of the unseasonably warm spring day. Adjacent to the marina was a nonde- script corporate office park, and the entire rear building served as the Gold Diggers Exploration, Inc. headquar- ters. Security cameras were planted on every wall and a sign above the door welcomed any curious visitors with a very clear message: “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.”
Inside the offices, the mood was dire. Researchers and oceanographers were storing equipment and shut- ting down their computers; divers and adventure seek- ers boxed up their belongings, ending their short lived, fecund epoch.
Charlie’s private office was still untouched. He sur- rounded himself with artifacts from his most memorable dives: sketches, notes, diagrams, robotic printouts, pho- tographs of shipwrecks and distinctive sites. There was, however, not one picture of any family, friend, girlfriend, or pet. His work was his life. Beside his desk was a brawny steel case that he had custom built to protect the hand- written Codex Sinaiticus, the biblical texts that were sto- len from him over a year ago. Now he finally had some- thing put in it: the nautical GPS from their latest dive. Charlie stared at the casing, remembering how many ups and downs he had been through, how often he felt like a punch-drunk prizefighter, the kind who always got up after he was knocked down.
When he was a boy, growing up in a New Jersey home of five children, the only way to stand out was to be more resilient than his brothers and sisters, or so he thought. And what better way to showboat his specialness and vie for his parents’ affection than displaying trophies and ribbons? Since he was so drawn to the water, he took to competitive swimming and diving like a trout to fast water and brought home shelves of awards. If he lost a competition, he would work smarter, train harder, and the results were triumphant, save for the disappointment of his mother being too busy to attend any of his events, and his father being too annoyed by his own insipid des- tiny to give a crap.
But young Charlie thought he could change all that if he could just keep winning. Discipline and hard work allowed him to surpass his siblings and peers. Obsession and compulsion forged his way to a full college schol- arship. He ranked high on the circuit, competed at the highest level of the NCAA Division 1 Swimming and Diving Championship, specialized in the 200, 500, and 1000 meter freestyle, as well as the one and three meter springboard and platform events. He was invited to, and would have continued into, Master Diving programs, but one harsh reality changed this fate. He realized that all the success in the world would never garner him the ap- proval he was really after, the prodigal puzzle he could never complete. So after his father died, he boxed up all his accolades and never again showcased or displayed any signs of his achievements or personal reflections.
He never looked back, except for the fact that he trans- ferred all his energies to nautical archeology, a career that would allow him to immerse himself into the depths of the past. It wasn’t hard for him to figure out why he so loved unearthing history; the puzzles of the past were a certainty waiting to be revealed, unlike people, who die with their secrets.
Charlie sat at his desk with the U-2008 bell on his lap and continued his research, navigating his computer through a naval search engine for the mysterious U-boat. But only “no information” and “nothing found” pop-ups appeared.
So he started typing in questions and quickly got an- swers:
How many U-boats were built for the German Navy in World War II?
What was the name of the last U-boat produced in World War II?
One of the things he loved about his work was that ev- erything had to make sense. All he had to do was put the puzzles together. But this one didn’t fit together, so he picked up his phone to find the missing piece, and dialed the number on the card he had stuffed in his wallet.
Ariel Ellis was sitting in her NYU office with the door
locked, surrounded by well-worn texts with renderings of windmills with old-style keys as blades and eagles. She glanced at the caller ID and exhaled with relief. She’d been waiting all day for this call.
“And to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I’ve been looking for information on the sub—”
“So now you know that I wasn’t full of it?”
“Like you said, there’s no record of a U-2008 ever existing.”
Ariel knew she had him. “A German U-boat with no
record of activity and no record of even being manufac- tured somehow got to this side of the Atlantic. What do you make of that?”
Charlie didn’t know what to make of it. “I thought all World War Two military information was public domain, especially after all these years.”
“Not if it’s classified highest priority covert, then it doesn’t get published. Then it never gets published.”
“So I guess I found an escape sub.”
“So maybe the professor knows a little something
about her subject,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe. I’m just wondering how a professor gets
classified, highest priority, unpublished information?”
“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” Ariel joked, avoiding a real answer. “I really hope you’re not
planning another dive. It would be suicide.”
“You already mentioned that.”
“I also told you there’s a way inside that sub, and that
I’m your only hope in finding it.”
“Only if we do this together. Discuss it over lunch to-
“I’m in Jersey.”
“Love Jersey. See you around noon.”
She hung up before he could change his mind.
newly expanded trauma center at Jersey Shore University Medical. A large, bulbous wrap extended from his wrist, a constant reminder of his severed appendage.
Because Jimmy was under critical care, visitation was only permitted to his family members. His parents had been there all night, mostly in the waiting area, and had decided to take a walk in the gardens to get some fresh air. Just after they exited the trauma center, a nurse escorted in a tall man in a dark suit who claimed to be Jimmy’s brother.
Family visitors were acknowledged by an honor sys- tem and formal identification was never checked. The ad- ministrators were well aware that patient’s friends often finagled their way in to help lift a patient’s spirits – not a terrible sin. So as long as they didn’t wreak havoc, the administrators usually looked the other way.
“Your brother is here to see you, Mr. Ballard,” the nurse announced. “Are you up for a visit?”
Jimmy tried to say, “I don’t have a brother.” But all that emerged was a morphine-addled croak.
“Good. Then I’ll leave you two alone.” The nurse turned to the tall man before she left. “He’s still quite weak and might drift back to sleep. It’s important that he gets his rest.”
“Of course,” the tall man said. “I won’t stay long.”
The tall man closed the door and approached the bed. All Jimmy could do was stare at him in growing concern as the tall man swiftly pulled a tube from his pocket and inserted its contents into the intravenous drip.
Jimmy’s eyes went wide in panic, fluttered briefly, and then went still, staring blindly upward.
The tall man lifted Jimmy’s good wrist just to make sure there was no longer a pulse, and then left the room as easily as he had come.
Charlie couldn’t bear watching his disheartened staff
packing up, and since he had a few hours to kill until Ariel showed, he decided to let off some steam.
The intensity of his workouts had mellowed over the years, but after all his competitive training, always striv- ing for new limits, it was hard to give up the addictive nature of the natural endorphin release, especially when he was stressed. Long distance running and swimming calmed his mind, and he was well aware that it was less destructive than other releases some of his peers, or ex- girlfriends, often indulged in, such as drugs, alcohol, or therapy.
So he changed into Nike attire in his office bathroom and then told the receptionist he’d be back before noon. He did this almost every workday that he had to be in the office, excursions he justified as an occupational neces- sity to maintain his standing as one of the most capable deep divers on the east coast. This was partly out of pride, partly because he never wanted to be completely reliant on robotic equipment. Like a classically trained artist, he believed that great nautical archeologists had to master the basics before they could rely on technology—and that included physical proficiency, strength and stamina—to always be prepared for the unexpected, which didn’t hap- pen often, but when it did, it was always seminal.
He jogged three miles up the bike path, and when he
got to the end of the Ocean Grove fishing pier, he left
his t-shirt and running shoes by the dock house and dove
into the chilly water. He paralleled the shore, alternating between freestyle, butterfly and breaststroke, one mile
out, one mile back. Then he put his shoes and shirt back
on and ran hard back to the office park, trying to clear his
mind, but thinking of Ariel the entire time.
The three toughs with shaved heads who went by the names of Ray, Luke and Wade dispersed around the pe- rimeter of Gold Diggers Exploration headquarters. Off duty, they were underemployed, heavily tattooed skin- heads. But on duty and under orders of utmost impor- tance like they were this day, they passed believably as Verizon New Jersey service men.
The uniforms were easy enough to steal and the tools and weapons they mounted to their belts were borrowed from their own home base in the basement of a deserted warehouse in northern Jersey known as The Shack. Their far reaching network had similar bases, also referred to as shacks, in almost every state in America, every province in Canada, and throughout eastern and western Europe. They all prided themselves on keeping a low profile, even referring to their brothers and sisters of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance as nothing more than likeminded blowhards. And these “Shackers,” as they af- fectionately called themselves, smugly claimed that they were the true descendents of the Third Reich.
The three New Jersey recruits didn’t know the how and why of what they were looking for, but they were thrilled when they received orders to secure any evidence of the rumored U-boat discovery, and to make sure that any person who was privy to the find was eliminated.
Luke, Ray, and Wade were the most highly skilled New Jersey members and were grateful that they could finally put all their weekend training to good use.
Luke clipped the phone wires around the back of the building; Wade made his way toward a side window; and Ray approached the front door.
The receptionist who watched him on the security monitor was used to strange characters coming and go- ing. Her job priorities were handing out press releases and disarming the skeptics. The gold digging business at- tracted all kinds, she often thought, and this was, after all, New Jersey. She buzzed him in.
Ray stared at her as he moved inside, a carnivore eye- ing prey.
She stared back, uneasy. “May I help you, sir?”
Ray pulled a handgun with a silencer, aimed for her forehead, and squeezed the trigger. The receptionist fell backwards, her limbs sprawled.
“No thanks. I’m good.”
Ray took a moment to watch her lifeless eyes staring upward with blood oozing from the hole in her forehead. This was the first person Ray had killed for the cause, only his second murder ever, and he had forgotten what a rush it gave him. He made a mental note to remember not to wait so long next time. He was born for this. And he shot the security camera above her desk, just for kicks, before he moved inside.
Luke was a third generation soldier. His grandfather was one of the original founders who built The Shack in New Jersey. His father was a machinist, and alcoholic, who beat him something silly whenever he needed to feel uplifted. The only action his dad had seen was a couple of trips to support Ku Klux Klan ambushes for a cousin in Kentucky. Everyone knew that the violence of those stories was embellished over the years. Luke smiled as he thought about how he was going to rub this day in his father’s face.
He crept into an open office of cubicles and book- shelves where two researchers were quietly working. Be- hind a row of freestanding bookshelves he reached in his pocket for his cell phone to take a little digital memory just for a future show and tell and he accidentally knocked over a book. When the two researchers looked over, they saw eyes peering through a bookshelf. Luke shoved the other books away and fired. The researchers tumbled to the floor with a combined gasp and a thud.
Luke switched his phone to video mode and smiled as he hit the record button.
One of the oceanographers upstairs heard the crash and came around the top of the stairway. When he looked over the banister, Wade was waiting. He fired two shots, and then ducked for cover, his precision and reflexes sharp and automatic.
Wade had done three tours in Iraq. He would have done four if he hadn’t been kicked out for baring the breasts of a female private during a mud-wrestling party at an Army camp. He loathed his life since he’d been back home. He worked at the Newark airport checking bags at night. His days were spent playing video games at The Shack, working out at Gold’s Gym, and frequently napping. He no longer had dreams, at least not any he could remember, and like an addict without a fix, he suffered from acute anxiety about not seeing real action anymore. He longed for the adrenaline rush that used to get him out of bed in the morning.
And so he felt alive again as he watched the oceanog- rapher come crashing down the staircase. He fired two more shots into the man’s head, just to be certain, as old habits die hard, and then he moved on, ready to enjoy more carnage.
Just as Charlie turned off the shower, he heard the fall on the stairs, even though his bathroom door had been closed and his office was set apart from the others. Then everything went silent, unusually so. He haphaz- ardly dried, quickly put on his street clothes, made sure he stuffed his wallet and his black book in his back pock- ets, the two personal effects he only left behind when he was training, and then secured the necklace with the crest around his neck, now the third item he would no longer leave without.
He peered out into the hallway.
It was too quiet. Something was not right.
He walked into the lower level offices. Nothing out of
place. Then he looked behind a table and saw:
Two dead bodies.
Horrified, he moved through the offices, searching
every turn and crevice until he approached the staircase where the oceanographer’s body was sprawled on the steps.
Charlie shifted into stealth survival mode, quietly made his way to one of the gear lockers, grabbed a dive knife, and crept to the next room.
Wade and Luke hunted maniacally through the banks of computers and equipment. But it was Ray who found the U-2008 bell up in Charlie’s office, and moments later, the locked case beside the desk. He smiled instantly be- cause he had worked for a custom locksmith all through high school, a job he had loved because it taught him how to crack similar safe designs built to keep children from their parent’s firearms. It didn’t take him sixty seconds to open this lock.
The Shackers’ orders were specific. They were told to find a nautical GPS and not to come back without it.
And there it was.
Ray moved into the computer room where Luke and Wade were searching and excitedly waved the nautical GPS. “I got it!”
Luke grabbed the device and looked it over. “You’re shitting me.”
“Let me see.” Wade tossed aside a computer he was searching through and went to join the other two, but a voice stopped him.
The three Shackers turned to see Charlie pointing an air-powered speargun. “Set it down on the table and drop your guns.”
Wade almost laughed. He had been jumped, fired at, and held up by insurgents with much more firepower, and hatred. He wasn’t about to allow this freakin’ frogman get in his way. As Luke and Ray dropped their weapons, Wade drew and fired.
Charlie dove for cover behind the shelving unit and crawled into the gear room to hide behind a rack of wet suits.
Ray grabbed the bell and the GPS from Wade and packed them into the empty pack he had strapped over his shoulder. “Fuck’m, we got what we came for.”
“Orders were to leave nobody alive,” Wade objected. “Move it.”
Wade and Luke stormed into the gear room with their guns poised; Ray took his time, but trailed right behind.
They saw no one, but heard Charlie’s voice: “What the hell do you want?”
Wade put his finger to his lips so that Luke and Wade wouldn’t open their traps, then stalked slowly toward the direction of the voice. “Same thing as you.”
There was a long silence as Wade searched behind the racks of wetsuits, and then Charlie dropped down from the storage shelves, knocked the gun out of Wade’s hand and slammed him to the floor.
Wade loved close combat—it was his forté—but Char- lie didn’t give him the chance to show it. He dropped a heavy steel dive tank on Wade’s face, breaking his nose on impact and knocking him unconscious.
Luke and Ray couldn’t fire their guns with Wade so close, so they charged Charlie. He met them with a rapid flurry, shoving his elbow into Ray’s gut and an upper cut into Luke’s chin, and then he tucked and rolled as Luke’s gun fired, a shot that hit the back wall. Charlie reached for a dive knife, sprung to his feet and threw it. It flew past Ray’s ear. Charlie took cover on the floor and crawled to- ward an exit as Ray popped off more shots.
Charlie burst outside into the alley. Someone was al- ready there. Through the sun in his eyes he could only make out a silhouetted figure approaching...
It was Wade, his face covered in blood from the dive tank, his gun in his hand.
There was nothing to duck behind. Everything went still.
And then came a shot.
When Charlie realized he hadn’t been hit, he turned and saw Ariel leaning on the hood of her car, just-fired gun in hand.
Wade collapsed on the alley pavement, a bullet through his heart. He barely had a moment to realize that this was his final battle, or to agonize over the possibility that his father would learn that he had been brought down by a woman, his final humiliation.
“I told you there wouldn’t be much time,” she said. “We have to get out of here!”
The exit door swung open, but before Ray and Luke could scope the perimeter, Ariel fired one more shot, which hit the steel door, and forced them back inside.
“Gimme your keys.” Charlie approached with an open hand. “They’ll try to leave through the front entrance. We’ll cut them off—”
Ariel closed the keys in her fist and gestured to the passenger seat. “There’s a lot more than those two to worry about. Get in.”Charlie got inside the car, weighing his options, try- ing to think like a diver, remaining calm and breathing steadily as Ariel sped the car out of the alley.
“They got the nautical GPS,” Charlie said. “They can find the site.”
“You still have the crest?”
Charlie held the necklace under his shirt. “Yeah.” “And you can find the sub without the GPS, right?” “Right... Watch out!”
A car tore out of another alley in front of them. Ariel
skillfully maneuvered and skid, missing them by inches, then took off in the other direction.
The other car spun around and came after them. Ray was driving. Luke was riding shotgun as he fired a few useless rounds.
“Drive straight, would you?” Luke ordered.
“Your aim is for shit,” was all Ray could come back with.
The chase sent them weaving through the office park and into a residential area. Ariel remained cool as a cu- cumber as she turned onto a lawn and through several backyards, like an obstacle course she knew well. She picked up their conversation where she left off, just like she did with her bi-weekly lectures: “Just because they can get to the U-boat doesn’t mean they can get inside. The key isn’t easy to find and it’s not in America.”
“The key? I thought you said there was a code,” Char- lie said. “Is it a key or a code?”
“I’ll explain everything, as long as we’re partners in this.” She turned onto another street, and then glanced back to be sure she’d lost their pursuers. “Are we part- ners?”
“I haven’t had the best luck with partners.”
“Maybe you should move on to something else then. Without the key, you’ll never get inside.”
“I don’t give up until I have all the answers.”
“That’s why we’re a perfect fit.”
She knew she had him; he knew he didn’t have a choice.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
She turned onto the entrance ramp to the Turnpike.
“Just like that, without any tickets, passports, or lug-
“Just like that.”
She stepped on the gas and headed for John F. Ken-
nedy International Airport.
Police surrounded the Gold Diggers Exploration, Inc. office park, and the press besieged them. Be- hind the yellow tape securing the crime scene, cu- rious onlookers were aghast as paramedics carried bodies away. In the center of the pandemonium, Simon Bryant, on his first field assignment, was getting a complete up- date from Detective Bradley Frankel, a gruff and agitated investigator who knew he was being pushed aside when the FBI had showed up, and now felt entirely worthless repeating all his discovery to the CIA man while the local press pointed their cameras.
“Everyone was shot with a forty-five,” Detective Fran- kel reported as he pointed down the alley. “And down there, we found fresh bloodstains that matched another puddle inside, but that body is gone. Obviously the blood of one of the killers.”
“Obviously.” Simon Bryant agreed, his mind already considering a few other likely possibilities. “Motive?” “Isn’t that why you’re here, and the FBI is inside?”
“I came here to find the location of a dive site these people excavated a few days ago. Apparently they found a military craft.”
“Wouldn’t that be a Navy issue then?”
Simon Bryant didn’t want to be one of those spooks who emasculated the local guys just because they could, so he checked his tone. “You’re absolutely right, Detec- tive. Normally that would be the case. But we could be dealing with a national and international security issue, especially now that these wreck divers were murdered.”
“Sometimes civilians dig up wrecks that belong to oth- er countries and we have to get involved to prevent the situation from escalating. Ownership is often debatable, if you know what I mean.”
“Then there must be something of great value inside this military craft”.
“Or something very dangerous.”
The detective appreciated the CIA man’s inclusive tact, not brushing him off like most feds usually do, and decided to make the transfer of authority as easy for him as possible. “We searched the offices before the FBI took over. These divers go to great efforts to make sure the locations of their dive sites are kept secret. Their nautical computers, including their robotic equipment, have all been dismantled. From what I’m told, the only record of the last excavation would be on a small nautical GPS, or in their memories, and we found neither. Every employ- ee who came to work is dead. Everyone except Charlie Rocklin, that is. He’s one of the partners at this outfit.”
Simon Bryant searched his own notes on Charlie. He had run a digital probe, which reviewed his scholastic achievements, competitive swimming and diving stats, former employment, tax returns, credit history, spending habits, etc.
“Charlie Rocklin doesn’t own a forty-five, at least nothing that’s been registered,” Simon Bryant confirmed. “And he’s not a suspect as far as we’re concerned,” De- tective Frankel added. “There was a struggle and some of his blood was spilled inside. The only vehicle registered
in his name is sitting in that parking lot outside.”
“So either someone nabbed him or he’s running,” Simon Bryant concluded.
“Sounds about right. Do you want to talk to the FBI
“That would be much appreciated.”
And the detective showed Simon Bryant inside per-
sonally.The JFK international ticketing gate was jammed with
its typical midday commotion.
Ariel and Charlie watched the unusually long line for
Czech Airlines inch along from a corner booth of a con- course bar. A waitress dropped off two burgers and Ariel hungrily took a big bite.
“Mmmm... I’m famished.”
Charlie pushed his plate aside and tried to get a look at the departing flight schedule on the wall. “Should I as- sume you already bought tickets?”
“Not exactly. But we’re taken care of.” 69
“What do you mean? How?”
“Eat your burger. It’s not bad. Probably better than what we’re going to get on the plane.”
Charlie indulged, then looked around at the nearby tables to be sure no one could hear their conversation.
“Okay. So why Prague?”
“At the end of the sixteenth century, Prague was the center of occultism,” Ariel began to explain, as promised. “Rudolph II employed hundreds of alchemists and char- latans in the hope of discovering the formula to convert base into gold.”
“A pipe dream,” Charlie piped in.
“That was the conventional thought. But for centuries, they never stopped trying. And then, toward the end of World War II, Hitler poured every resource he had into an alchemy lab. He had top chemists working around the clock to figure out how to turn scrap into gold.”
“I know, right?” Ariel whispered with wide eyes, un- able to conceal her excitement. After years of withhold- ing this knowledge, she was anxious to disgorge.
“Hitler believed he could save the Axis from defeat by manufacturing gold?”
“If he could manufacture gold, he could do anything he wanted. Think about it.”
“What happened to this alchemy lab?”
“Like most of Hitler’s secret experiments, it was de- stroyed by the time the Americans hit Normandy. He attempted to leave as little evidence behind as possible before he escaped.”
“Before he escaped...? You’re not subscribing to those conspiracy theories – that he escaped – are you?”
“The most accepted belief is that on April 30, 1945 he committed suicide by gunshot and cyanide poisoning. But the lack of evidence...some verification would have, should have, survived if he had really killed himself.”
“You’re presuming that he took off for greener pas- tures with the formula to alchemy...in a U-boat?”
“I know that unearthing history’s dark little unknowns is your thing, so why do I detect so much doubt in your voice?”
“What you’re suggesting is pretty ‘out there’, don’t you think?”
“I think you should hear all the facts before you write me off.”
“I’ve already told you about the eight escape subs built for him and his highest officials,” she continued. “They were all camouflaged, each to enter different corners of the world, to maximize their potential for survival. And the people in the alchemist lab knew about this plan be- cause one of them had to deliver the formula to the es- cape subs. And I have a theory—”
Ariel paused to wave her hand at a waiter across the room, indicating that she was ready for the check. But this wasn’t the waiter who had brought their food, and he acknowledged with an odd, conspiratorial nod.
“Go on,” Charlie said. “Your theory?”
“I think that person who was ordered to bring the for- mula to the escape subs snuck into the engine rooms and rewired some of the functions so that that the gyroscopic steering mechanisms would malfunction, turn the subs downward, and drive them into the sea floor.”
“You think this person rigged all the U-boats to self- destruct?”
“Yes. The reason all of them sank in route. The chem- ists in the alchemist lab couldn’t have wanted their for- mula to survive with the Nazis.”
“Quite a sacrifice for a scientist,” Charlie opined. “They usually put their discoveries above everything else. You would think they’d figure out a way for the formula to survive, even if the Nazis didn’t.”
“I have given that a lot of thought, about the painful conflict that the alchemists must have suffered. On the one hand, they could never allow Hitler and his highest officials to run off with the recipe for alchemy and manu- facture unlimited gold. But on the other hand, nothing was more difficult for scientists than to destroy something they had worked on their entire lives, especially a process attempted for hundreds of years and assumed to be un- feasible. But ultimate power in the hands of the most evil man in the world...I don’t think they had a choice.”
“Why the key then?” Charlie asked. “You said there was a key to get inside. If they wanted to protect the world from power mongers, then why take a chance? Who was the key for?”
“Good question. All I know is that the crest you found is a trademark the alchemists used when they were hid- ing something during the war. That’s how they kept their formulas and equations safe. And the symbol on your crest indicates there was something enigmatic to be used later. The only way we’ll find out what they intended is to go back to the source.”
The waiter Ariel had signaled dropped a billfold on their table and then exited the restaurant, disappearing into the crowded concourse. Ariel opened it up, pulled out one passport with Charlie’s picture and the name “John Gold,” and another false passport with her photo and the name “Ely Orlis,” as well as two airline tickets to Prague.
Charlie checked them out. As far as he could tell, they looked valid. “How the hell did you do this?”
“An old employer has connections.”
Before Charlie could inquire further, the real waiter approached. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Just a check,” Ariel answered. “We have a flight to catch.”
CIA Director Richard Goss was at the head of the conference table flanked by Simon Bryant and Senior Agent Jay Martin, another fastidious, eager operative. This one was brought up from the Special Activities Division and was being groomed for high-level damage control situa- tions. At the other end of the table sat their anticipated guest, Germany’s vice-chancellor, Michael Freund.
“As all of you are well aware, Mr. Director, any war vessel is to be returned to its country of origin,” Freund declared. “International law requires you to comply. I’m only here as a formality.”
Simon Bryant was the first to jump in. “Frankly, Mr. Freund, the Atlantic Ocean is an awfully large body of water and we don’t have the foggiest idea where this wreck is, let alone what it is.”
Goss tried to hold back a smile, proud of his deputy’s gumption.
Freund made a mental note to have a full report about this Simon Bryant on his desk in the morning, and, if and when this all played out in his favor, to make sure this ill- bred poseur paid the price for his rudeness.
“Be that as it may,” Freund continued, “the American divers that found the site can surely provide the location.” “Surely you’ve been informed,” Simon Bryant re-
sponded, “they’re all dead.”
“Not all,” Freund corrected. “The diver who found
the wreck is still missing.”
“We are certainly looking into the matter,” Jay Martin
said as if he were reading from a public relations hand- book. “And we will certainly inform you once we have further assessed the situation.”
Freund began to wonder if the Americans had some- how known about the 2000 series U-boats all along, and if they were instigating a game of chess, or a game of wills, or ultimately a game of war, he needed to be very cautious with his next move.
“I see. Then the next phase of your investigation would undoubtedly be an analysis of artifacts brought up from our submarine. I would like to see them in the morning, so I can help identify them.”
“What makes you so sure that this submarine is Ger- man in the first place?” Goss asked.
“There are records.”
The CIA men waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.
“Can we see those records?” Goss pressed.
“They’re confidential,” Freund said. “I’m sure you un- derstand, Mr. Goss, more than anyone, we have our rea- sons. And I’m certain your Navy wouldn’t want the em- barrassment of going public with the fact that we were so close to your shores, that so many lives were in danger.”
“That’s very thoughtful, Mr. Freund, but like it or not, we won the war, and there’s nothing we find embarrassing about the way things turned out.”
“Are you saying that you are disregarding my request?”
“I’m saying that we’re more concerned with the wreck divers who were murdered yesterday than with the sig- nificance of a seventy-year-old Nazi gravesite. If you wish to disclose any information that could help with our in- vestigation, we are happy to listen. Otherwise, we will be following protocol.”
“I wouldn’t take too long,” Freund warned.
Simon Bryant figured he could squeeze in one more question before his boss kicked the vice chancellor out of the building, so he asked point blank: “There isn’t some- thing on that U-boat we should know about, is there, Mr. Freund, something someone would kill for?”
Freund enjoyed watching these men get emotional. It was so easy to push their buttons, and it reminded him how good he was at his job, damn good, and how he deserved a superior position, one that didn’t begin with the word “vice.” So he brought the room back to where he needed them to be and played the procedure card. “All I know is that we owe a proper burial to the German sons who died down there and closure to their families. That’s always been our policy.”
“Understood,” Goss snapped. “And it’s always been our policy not to let a foreign power take away what could be evidence in a murder case. We’ll let you know when the FBI has completed their investigation.”
Jay Martin took his cue and stood up. “I’ll see you out, Mr. Freund.”
Once the German messenger was out the door, Goss looked out the window to assess what that meeting was really about. “I don’t know what the hell he’s hiding, but he’s right about international law. We can’t hold off too long. These kinds of tensions can easily get blown out of proportion.”
“What’s our next move,” Simon Bryant asked.
“Procure security video at every airport, train and bus station, car rental, and bank. I want to find this guy be- fore anybody else does.”
“And I want to know what’s so special about that god- damn rusting scrap at the bottom of the sea.”
Simon Bryant’s first job in the field was escalating fast, a chance to prove himself right out of the gate. The mo- ment he left the CIA Director’s office, he called his wife, and almost giddily told her not to wait up for him for the first time in years.
When they boarded the wide body Boeing 747-400
Jumbo Jet, Charlie was surprised to learn that Ariel’s “old employer with connections” had hooked them up with first class seats on the upper deck. He was surprised, but also pleased, as he stretched out his legs, positioned his pillows and blankets, and ordered their first round of cocktails.
Knowing that professors didn’t ordinarily enjoy such traveling privileges, he correctly assumed that she hadn’t always worked for a university, and he had enough good sense not to ask her about it quite yet. As a matter of fact, they didn’t discuss anything more about U-boats, escape crests, Gold Diggers Exploration, Inc., or dead employ- ees during the entire flight. They leaned back in their tub seats, facing each other, and took this seven-hour am- nesty to relax.
They talked about how they both loved to travel, about things they liked and didn’t like about New York, and about their mutual compulsion to cross-train (Ariel didn’t swim, but she ran ten miles five days a week and did a half hour of calisthenics a day, an old habit she couldn’t shake). Charlie observed that she was as easy to talk to as she was on the eyes. Ariel took note of how genuine and pure his passions were. A few hours and a few drinks later, they both crashed for the remainder of the flight.
Each experienced vivid dreams of the other.
The Charles Bridge was, as always on a sunny spring day like this one, in full bloom, buzzing with artists, tourists, and Dixieland jazz bands filling the ancient statue laden pass. Charlie and Ariel crossed into Prague’s Old Town Square, surrounded by Gothic chapels, ancient cellars, and modern art galleries.
They stopped at a café with outdoor seating for a late breakfast they had hoped would fool their jet lag. They ordered eggs Benedict and eggs Florentine, served with sides of hummus and local sausages, and enjoyed clever coffee specials called “Kiss Me” and “Karamellow.”
Satiated and raring to go, Ariel led them across the square, passing the many gifted street musicians, the gi- ant medieval clock where the Apostles and St. Wenceslas’s horse looked down upon them, and then continued off Mala Strana through narrow, winding cobblestone streets lined with ancient flats. Ariel knew these streets well.“Prague’s houses weren’t given identifying numbers until 1770,” she explained. “Before that, homes were known by allegorical symbols.”
As they passed the many doorways, Charlie observed the aging house signs and symbols, and Ariel continued, trying to avoid a professorial pitch, a habit of her peda- gogy. “The twin suns was the writers’ and artists’ symbol. The white swan and the red lamb signified the occult—” Ariel took out a book of mythological symbols for refer- ence and found a page that displayed an image of a wind- mill with keys as blades. “And this symbol...”
Charlie looked up at the sign above the next door in front of them: A windmill with keys as blades.
“Let me guess,” he played along. “Alchemists?” “Alchemists.”The cramped flat was peppered with mismatched antiques, old furniture, and stacks of books and record al- bums. Josef Maisel was a little man in his late eighties, well manicured, and dressed properly in his usual work attire: black suit, black tie, and crisp white shirt. In a few hours, he would play violin in this evening’s performance at the Municipal House, home to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
Normally he would have fended off any visitors be- fore a concert, especially a request regarding alchemy or alchemists. Most of his life he had either been bullied by thieves or hassled by schemers, theorists and random mountebanks. But when Ariel had called him the day be- fore, he recognized critical differences he couldn’t ignore.
She knew too much about his family history, his father in particular, and she claimed that she possessed something that he hadn’t believed he would ever see in his lifetime: the three-symbol crest. And so he had agreed to meet with her and the nautical archeologist she introduced as her partner.
Josef entered from the kitchen and offered Ariel and Charlie a traditional plate of Pivni syr, chopped onions and dark bread. And even though they just had finished breakfast, Ariel obliged, “Thank you, looks delicious.”
Charlie followed suit. “Looks awesome. Thanks.”
As they snacked, Josef pulled a vinyl from a wall of classics, steadied his shaky hands to place the needle. Mo- zart’s glorious “Soave sia il vento” filled the room and Josef hummed along.
“This is my favorite.”
“It’s beautiful,” Ariel said with a furtive smile. She knew the aria well, one of her mother’s favorites, and she briefly wondered if Josef’s choice in music was on pur- pose, a way of saying that she and Josef shared a connec- tion, and that Charlie was the outsider; but she decided not to find out just yet.
Josef took a seat across from them and reached for the book of symbols Ariel was still holding, her finger still on the image of a windmill with keys as blades.
“May I?” Josef asked.
Ariel handing it over. “Certainly.”
“This house has been handed down in my family for
more than three centuries,” Josef explained as he flipped through her book. “Three centuries of alchemists, if you can imagine that.”
Charlie was fascinated, Ariel expectant, and Josef didn’t want to mislead them so early on. So he added a disclaimer: “But I chose a different path than my father. My passion is my music.”
He picked up his violin and played a few notes. “I have played my entire life. I’ve also served as a professor, just like you, dear. I taught at Charles University for nearly forty years, until a few years ago. Would you like any- thing else to eat?”
“No. Thanks,” Ariel answered for both of them before getting down to business. “When we spoke on the phone, I told you about my research at New York University, and that I’ve come across your family name many times. I’ve learned quite a bit about your father’s work in the alche- mist lab.”
“I was quite young when he died.”
Josef reflected back to Theresienstadt, the Czech death camp at Terezin, and the indelible memory he could never erase:
Prisoners labor in sweatshops unfit for rats, guards berating them.
Young Josef works among a group of children who are laying bricks. When another prisoner comes by with packs of cigarettes for the guards, a common exchange for favors, Josef takes the opportunity to sneak away while they’re distracted.
He knows his way through a maze of bunkers, cham- bers and passageways where he’s undetected.
Finally, he makes his way to a concrete building with no windows, save for the ones leading to the basement with steel bars. He peeks inside and finds his father working in a lab with others, all wearing striped prison uniforms un- der long lab coats; but these workers are better fed, unlike the walking skeletons young Josef had sneaked away from.
His father sees Josef, brightens, and excuses himself from the others. His father hands him a book entitled “Golem.” They exchange a tête-à-tête.
SS officers storm in and begin rounding up the others.
Josef’s father turns to face them.
One of the officers grabs Frederick Maisel and takes him away.
It is the last time Josef ever sees his father.
“My father was their lead chemist,” Josef continued. “He was brilliant. And he was from a long line of alche- mists. But what used to be occult, turned into a science, and that’s what my father was, a scientist, first and fore- most. His religion was science. His heart and soul were science. And he was quite forthright about his beliefs in regard to the power of alchemy.”
“Some believe that alchemy is a faith,” Ariel said. “And many still practice it today.”
“Like a religion?” Charlie asked. 82
The Alchemist Agenda
“There are many traditions and rituals that date back to antiquity,” Josef answered, “including Hermetic prin- ciples and practices.”
“Like the philosopher’s stone,” Ariel added.
“That’s right,” Josef agreed.
“What’s a philosopher’s stone?” Charlie asked.
“An emerald that possesses the elixir of life, eternal
youth and immortality,” Ariel answered.
Charlie rolled his eyes. “Seriously?”
She smiled almost defensively. “Like I said, it’s a faith.” “Maybe it’s supposed to be a metaphor,” Charlie sug-
“Alchemists had many personal legends,” Josef chimed
in, “one being that the formula is so simple, it was written on the surface of a very special emerald, yet so complex that it contained the elixir of life, the soul of the world. Do you remember the story of Golem?”
Charlie tried to make a joke: “From the Lord of the Rings movies?”
It didn’t play.
“Well I don’t know about that one,” Josef said with a hard-to-read, shifty grimace as he glanced up at a floor to ceiling bookshelf. “Let me show you something.”
And then he took his time to slide the wall back, re- vealing another layer of bookshelves, these much older. Ariel and Charlie scanned volumes of Gnostic editions, Poemandres, Ammonius Saccas, as well as scattered Her- metical objects and mystical sculptures. They glanced at each other, both acknowledging an empty casing in front of an occult-looking altar; it looked like a large precious stone once resided there, and a sign above read: “The treasure is buried where it began, but the journey will take us to our destiny.”
Josef reached for his aging copy of “Golem,” slid the front bookshelf back in place, and then shuffled back to his turntable to flip the record over as he explained:
“Golem was a story that came out of our ghettos many years ago. A creature made of clay was built to protect the village. And it did, until it started having emotions, that is. Before long, it thought it was human, wanting more, taking what belonged to others, even killing. Without compassion for others, it enjoyed being superior and abused its power. So it had to be destroyed.”
“Like Frankenstein?” This time Charlie didn’t mean to be joking.
Josef had heard that analogy before. “Plagiarized non- sense.”
Ariel tried to understand the connection. “Your father believed that alchemist’s gold was like Golem?”
“In a way, yes,” Josef explained. “He believed that gold, like Golem, could give people unbridled power, for better or for worse. When it came to power, he always said there were only two kinds of people in this world: those who have it and those who try to take it away. That is naked human nature. And the alchemists believed that was the inherent conflict, the ultimate challenge. My fa- ther, being a scientist, as well as an alchemist, believed that discovery was the only way humans could evolve. And evolution only occurred when people were ready to handle something new.”
He could see he was losing them and so he turned his attention to the proverbial elephant in the room. “Speak- ing of which, my dear, you had mentioned on the phone that you were in possession of a key?”
Ariel turned to Charlie. “Show him.”
Charlie took off the necklace and held up the crest. Josef nodded knowingly, and Ariel couldn’t detect if his lack of surprise was just an act, an ability to hide his emo- tions learned long ago by necessity, or if her instincts for coming here were off base in the first place.
“Did your father explain any of this?” Ariel asked.
Josef didn’t answer her right away. He just reached for the crest, “May I?”
Charlie handed it to him, and the old man flipped it back and forth, running his fingers over and over the fine engravings, like a jeweler authenticating a priceless stone. He then held it up with the windmill with keys as blades facing Ariel, “This is the symbol for alchemists, like the one on my door—”
“And the eagle in the mountains?” Ariel asked.
“That symbol is rather infamous here in Prague. It’s the Pilsner Pikantní logo.”
Charlie had spent enough time in Jersey bars to recog- nize that name. “Pilsner Pikantní...the beer?”
“One of our oldest breweries, located in Plzen,” Josef confirmed.
Ariel knew the name from another source. “Any rela- tion to R. H. Pikantní?”
“Yes,” Josef said. “He was the brew-master years ago. His nephew, Mikhail Pikantní, runs the place now. There were three lead chemists in the alchemy lab, each were responsible for the three different groups that carried out the research. And these three chemists were very close. They shared everything, communicated in code, met in secret, and called themselves ‘The Alchemist Club.’ My father was one and R. H. Pikantní was another...”
“And the third was a woman by the name of Clara Molnar,” Ariel jumped in. “This third symbol, this old- style, three-pronged key, must have something to do with her.”
Charlie took the necklace back and looked it over once again. “Maybe she’s also here in Prague?”
Josef waited to see if Ariel knew, but she didn’t answer, so he turned to Charlie and explained. “She was killed in the camps along with the others.”
“What about her descendants?” Charlie asked. “Did anyone survive her, someone she might have passed on any of the Alchemist Club’s secrets or desires to?”
“Clara Molnar’s family had all been killed early in the war. And she wasn’t married. But she did have a daughter in the camps who couldn’t have been more than two or three years old at the end of the war.”
“Did you know who the father was?” Ariel had to ask.
Josef shook his head.
Charlie suggested what Ariel was thinking: “Maybe it
was R.H. Pikantní, or your father.”
Josef looked pensive. “That had often crossed my
“Do you know what happened to the girl? Ariel asked.
“Most orphaned children were adopted by relatives, family friends, or various organizations, then moved to safer havens to start a new life, most likely changing their names to their new caretakers—”
The needle on the record began skipping. Josef got up and replaced “Soave sia il vento” with a Mozart violin concerto, No. 4 in D Major.
“Well, you must know what happened to R. H. Pi- kantní’s nephew,” Charlie insinuated, “since you both live here...?”
Josef laughed. “Prague is not so small,but yes, actually, I do know Mikhail.”
“Then you have discussed this with him.” Ariel said.
“Until 1989 Prague was a communist state. So we didn’t discuss such things, even when the war was long over.”
Ariel looked at him skeptically. “Never?”
“We never talked about it, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t discuss it. There are many ways to communicate without talking.”
“You communicated in code, like The Alchemist Club?” Charlie asked.
Josef nodded, but didn’t elaborate.
Ariel sensed that Josef was running out of steam, or drifting off, so she tried to solicit what she could: “Can you tell us anything else about this crest? Do you know what these indentations are for?”
Josef held the crest so they could both see the details. “This here is a trademark the alchemists used to keep something safe amongst themselves.”
He made his way to the front door. For a moment, Charlie and Ariel thought he was getting ready to see them out, but he pulled a three-pronged key from the keyhole with indents that looked similar to those on the crest, and used it to demonstrate. “These three separate pieces are needed to make this key work. It was a com- mon security measure used by generations of alchemists.” Josef turned his attention back to the necklace, “Each of these symbols on your crest has an indentation, and a dif- ferent key fits into each one. Three more pieces are re- quired to make this key whole.”
Josef then opened the aging copy of “Golem,” the same book he was holding when his father was taken away, and revealed a long series of handwritten letters and numbers. “The alchemists also used chemistry as a language.”
“And you know this language?” Ariel asked.
“My father instructed me what to do in case—”
“In case of what?” Charlie pressed.
“In case this day came.”
Josef put the book in Ariel’s hand and gave the crest
back to Charlie. “I’ll contact Mikhail Pikantní at the brewery and inform him that you are coming. Take this book to him. He’ll know how to read the code. He will know what to do.”A lone dive boat rocked between the massive, swell-
ing waves of the Atlantic. Shackers Ray, Luke and other crew of the same ilk watched hopefully over the port side, vainly trying to see into the murky depths.
Underwater, a dozen divers circled above the shadowy U-boat, close enough to make it out in the 20-foot vis- ibility—unusually good for these northern waters—but far enough away to hope that their deaths wouldn’t be certain with any sudden or bungled move. The legend not only proclaimed the herculean secrets concealed be- low, but also warned that retrieving them would not be an easy task.
An explosive device was lowered down from the dive boat by enormous downriggers. One of the divers mo- tioned to the others, and they all swam away. Once it ap- peared that they were at a safe enough distance, the diver pushed a release, and there was a small explosion.
The detonation was intended to make an entryway without destroying any of the gifts they were certain awaited them inside, but disappointment washed over the Shackers when they realized that their firepower was too weak. So the diver holding the trigger checked his bomb calorimeter, the strong, sealed pod used to measure the heat of combustion, and then began to make adjustments.
But before he could increase the discharge for their next attempt, a rumbling sound below distracted him. His little explosion had triggered something inside the U-boat, and on its top, a gyroscopic steering mechanism turned slowly toward the divers, as if it could see (or sense) them.
A black cloud erupted from the scopes and a metallic object shot out toward them. The divers thrashed wildly. No panicking was the cardinal rule in the scuba world, but animal instincts have their own set of guidelines, and staying calm when being fired at was not one of them.
The object struck a diver in his midsection; its thrust drilling a hollowed-out gooey gap the size of a bowling ball through his gut. The others just watched on, stunned by their most certain destiny. The struck frogman’s en- tire body imploded, and a ray of particles burst out in all directions, clearing right through the others’ dive-suited bodies, leaving nothing but a monolithic mass of blood and corpuscles.
Then another metallic object shot out of the scope and headed toward the boat directly above them.
When it made contact, the explosion above water bellowed with a force ten times the one that had roiled below. The entire dive boat with Ray, Luke and their compatriots erupted, bodies surged through the blaze, and charred fragments evanesced into the boiling waters, leaving nothing but carbon black debris as the only evi- dence that they ever existed.
Forty miles north of Bilbao, Spain, an aging light-
house overlooked a sequestered harbor with a maze of intracoastal waterways shaped like one of Gaudi’s great fluid, wavy works. It had been a restricted area since the 1950’s, and the locals had always assumed it to be a mili- tary nuclear testing area, but that was the rumor its pri- vate owners had perpetuated for three generations, to guarantee their privacy.
Five men dismounted a powerboat docked near the foot of the cliff and climbed the steep stairs leading to an underwater tunnel system that connected into the cen- tral office. Music of the outlawed neo-Nazi band Landser pumped throughout, lyrics of pure hatred.
The man they called Munchen was as acrimonious as ever, wearing his wrath on his sleeve, as well as all over his body. Tattooed swastikas, skulls and horrific images covered him from head to toe. His shaved head and mul- tiple piercings gave away his allegiances like a flashing billboard, despite the party’s pledge of secrecy, privacy, and ultimately, retribution.
Hengst, second in command, was decorated in the same vein—a slightly younger version, clearly the subor- dinate, but just as fierce.
They moved through a secured tunnel system leading to a sub aquatic metropolis beneath the idle harbor. In an ironclad appointment, they approached a team of war- riors seated in classroom-like setting. Munchen referred to a projected architectural CAD rendering, a skeletal view of a U-boat, and a blown up copy of the nautical GPS map of the site beside it: the gifts bequeathed from Wade, Luke and Ray’s final mission.
“They were all wasted in the explosion,” Munchen reported, referring to their unfortunate New Jersey co- horts. “But the good news is that another team just came back from reconnaissance and confirmed the U-boat was unharmed.”
An alarm beeped on a computer at Hengst’s desk and he went over to retrieve an incoming message. “The Shackers in New York purloined a copy of airport security video,” he announced, “and they tagged the one that got away.”
He turned his computer around to show the others a short clip that looped over and over of Charlie and Ariel in line at the ticket counter at JFK airport. Hengst froze the tape and zoomed in on a close shot of Charlie. “This is Charlie Rocklin. He’s a nautical archeologist and part- ner of Gold Digger Exploration, Inc., the company that located the U-boat. But he used a passport with the name John Gold.”
“Gold?” Munchen spewed. “Is that supposed to be funny?”
Hengst just shrugged.
“And who’s the bitch?” Munchen spewed.
Hengst angled the view toward Ariel and honed in
close; her face pixilated as it filled the screen. A box in box displayed her airline ticket, the passport she used, and search engine review. “Passport says Ely Orlis. But we have to assume that she also used an alias. Her look- ups show no affiliations. Cross-referencing her picture showed no past relations to the diver. And she’s not an employee or client of Gold Diggers Exploration.”
“So we know nothing about her?”
“We know they got on a Czech Airline flight from New York to Prague.”
Munchen knew his next move, should their investiga- tion come up short, which it looked like it had. He had already taken orders from above. But since he preferred to make his subordinates think that he was in charge, he delivered every comment like it was one of his original thoughts, as people who have very few often do. “Since they are now in our backyard, we must find them and learn what they know, before the CIA does.”
They were all wondering the same thing, but Hengst was the only one with enough moxie to state the obvious out loud. “Why would they come to Europe instead of going back to the dive site?”
“Maybe they had already known what our brothers just learned the hard way,” Munchen repeated what he was told earlier, “The U-boat was built to destroy anybody who tried to get inside, in case it were sunk or captured.”
Hengst processed this aloud. “They’re not worried about anyone beating them to the punch then. But they used false names to get out of the country. So they know they’ll be tracked? Why? What are they hiding? These two immediately fled to Prague. There must be a rea- son. There must be something or someone in Prague that knows a way to get inside.”
“Yes,” Munchen agreed. “And we cannot let these two figure out how to get inside first. Das ist unser Erbschaft!
(This is our legacy!)
This aroused the other soldiers. They had heard this mantra many times. And they responded in unison, “Das ist unser Schicksal!”
(This is our destiny!)
Munchen turned to Hengst and gave the final orders of the day: “We have plenty of brothers in Prague. It’s time to call them up for duty.”
“Yes, Munchen,” Hengst obediently replied. “I will in- form them immediately.”
The Metro Station was abuzz with the usual rush hour
crowd. A thunderous train flashed past Ariel and Charlie who were standing close together on the platform in or- der to keep their conversation cloistered.
“You know, Josef’s got a point,” Charlie considered. “The idea of alchemy, something from nothing—the na- ture of it begs for an abuse of power.”
“Absolutely!” Ariel agreed.
“Everybody wants power but nobody can handle it.” Ariel smiled. “Coming from an American, that’s rich.” As Charlie leaned over, searching for an approaching
train, he coolly asked, “Who do you work for, Ariel?” “All you need to know is that we want the same thing.
And hopefully no one else will die in the process.”
“And you still want me to buy that it’s only the truth
that you’re looking for?”
“I’m sorry that your last partner took off and left skid
marks on your trust gene, but I haven’t lied to you about anything.”
“You haven’t told me very much either.”
The commuters began to ready themselves on the platform as the low rumble of the approaching train was building. Ariel scoped the crowd and noticed a small group of rough-looking tattooed toughs loitering. As a precaution, she held Charlie’s arm and led him toward a less busy area, just to make sure the ruffians weren’t fol- lowing them.
“You want me to open up, don’t you? Ariel asked Charlie.“I’d like to know a little more about you, yes. Give me some details.”
“Okay. I can’t stand Pivni syr, that oniony thing Josef served us, but I tasted it to be polite. I’m allergic to cats. I cannot swim. I’m incredibly hydrophobic, actually, and yet my favorite color is blue, the shade of the Tyrrhenian Sea, just like your eyes.” She smiled playfully. “How’s that?”
“It’s a start.”
“You, on the other hand,” she continued, “are quite comfortable in water, aren’t you? Broke all kinds of re- cords in high school and college. You’ve also made head- lines during some of your excavations. You found one of Her Majesty’s lost ships in some dark cave in the Indian Ocean that was so deep even your underwater robots couldn’t get to it. And I believe there was an English ship sitting at the bottom of the South Atlantic by the name of the Royal Charlotte, thought to be untouchable until you took the plunge. But your most impressive discovery turned into your biggest disappointment when you found a collection of the oldest known biblical texts in a cave on the coast of the Red Sea, perfectly preserved, and if they had been authenticated, you could have resolved some religious controversies all over the world. But they didn’t come back with you on your excursion, did they?”
Charlie felt a pang in his chest as he was reminded of what the Nautical Archaeology Journal often referred to as The Codex Sinaiticus Debacle.
“A few weeks later,” Ariel added, “you met Sterling Ray who wanted to make all your maritime dreams come true. But that situation didn’t turn out any better, did it?”
Charlie didn’t like how the truth sounded out loud; he didn’t appreciate the fact that she knew so much more about him than he did of her; and he certainly did not fancy her turning this around on him.
“More random information they feed professors at NYU?” he seethed.
“I tend to Google cute guys after I meet them,” she said. “Dangerous habit, I know. But I didn’t bring you with me because I need you to fetch a bunch of gold locked up in a U-boat. If you stayed in the States, you’d be dead by now.”
“Who were those guys that came to my office?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“They killed people close to me, people I worked with
and care very much about. If you know anything, any- thing at all, I need to know.”
“Why? What would you do about it?”
They both turned as the train screeched to a stop in front of them. As they waited for the doors to open, Ariel searched to see where the tattooed ruffians were, but the crowd was too dense. Once they boarded the train, Ariel stood close to Charlie’s ear and continued.
“Charlie, we’re doing everything we can right now by following the key. Whoever killed your friends are after one thing: the U-boat. They took your GPS and tried to kill everyone who might know where the sub is. But no one’s getting into the sub without the key.”“And once we have the key...?”
“One step at a time.”
She cut him off before he could object to her reti-
cence. “You run into the same problem with any of your shipwrecks, don’t you? A lot of people think something from the past is rightfully theirs. And what’s really fair? Does a long lost treasure belong to the country it came from? Is it yours for finding it in the middle of the ocean? Or should it go to victims or their families? What’s fair? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.”
The train departed with a jolt. Ariel braced herself by holding onto Charlie’s waist, and they were close enough for her to see the frustration on his face, and the sadness welling up in his eyes.
“Do you have any idea who killed them?” he asked.
“No. But I do know that we read about hate groups and terrorists every day. And the only thing that allows them to flourish so easily is their access to money. Some- body, or some group, is funding them.”
Ariel caught a glimpse of the ruffians entering their train car. One of them noticed Ariel and nudged one of his cohorts. She was about to say something to Charlie, but they took seats and seemed to be minding their own business. So she continued:
“Now imagine if any of them had unlimited financing, enough to build an army, enough to do some real dam- age. That’s why we have to get this key before they do.”
“An army? We’re only talking about a ship with a lot of gold here.” Charlie looked hard into her vexing, pierc- ing green eyes. “Aren’t we?”
The taxi pulled up to the main Pilsner Pikantní security gate. The first thing Charlie noticed was the enormous statue above the brewery sign at the top of the main building: A magisterial eagle with a large hooked beak, strong muscular legs, and power- ful talons, poised in front of a stratum of snow peaked mountains, looking as if it were ready to tear flesh from his prey.
“Another telling image,” Charlie said. “No doubt a reminder of the kinship they share with other great coats of arms.”
“Absolutely,” Ariel agreed. “And there’s something else. Look at the circle that follows the Pilsner Pikantní sign.”
Charlie studied the insignia. “Looks like a man mixing a brew.”
“Right. And it’s encircled with geometric shapes.” “Must be a trade mark or copyright.”
“Maybe. But it reminds me of an image from Europe’s Age of Enlightenment.” Ariel turned to an earmarked page in her book of mythological symbols. “Here. The elixir of immortality. This is from a period when medi- cine men experimented with all kinds of potions, claim- ing they could cure terminal diseases, even concoct the secret to eternal life.”
“I read somewhere that the Pikantní family discove- red the infamous elixer that could cure sober behavior,” Charlie joked.
Ariel laughed as she cracked the back window and leaned out. “Mikhail Pikantní is expecting us.”
The security guard checked his list. “Names and ID’s, please?”
She handed over their fake passports. “Ely Orlis and John Gold.”
The guard confirmed them, and handed them a pass. “Second entrance on right.”
As they walked into the main building, another taxicab pulled up around the corner and parked in the shadows. Inside, the thugs Ariel had spied on the train watched them from the back seat. One of them ordered their driv- er in Czech, “Cekat dal.” (Wait there).
The taxi driver shrugged. “Vas penize.” (It’s your money).
The commanding officer stood on the bridge of the
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter “Sherman” as they approached the approximate location of the U-boat. He wasn’t sure what exactly he saw floating on the surface up ahead, so he picked up a handset and ordered: “Prepare to lower boats.”
A hundred feet or so closer he saw the detritus floating on the surface where the dive boat had been annihilated. He turned to the other officers behind him. “Lower
away. Commence searching for survivors.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” the first officer responded as he lifted
his binoculars. After a quick look, his face soured and he turned to his commanding officer. “There aren’t any sur- vivors, sir. Just dead bodies and blown-up ship parts.”
The commanding officer grabbed the binoculars and took a look for himself. The devastation was obvious. “Send a report. This one’s going upstairs. Way upstairs.”
The brewery had very few hourly employees working
at this late hour, and nearly all the executives had already gone home, but Mikhail Pikantní still didn’t risk discuss- ing this matter in the open hallways. He led Ariel and Charlie into a laboratory that overlooked one of the pro- duction lines, and to secure their privacy, he locked the door behind them.
Mikhail was a distinguished man with a thick mane of silver hair. He had a thin, wiry frame with rigid posture, and the first thing he did when they were all alone was hug Ariel like a long lost relative.
“You are just as lovely as Josef had said.”
“Thank you,” Ariel said with poise, in a way only someone with a lifetime of gushing compliments could do.
Ariel’s ability to withdraw and her evasiveness made Charlie uneasy from the start; nontransparent partners always made him ill at ease. But she was different. Com- pletely different. For one, the more they pursued this enigmatic puzzle together, the more he appreciated her process. People from his past that fronted, who offered too much information too soon, or wore their heart on their sleeve, usually turned out to be the opposite of what they professed to be. And two, even though Charlie was strongly attracted to Ariel from the moment he laid eyes on her, the more time he spent with her, the more pow- erful the attraction became—not the usual order he had experienced in the past.
He wasn’t yet sure how he felt about this latter co- nundrum. He didn’t want to cloud his judgment with the confusing nature of desire. But he also knew that the rea- son desire is confusing is because, in its purest form, it is too powerful to control; and he was well aware of his relationship with control, especially in prior romances. So he made a conscious note to ride this wave, to let her drive a little more, and be open to where it (or she) would take him.
Mikhail had been on pins and needles since he had received Josef Meisel’s phone call earlier, and now that he was alone with the visitors, he reached out his hand excit- edly. “May I see it?”
Charlie took the chain with the crest off his neck and handed it to him. Mikhail looked it over carefully and then put it under a magnifying glass. “You found this on the Captain’s corpse, no?”
This took Charlie by surprise. “How did you know that?”
“The Captain holds the key,” Ariel answered.
“The Captain always holds the key,” Mikhail con- firmed as he smiled at Ariel. “I understand that you teach World War Two escape tactics at New York University?”
“I did my thesis on escape tactics,” she answered. “But I teach more general World War Two history, with some focus on military strategies.”
“Wonderful.” Josef said. And then his smile quickly faded. “Now where is Josef’s Golem?”
“Here you go.” Ariel handed Mikhail the book.
He opened the front cover and glanced over the series of letters and numbers.
“Well, what do you think?” Charlie asked.
“Give me a moment, please.” Mikhail turned his back to them as he examined the fine engravings on the crest, running his finger over and over, just like Josef had.
“I’ve researched the alchemist agenda for years,” Ariel reiterated in the same way she had first explained to Josef. “And I’ve learned about your uncle, R. H. Pikantní.”
Mikhail didn’t seem to hear what she was saying, still enamored with the crest. “Do you know about these sym- bols?”
“A flucht der helmbusch,” she answered. “I know that it’s an escape crest.”
“And what else do you know about my uncle?”
He had heard every word she was saying, Ariel real- ized. “He was an accomplished chemist and one of The Alchemist Club. But, of course, they were a secretive group, so my knowledge is limited.”
“My uncle had no children,” Mikhail explained. “He had one brother, my father, and one sister, my aunt. They were all separated in the camps, but always knew where each other were. And before my uncle was killed, he somehow got a will executed and secured. He made sure that his sister would be taken care of financially if she sur- vived the war, which she did. And he made sure that my father would inherit this brewery. When my father died, it was passed on to me. And with this brewery, I had also inherited my uncle’s legacy. Do you follow?”
“I believe so, yes,” Ariel assured him.
And then the pedigree entrusted to Mikhail flashed in his mind, back to Theresienstadt labor camp, the story that had been presented to him through his uncle’s will— the tale about The Alchemist Club, the spring of 1945, and their end of days:
R. H. Pikantní, Mikhail’s uncle, is in a heated discus- sion with Frederick Maisel and another woman, as they frantically pack up and hide alchemy data throughout a damp, concrete lab.
“Wir mƒssen ein Abkommen machen.” (We must make a pact.), R. H. Pikantní demands.
Frederick Maisel turns away, uncertain. “Aber wir haben den Code.” (But we finally broke the code.)
R.H. Pikantní grabs his partner by the collar, “Und es wird mit uns sterben. Dass Mittel keine Taste, Frederick.” (And it shall die with us. We should leave no key, Frederick!)
And the woman agrees with R.H. “Und es wird mit uns sterben. Dass Mittel keine Taste, Frederick,” she repeats.
Mikhail moved to a computer and displayed the pe- riodic table of the elements. “There were only a hun- dred and four elements known to science at the end of World War Two, and back then, they used their symbols to send messages or share information. They called them ‘BEM’s’, Basic Element Messages.”
“They used the periodic table to form words?” Charlie asked.
“Words, sentences, formulas, anything.” Mikhail dis- played a table of basic elements on his computer screen. “In chemistry, you learn that numbers correlate to sym- bols and symbols are represented by letters. This gave the alchemists a lot to work with.”
“Not to mention, a way to be very specific in their communications,” Ariel added.
“Exactly right.” Mikhail referred to his computer and called up a formula. “For example, this is the compound of elements that make up our beer recipe. It’s been the same for over a hundred years. The breakdown is sent from this computer, signaling the exact distribution of ingredients, infusing the right proportions, allowing the correct fermentation. So every time, a perfect brew.”
Out the window that looked over the production line, giant machines and barrels whirled as they turned barley, hops, and other grains into a bright amber brew.
Mikhail typed in a series of letters and numbers. “The BEM’s were very effective because they were so precise. There was no room for error, which is quite important, especially when chemistry is concerned. If I change a few elements here, I alter the message completely—”
The liquid inside the whirling barrels began to foam with an overflowing white froth.
Mikhail then opened the Golem book to reveal the long list of letters and numbers. “No doubt this code is going to produce a truly spectacular brew,” he joked as he began to plug them into the computer.
Charlie had to ask, “Are you suggesting this is the for- mula—?”
“Don’t get too excited,” Mikhail laughed. “I highly doubt we’re looking at the recipe for alchemy.” And then his expression turned earnest. “But it’s likely there’s a message about what they did with it.”
“Or at least what their intentions were,” Ariel added. “Why else would Josef be given this BEM to hold onto all these years?”
Mikhail typed in all the numbers and letters, struck the return key, and watched them shuffle about his moni- tor. “We can quickly sort through all the combined word possibilities here. Back then, they didn’t have computers, so it took much longer.”
The computer settled on one very long combination and Mikhail showed it to them: “prinsengract3museociv- icocorrer4casagaudi.”
“There you have it—” Mikhail said, turning his moni- tor so they could both get a better look. “Break it up. You’ll see.”
“Yes!” Ariel blurted as she stepped closer. “The first letters spell out ‘Prinsengract.’ That’s where Anne Frank hid during the war, in Amsterdam.”
“Right,” Charlie caught on, “and the next phrase, ‘Museo Civico Correr,’ is a museum located in Venice.”
“And ‘Casa Gaudi’ is in Barcelona,” Mikhail chimed in. “I know it well.”
“These are all museums,” Charlie noted. “But there has to be more of a common thread...?”
Ariel took a moment before she responded. “They all secure priceless items with premium security.”
“And they’re all surrounded by water,” Mikhail added. “The coast of Spain, Amsterdam, and Venice have the most integrated water transports in Europe.”
Ariel was nearly swooning. “Easy access.”
Mikhail was almost giddy. “Easy escape.”
Charlie was completely rapt. “Ready for the taking,” Charlie then pulled back his enthusiasm a notch. Af-
ter years of wrongly identified treasures, false alarms, and close calls, he was reminded of the usual complications and disappointing realities of digging up the past. “We’re still a bit presumptuous to assume that they really figured out how to turn scrap into gold.”
“On the other hand,” Mikhail countered, “there’s the possibility that we’re not being presumptuous enough. The Nazis weren’t primarily interested in turning scrap into gold. What they were really after was the ability to turn one element into another. Germany produced most of its gasoline and diesel fuel from coal. Their Fischer- Tropsch equations were famous after the war, mostly because they could show how oil is created by the earth itself.”
“And because people speculated that they could pro- duce synthesized oil,” Ariel added.
“Okay, even if a formula does exist, Charlie reasoned, “we still face the contradictory dilemma for the chem- ists in the alchemy lab: They were prisoners in a death camp and probably knew they wouldn’t survive. They wouldn’t want the Nazis to have the formula, especially if it produces gold, or oil, or eternal youth—for fear of its unmanageable power. They could have just destroyed it. But they didn’t. And by leaving a key, they provided the opportunity for it to be found by somebody.”
“And you are wondering by whom?” Mikhail asked.
“That’s right. Who was the key meant for and why was it so important for the formula to survive? Why was it worth the risk?”
Mikhail reflected on his uncle’s long, handwritten let- ter that the lawyers presented to him years ago:
Back in Thereseienstadt, eight submarines are lined up in encased docks. Frederick Maisel is working furiously to rig the wiring in the engine room with a destructive device, searching frequently and frantically to make sure no one is coming...
“Are you okay?” Ariel asked, noticing that Mikhail had nearly gone into a trancelike state.
“Yes,” Mikhail refocused. “I was just thinking about Charlie’s concern. Why would the alchemists leave a key? Why would they leave any possibility of rescuing those U-boats if the goal was to destroy them? It is a contradic- tion. And I was always under the impression that Freder- ick Maisel was chosen to deliver the formula to the escape subs, and he secretly rigged them so they would be de- stroyed with everything and everyone inside.”
“And if the formula does exist,” Charlie added, “and Josef Maisel has known about it all these years, why would he just hand this over to us? Why wouldn’t he want to be part of the search?”
“I never knew his father left him with this BEM un- til today,” Mikhail said. “But I would venture to guess that it has not been easy on Josef. He has lived with this since he was a boy in the camps. And now he is old. He is tired. Through the years, he would get unwanted visi- tors because of his father and the history of alchemy in his bloodline. They would tear his flat apart, looking for clues, or to see if he knew anything. I heard that he was beaten so badly once, he nearly died—”
Charlie grabbed the copy of Golem and looked inside. “His father didn’t leave him this BEM.”
Mikhail and Ariel waited for him to explain.
“He couldn’t have. All those museums were built after the war, long after Frederick Maisel was killed.”
“You’re right,” Ariel realized as she turned to Mikhail. “When you spoke with Josef, what exactly did he say?”
“He just told me to unscramble it, that I’d know what to do”
“That’s what he said to us, too,” Charlie said. “He told us that he was the first in his bloodline not to practice alchemy, that he was a musician, and that his passion was the violin.”
Mikhail laughed. “That’s true. He is quite an accom- plished musician, a master of the violin, as well as the viola, cello, and mandolin. Very well known, actually. But that was not his only vocation. He also taught at Charles University for many, many years.”
“He also mentioned that,” Ariel said.
“And did he mention what subject he taught?”
“No,” Ariel answered. “But something tells me that he
didn’t teach the violin.”
“Chemistry,” Mikhail confirmed. “Matter of fact, I
was one of his students.”
“He must have written this code then,” Charlie said.
“And he must be the one who hid the ‘keys to the key’ in these museums, don’t you think?”
“Seems so,” Ariel answered. “But why have us go to Mikhail to unscramble it? Why wouldn’t he just tell us where we had to go and what we were looking for?”
“Because he knows that I can get into Casa Gaudi,” Mikhail explained. “It’s privately owned, and the curator happens to be my cousin. Josef knows that.”Ariel turned the crest over to look at the three inden- tations. “Each of these symbols needs a key. If Josef was the only possible survivor, his father must have given him all three keys.
“And for safety,” Mikhail agreed, “he must’ve hid them in three different places.”
“And what’s a safer place to hide them than in muse- ums?” Charlie added. “The answer has to be waiting in those museums.”
They all agreed. But three countries would waste too much time. So they decided to split up. Mikhail was to contact his cousin and go to Barcelona. Charlie would scour the Anne Frank museum. And Ariel would search the Museo Civico Correr.
Charlie suggested they reconvene in Barcelona, since it was the furthest south. Mikhail chose the venue, a well- known Catalan club called Red. Ariel determined the time: midnight, the next day.
And they were well on their way.
The taxicab they had arrived in was waiting out-
side the front gate of Pilsner Pikantní.
“Thanks for waiting,” Charlie said as he and Ariel climbed into the back seat. “Back to the Metro sta- tion, please.”
The driver nodded, “Velmi dobre.” (Very well.)
Ariel remembered that their driver’s English had been pretty good, and that’s when she looked over the seat and realized that it wasn’t the same driver as before. Closer inspection revealed that it was one of the thugs she had scoped on the train. But, of course, she didn’t want to let on that she knew, so she encouraged some small talk as she weighed their options.
“It’s a lovely evening.”
“Traffic should be light back to the Metro station.” “Yes.”
“How long do you think it will take to get there?” “Yes.”
The large engine in the dark Audi A8 sedan revved as the remaining two ruffians hotwired their getaway car, piled in, and drove onto the narrow road, keeping a good distance behind the taxi transporting Ariel and Charlie.
Mikhail’s car was a seven series BMW that he always
parked in his designated spot in the executive lot. He pulled away and waved toward the man in the guard- house, as he did every time he left the premises. But he didn’t notice that there was a new guard. And he certainly didn’t notice the fact that old guard had been shot and left for dead in a nearby dumpster.
Two of the other thugs had taken the keys to the old guard’s Fiat Bravo and were waiting for Mikhail to exit. Once he did, they followed the brew master onto the long, narrow thoroughfare, past the nearby towns with their clusters of white cottages, and onto the dimly lit, winding road that usually took him home.
Charlie noticed a sign out the windshield for Snezka, a town far north of the city. He leaned forward so he could see the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror. “We want to go back. Other way. Metro station.”
When the driver ignored him, Charlie shook the guy. “Stop this taxi right now, I’m not kidding!”
When even this was ignored, Charlie grabbed the driver’s neck and yanked him back while Ariel took the wheel. The driver reached for his gun, but Charlie saw the telegraph and twisted his arm, pulled him up and over the seat, knocking Ariel back.
The car swerved out of control. Charlie leapt for the wheel, climbed into the driver’s seat, and steadied the car. This allowed the thug room to pull his trigger, but the bullet just shattered the back window. He tried again, aiming for the back of Charlie’s head, and Ariel snap kicked his arm, causing the gun to fire through the roof. She swiftly wrapped both of her legs around the thug’s neck, squeezed hard, and then snapped it back; always the most efficient way to finish someone off, even though the cracking sound, like nails on a chalkboard, was something
she could never get used to.
Charlie watched her entire maneuver from the rear
view mirror, awestruck by her nimbleness and agility, equally surprised by her obvious indifference: this was not her first barbeque.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine. Good job.”
“Not too bad yourself.”
In the side mirror, Charlie spotted another car gain-
ing on them and approaching fast. “We have more com- pany,” he announced.
Ariel turned around and watched a dark Audi sedan accelerate until it rammed into their rear fender, jolting them forward.
Charlie swerved once more. “What the—” The Audi drifted back to follow.
Charlie increased his speed but they stuck close to his tail. “What the hell are these guys doing?”
“Trying to intimidate us,” Ariel said. “So let’s see if we can send them back a little message.”
She kicked open the rear passenger door and shoved the dead driver’s body out. It tumbled and bounced at a furious clip before meeting the fender of the following sedan with a jarring thud of crunching bones.
Inside the Audi, the other thugs recovered from the impact and the vision of the pummeled carcass of one of their own, and a brief look from the driver said it all: No more games with these two. No more intimidation, no matter how much pleasure we derived from those tactics.
The shotgun yob responded, pulled his automatic, took aim out the window, and began firing.
Charlie accelerated and the chase ensued, swerving, firing, and skidding along the dark, meandering road.
Ariel kicked out the splintered, bullet-perforated rear window to clear her view. Once she repositioned herself, she glanced back at Charlie. “You sure you’re okay?”
Charlie brushed off some shattered glass. “I’m fine. You?”
“Peachy. Now stop driving like drunken bonobo and lose these goddamn goons.”
Coming up on a four-way intersection, Charlie made a hard, skidding 180-degree stop causing the goddamn goons in the Audi to slam on their brakes and double doughnut. When they settled, the two cars were facing each other, Mexican standoff style, revving their engines.
But Ariel had no patience for such a thing. She leapt into the front seat, nudged Charlie over, straightened the wheel, and jammed Charlie’s foot on the gas. “Mother fu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u...!”
Even Charlie was stunned by her rage, staring numbly as they crashed hard, crunching metal and smashing glass until the thug’s sedan tipped back into a ditch off the side of the road.
Everything went quiet and still.
Ariel grabbed an empty soda bottle from the floor, and then squeezed her body out the passenger window.
Charlie tried to reach for her. “What are you doing? Get back in here.”
But she pushed him away. “Hand me that rag by your foot.”
“They’re not moving in there,” Charlie observed. “Let’s just get out of here.”
But before he could restart the engine, Ariel looked at him with fierce, determined eyes. “Hand me that rag.” Charlie obliged. “Don’t you think that’s a little over-
Something moved inside the Audi and a shot rang out.
Luckily, it only hit sheet metal.
Ariel pulled a lighter from her jacket, lit the Molotov
cocktail and chucked it.
Massive flames erupted.
Ariel got back inside the car as Charlie stared at the blaze. “What the hell do you call that?”
Ariel grinned, satisfied. “Road kill grill.” 116
The Alchemist Agenda
Mikhail turned down another dim road and the Fiat
Bravo following him began flashing its bright lights. He could have easily stepped on the gas and gotten a good distance ahead. His eight-cylinder turbo had much more power than the Fiat, but he was low on gas and thought there was a chance, albeit a very small chance, that this little Bravo just needed his help. He pulled over.
The two thugs stalked toward Mikhail and it was im- mediately clear that they were not coming to ask for di- rections.
Mikhail rolled down the window to greet his compa- ny, “Ano?” (Yes?)
The first tough leaned inside and grabbed his lapel, “Vychod!”(Out!).
Years of driving home on these dark roads, living alone in a lavish, but secluded home, and being a fortu- nate proprietor, always made him a potential target, so he was always prepared. Like many men of science, he was fascinated with how things worked, a curiosity that lent itself to tinkering with homemade engineering and makeshift inventions. Several kilometers before he pulled over, when he first suspected that they might be follow- ing him, he had pulled one of his handmade devices, a tiny disc from his glove compartment, and placed it un- der the steering wheel, attaching it magnetically.
Once Mikhail stepped out, the first lout shoved him to the road, then helped the other search his car—popping the trunk, tossing his belongings, tearing up the console.
Mikhail knew it wasn’t him they were looking for so he slowly backed away, one measured step at a time, care- ful not to draw their attention. When he was far enough away, he rolled into the weeds off the side of the road for cover, and then depressed the pen-like device from his pocket.
Just as one of the thugs noticed, the BMW exploded, massive flames surged, glass and metal shards sprayed holes through the thugs’ bodies, and the impact sent them soaring back several feet, until they both lay sprawled on the road.
Mikhail waited a few minutes before he got up, walked calmly to the still intact, trusty Bravo. The tank was full and these babies could go forever.
So humming “Le Marcha Real,” Mikhail drove off heading for Barcelona to hopefully answer the questions that had nagged at him since the day he inherited R.H. Pikantní’s former life.
Back at The Shack, in the bowels of the labyrinth be-
neath the Spanish harbor, Munchen and Hengst rushed into the communications center.
“What happened?” Munchen asked the first operator who was staring at a blank radar signal.
“Don’t know. They went off line.”
“And no one called in to explain?” Hengst shouted. “No,” the operator said. “I got nothing.”
“If they could have, they would have,” Munchen said.
“That’s procedure. They’re either captured or dead.” Hengst acknowledged, “Either way, they failed us.”
Munchen picked up a chair and slammed it against the brick wall. One of the broken legs flew at the operator, gouging his cheek and leaving a trail of blood. Munchen regarded the damage for a moment then turned to Hengst. “Let’s find out who the hell we’re dealing with already and get this job done right.”
As Charlie drove the taxicab back toward the Metro
station, he glanced over at Ariel. He didn’t like being in the dark unless he was underwater and there was a long lost treasure at stake. “You didn’t learn how to handle yourself like that in a classroom, did you, professor?”
She didn’t take the bait so he continued. “A history teacher with more classified information than the Penta- gon, defends herself like a ninja, has perfect marksman- ship, drives like Jeff Gordon, and slips in and out of an ac- cent I can’t quite make out is kind of...mysterious, don’t you think?”
She sidled closer, seductively, and put her hand on his leg. “Don’t you like mysterious women?”
Charlie almost swerved off the road. “Whoa—!” Once he got hold of the wheel, he decided he wanted more control of his ride. “You want to be partners? Time to share.”
The consequences of opening up raced through her head, as did the possibilities of shutting him down. She had been on her own agenda for so long that the thought of a real partner actually sounded absurd to her when he said it out loud. But she also realized how pathetic that was, how lonely it was going solo, almost feeling sorry for herself, something she rarely indulged. She recog- nized that Charlie was cut from the same cloth as she was, with the same goals, at least for the moment. She liked his sense of adventure, raw nerve, integrity, and steadfast compulsion to find the truth. And she was well aware that didn’t even account for their undeniable attraction. But feeling vulnerable was something she avoided all these years for good reason. And old habits die hard.
She weighed her options. She could ditch him now, but that would mean there would be one more entity trailing her. She could tell him everything and take the chance that he might leave on his own. Or she could put him off a little bit longer, until, perhaps, another option emerged. And so taking the path of least resistance, she opted for the latter.
“Some people truly take a lifetime to get to know, Charlie,” she insisted. “Please understand. I’m one of those people.”
Vice-Chancellor Michael Freund sat at the far end
of a long table facing a large videophone screen. On the other end was a BND agent displaying an enlarged still of Ariel and Charlie purchasing tickets at Hlavni Nadrazi, Prague’s main train station.
“She’s Israeli,” the agent reported. “Been in the States almost three years. Teaches in the history department at New York University.”
“She’s a professor?” Freund asked, bewildered.
“A senior lecturer. But in Israel, she was a Mossad agent.”
“I knew it,” the vice-chancellor said. “She’s an Israeli spy. Perfect. Just perfect.”
“Was a spy...She was forced out before she left Israel.”
“Interesting. Any other affiliations?”
“Nothing on record.”
“No peculiar political or personal associations?”
“We haven’t found any, sir.”
“Any indications that she’s on her own agenda?”
“No idea, sir.”
“Christ, do we have any idea what in God’s name
they’re doing in Europe, or anything at all for that mat- ter?”
“Just where they’ve been, sir.”
“They’ve made two stops so far. A visit to a seventy-
five-year-old violinist in Prague, and then they went di- rectly to the Pilsner Pikantní brewery.”
“What, they got thirsty?” Freund snapped.
“Mikhail Pikantní is the current brew master, and the nephew of R.H. Pikantní. R.H. Pikantní started the brewery back in 1935. He was also one of the lead chem- ists in the alchemist lab.”
“Here we go,” Freund perked up. “And the violinist?”
“Josef Maisel. Mr. Maisel’s father was Frederick Maisel, also a lead chemist in the alchemist lab. Both died in Terezin back in nineteen forty-five.”
“Okay, now we’re cooking with gas,” Freund grinned insolently.
The agent stared back in disbelief, hoping the chan- cellor’s son-of-a-bitch hadn’t intended that comment the way it sounded; it was rare to hear someone make light of the appalling atrocities, and even rarer for someone with political clout to even make a reference.
But Freund didn’t acknowledge or elaborate, nor did he notice the agent’s uneasiness as he continued his line of questioning. The hairs on his back stood erect as he began to pace; his enthusiasm was building. “And after they left Pilsner Pikantní?”
“Two cars filled with skinheads were left for dead on an Hradcany road, not far from the brewery. One car had belonged to Mikhail Pikantní, and the other was a stolen vehicle from a brewery guard who was found dead in a dumpster.”
“And the body of Mikhail Pikantní?”
“Still missing, sir. He didn’t go home and he didn’t visit any of his local friends or establishments, but we’re still looking.”
Freund stared at the images of Charlie and Ariel for a long beat. “And this gold digger and this spy?”
“Surveillance pulled these from security cameras at Hlavni Nadrazi about an hour or so ago. They bought tickets on the Orient Express. She got on a train to Ven- ice. And the American is on his way to Amsterdam. Ap- parently we’re not dealing with amateurs here. They’ve got skills.”
“Apparently,” Freund scoffed.
“We’ll continue their tail, sir, and keep you posted.”
“No,” Freund said, surprisingly. “I want you to do nothing until you hear from me again, do you under- stand?”
Before the agent could respond, Freund shut off the videophone. He was required to update his superiors at the briefing in less than an hour, which he planned on doing, with the necessary filters, of course.
But first he would have to make other arrangements. #
CIA Director Richard Goss sat behind his bulky desk fielding a flurry of urgent calls, juggling a day of mishaps, blunders and gaffes. The last thing he needed was more news of bungled operations, so he braced himself when Simon Bryant and Jay Martin rushed inside without a scheduled meeting.
“We talked to Ariel Ellis’s department head at NYU,” Simon Bryant reported.
“And we read the dissertation that she prepared for her doctorate,” Martin added, “all her research and find- ings—”
“Okay,” said Goss. “And...?”
“It was titled ‘The Alchemist Agenda,’” Simon Bryant announced.
Goss grinned, temporarily relieved. “This is about al- chemists?”
“Yes,” Martin said. “But that’s just the beginning. Show him.”
Simon Bryant sifted through the text and landed on an earmarked page at the end of the abstract. There were three sections of illustrations: one for the windmill, one for the Pilsner Pikantní logo, and one for the old-style key.
Director Goss took a look and shrugged. “What am I looking at here, gentlemen?”
“Symbols used by chemists who worked in a classified alchemist lab during World War Two,” Martin answered. “This explains why there are no records of the U- boat,” Simon Bryant explained as he turned to another earmarked page with a photograph of the eight U-boats. “Have you ever heard about Hitler’s escape strategy at
the end of the war...?”
And Goss’s smile quickly faded.
Vice-Chancellor Freund headed toward the Reichstag
building and crossed the grounds while mumbling crypti- cally into his Bluetooth device, “We need to use people who can’t be traced back to us on the open market, a con- tracted hire, kill or be killed, no exceptions.”
He scoffed at the reply and continued, “Yes. You heard me. I want you to hire professionals. I want this done quietly and efficiently. Das ist unser Erbschaft! Am I clear?”
He smiled as he hung up. If you want something done right, he thought, you either do it yourself, or you hire professional hit men (and women), none of whom had ever disappointed him like all the others had.
The vice-chancellor hurried inside the Reichstag building so that he would be on time for Frieda Matthias’s end of day briefing where he would update her on his progress, without explaining his method.
Getting results were all that mattered, he rationalized,
the only way he would get the respect he deserved; the
only way he would become the next chancellor. When
that day came, he would make sure that his own son-of-
a-bitch was just as ruthless and efficient as he was, and
together they would get their country back on track.
Charlie entered the Kingdom of the Netherlands just after eleven p.m., amazed to find that the sun hadn’t yet set over the wonderland by the North Sea. This spring day in North Holland was noth- ing short of spectacular, from its first line of defense, a long line of coastal dunes and polder landscape, to the sprawling waterway system that leads into the historic ur- ban canals of Amsterdam, the picturesque Dutch capital city, laced with houseboat dwellers, clusters of bicyclists rolling along cobblestone paths, and vibrant flowers—the tulip season in full bloom, coloring the city with bright, fragrant lust.
But when Charlie stepped onto the bridge over Her- engracht Canal and scanned the patchy, chocolate box, layer cake skyline, he saw a much darker assortment awaiting his arrival. Maybe it was paranoia, maybe in- stinct, or maybe it was just because he no longer had Ariel as a shrewd scout, or distraction, but he was now well aware of the real dangers of this excursion. His treasure hunting-gold digging-wreck diving ventures may have had their share of greedy partners, but no one ever tried to kill him, save for the occasional shark or poisonous underwater wildlife. The contents buried inside U-2008 had made this hunt lethal, and he was very aware that his knowledge of the site, at the very least, made him a prime target.
He scoped the thoroughfare. There was a strange- looking man wearing a fedora on a park bench who peeked over his newspaper at Charlie a few too many times. Another man was rummaging through a garbage can, but he didn’t look like the bum type. And Charlie pegged several people looking down from the windows of surrounding flats, which made him feel even more like a sitting duck. So he took off, moving swiftly through the busy streets, frequently looking back over his shoulder.
When he got to the red light district, his eyes dart- ed back and forth: stoners, hookers, and tourists—the usual dizzying, disorienting freak show, punctuated by a masked man who lashed out at Charlie. He shoved him back, pure reflex, and soon realized it was just a college kid in a mask, sowing his wild oats in the playground of peccadillo. The boy immediately ran off, figuring Char- lie’s ill-humored response was mainly because he wasn’t smoking the same stuff that he was.
Charlie moved on, sorting through the crowd, the flurry of chaos, the argonaut’s topsy-turvy-dom, and just when he laid eyes on an alleyway he could cut through, a hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. This time he didn’t shove back as he found himself facing a statuesque woman in a tiny skirt and push-up top. She was smokin’ hot, blonde and blue, and ready for action.
“I’m Tanya. Wanna come inside and have some fun, baby-cakes?”
Charlie thought a short diversion would give him some time to shake any possible predators. “Inside? Why not?” She led him through the alleyway and onto another street lined with storefront windows with shades drawn and red lights shamelessly glowing. This being Charlie’s first time to Amsterdam, he muttered under his breath the same thing most Americans do: “Jesus H. Christ, this
is really legal...?”
Tanya overheard and it warmed her wicked heart. She
took his hand and showed him through the entrance. “Come with me, sugarplum. I’ll show you why they call me the Killer Blonde.”“La prossima, Venecia!” The train conductor’s voice
bellowed over the speakers in a singsong rhythm. “Next stop, Venice!”
Ariel sat in a private compartment watching the lush countryside out the window when two Italian heavy- weights entered without knocking, identical twin Go- morrah thugs with five o’clock shadows, and only variant tattoos to differentiate them. Renowned in the dark un- derbelly of the Naples gene pool, infamous in the world of high-paid hit men—these were the Frescobaldi broth- ers—Luca and Manfredo.
Luca sat on Ariel’s left and was first to greet her: “Pronto.” Manfredo sat on her right, placed his enormous hand over her knee, and revealed a bland, quasi-smile, his warmest welcome: “Ciao Bella.” Ariel instantly knew that their only purpose for entering her private car was to make sure she didn’t leave it alive.
She stayed calm, smiled back, and waited for the train to enter a dark tunnel.
Neither twin could tell how long they had blacked out after Ariel sucker punched each of them in the nose, but when they came out of the long tunnel leading into the City of Water, and the sunlight blared once again, Ariel was gone.
“Vie!” Manfredo shouted. And the Frescobaldi broth- ers ran down the center aisle, from car to car, searching every cabin as the train crawled into the station and the conductor announced the end of the line: “Ultimo arresto, Venecia.” (Last stop, Venice.)
When the train doors opened, the brothers burst out- side, frenetically searching, and the hunt was on. Luca was the first to spot Ariel weaving through the busy sta- tion. He slapped his brother’s shoulder and they both charged through the swarming crowd.
As they exited the terminal, the throng was even dens- er, making it more difficult for the Frescobaldis to track Ariel—but four eyes were better than two. The brothers kept pace with her across the Grand Canal on the Rialto Bridge toward the Piazza San Marco, the drawing room of Europe, one of the greatest urban spaces.
She was determined to evade them until she got what she came for, weaved through the bands of tourists, the cacophony of human voices and frenzied motorized traffic, well aware that a permanent escape would be impos- sible since they were surrounded by omnipresent water- ways, her utmost nightmare.
She made swift, sharp turns, moving past ancient structures, through alleyways, in and out of retail shops, making her way toward the Basilica di San Marco, the ca- thedral of opulent design, gilded Byzantine mosaics, and statuesque symbols of Venetian wealth and power, which to Ariel, became a metaphoric, albeit brief, safe haven— a house of worship where she prayed that the fearsome twins would get lost, disappear, or miraculously go back under the rocks from which they seemed to have come.
The exterior of the basilica was divided into three registers: lower, upper, and domes. In the lower regis- ter of the façade, five round-arched portals opened into the narthex through bronze-fashioned doors. Ariel hid there and reconsidered her agnostic beliefs, at least un- til she peered out to see the twins entering the church. She moved to the stairway leading to the upper register and Luca scoped her before she could tuck behind one of the polychrome marble columns. She saw them making a beeline for the stairs, so she crossed over to the first open archway looking onto the courtyard. It was quite a drop to the cobblestone surface below, but there was a group- ing of vendor carts with canvas tops that could break the fall.
A priest approached her just before she was about to jump. “Stai bene, signora?” (Are you okay, lady?)
“Sto bene, padre. Grazie.” (I’m fine, father. Thanks.)
Ariel took a step back to ease the priest’s mind. She figured that whoever was following her, and whatever they wanted to do to her, it would be difficult for them to execute in broad daylight with every inch of Venice packed with priests, police, and witnesses galore. She had come to the bride of the sea for one reason: to find her part of the key in the Museo Civico Correr.
So she head back down the stairs, walked right past the Frescobaldi brothers, around three bas-relief cycles of Romanesque statues, and made her move toward the cathedral exit.
As she made her way to the Correr Museum, she took in the abundant art and architecture surrounding her: Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Clock tower, the Procuratie Vecchie, Procuratie Nuove, the Biblioteca Marciana, and the charming shops and cafés. The Frescobaldis were un- wavering, maintaining a steady distance, but she remind- ed herself of the beauty men and women are capable of, momentarily ignoring the presentiment shadowing her just long enough to pay credence to the dualities of life. Her chosen path had always been loaded with risky pur- suits, but she long ago decided to stop being chased with blindfolds; and now, as a Frescobaldi target, with her de- mise a better than real possibility, she figured this would be a good place to start.
Being a self-proclaimed tech-geek, Mikhail Pikantní loved his iPhone apps. Once he parked at Ruzyně Air- port, his “Cheapest Air” app helped him book the next flight on Spanair from Prague to Barcelona. His “Pick Up” app had a car waiting for him at the arrivals at El Prat Airport arrivals. His “Urban Spoon” app got him an immediate reservation at El Xampanyet, the most highly recommended tapas restaurant in town.
Mikhail didn’t travel very often, and when he did, he loved to experience local cuisine, to challenge his palate, and compare the native brew to his own. El Xampanyet was classically decorated with colored tiles and antique curios, and he delighted in a sampler plate of garlic shrimp skewers, tortilla Espanol, chorizo with figs, tomato bread, Catalan guacamole, an exquisite Chiringuito seafood pa- ella. He washed it all down with an Alhambra Reserva, a strong lager which he felt guilty enjoying more than the Pilsner Pikantní lager, but if he were to be honest about it, not that guilty.
And once his belly was full, his mapping app gave him directions to his cousin’s home, which he gave to his driv- er to follow so that he could gaze out the back window at the colorful city and enjoy the ride across town.
Gregor Pikantní’s large Tudor was in the center of the Barrio Alto & Gràcia neighborhood. The “Alto” rep- resented the posh part of town with swanky restaurants and cocktail bars, millionaires’ mansions, and Mercedes lifestyles, contrasted by the more eclectic, village atmo- sphere of Gràcia, with its two-story houses, sunny plazas, and student/bohemian vibe.
Gregor resided in the Alto part, and Mikhail realized it had been at least ten years since he had seen his cousin. Back then he was still working his way out of a Gràcia existence, and so it now appeared to Mikhail that the museum business was thriving and the last decade had been a profitable one for his cousin.
Gregor was a dozen years younger than Mikhail, his aunt’s only child. The age difference was one reason the cousins were never close. But the main reason was the uncle that they shared, R.H. Pikantní, had passed on the brewery to only one of them. Mikhail now worried about a deep resentment that could interfere with the favor he was about to ask. As he rang the doorbell, he also remem- bered that he neglected to fly in for the funeral when Gregor’s wife had passed away a few years back. But all that dissipated the second the door opened.
Gregor greeted Mikhail with open arms and a smile. He was distinguished and well dressed in a sharp double- breasted suit that diminished his middle-age belly. His hair had gone completely gray, his skin more ashen—an- other reminder to Mikhail how long it had been since they had seen each other.
Gregor served him a glass of sangria and showed him into the living room where the housekeeper had laid out a tasty spread of local cheeses, caviar, and fresh seasonal fruit, in which Mikhail indulged to be polite.
“It has been too long, Mikhail.”
“My sentiment exactly, Gregor. How busy life is.” “Very true. So tell me what brings you to Barcelona on
such short notice?”
Mikhail remembered that his cousin was not only the
head curator of Casa Gaudi, but also an illustrious mem- ber of the Gaudi Foundation, as well as the Architectural Preservation Society. So asking him to disassemble one of their prized museum displays would be tricky.
“Do you know much about R. H. Pikantní?”
“Uncle Rusian? Only what my mother told me. He was a chemist and he built Pilsner Pikantní. And he died in the camps, no?”
“Yes. That’s right. And of course you know that I was groomed to run his brewery from a very early age.” Mikhail kept his tone upbeat, hoping not to rub salt into a wound.
Mikhail didn’t detect any resentment, so he carried on. “Well then, I must tell you a little bit of our family his- tory.”
Mikhail noticed his cousin’s eyes shifting away, won- dering if he were about to inherit the family business he had been shut out of, so Mikhail clarified: “Back then, women in Prague didn’t run companies, the reason your mother was given money and my father was given the brewery. And when my father passed, the will directed the brewery to be passed on to the firstborn male child, which was me.”
“Yes, I know. You were quite fortunate, cousin.”
“In some ways, yes. But my life’s work was predeter- mined. I never had any choices like you had, and along with the brewery came other responsibilities, such as dealing with some of Uncle Rusian’s unresolved issues, both professional and personal.”
With Gregor’s curiosity now piqued, Mikhail got to the point. “One of them has to do with the fact that our uncle was part of something bigger than the beer busi- ness, and that’s why I’m here today.”
“Everything we discuss must be confidential.”
“I need you to do me...our family, a big favor.” “Anything for family.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear you say that. I didn’t want to
put you out.”
“I’m more than happy to help. Just name it.” “Terrific. Thank you so much. I need you to take me
to the Gaudi museum tonight and allow me to run off with one of the priceless antiquities displayed there.”
Gregor’s reaction to this request was also priceless.
Tanya led Charlie through a dark antechamber, a sparse vestibule where the manager mumbled without looking up from his Amsterdam Times newspaper: “Room number four.”
Room number four had a small bed, a chair, a sink and a window that faced the street. Tanya drew the curtains shut. “You pay first, yes?”
Charlie reached for some cash, glad that Ariel had handed him a stack of Euros when they were waiting for their plane back at JFK, and tossed Tanya 200 for her troubles, unaware that the going rate was half that.
“Two hundred tulips, my handsome American boy- friend. You must want something very, very special.” Tanya started unbuttoning his shirt. “Let’s put clothes on chair, honey-blossom.”
“What? Oh, that’s okay.” He backed away. “I just want to hang out here for a little while.” He peeked outside through an opening in the curtain to see if any remnants of his paranoia had followed him, anything suspicious at all.
Tanya shut the curtain and turned him around. “Is this first time, sweet pea?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“You don’t worry, sunshine. Tanya takes care of every- thing.”
She went to the sink, poured a glass of water and brought it to Charlie. “Here you go, cupcake.”
Charlie’s eyes shifted to Tanya, who was watching him too closely, too cautiously, obviously anticipating some- thing that couldn’t be good. And just when he was about to take a sip, he noticed a cloudy droplet with a faint wisp of smoke on the rim.
“Drink, frou-frou,” she urged.
He pushed the glass away. “I’m not really thirsty.” “Then let Tanya help you relax.” She moved closer and
inched her hand up his chest. On her ring, there was an- other smoking droplet, which he tracked as she brought it up toward his face.
And just before she made contact, he firmly grabbed her wrist and pinned her against the wall. “Who the hell are you?”
“Who would you like me to be?”
“How about the king’s taster?”
Charlie brought her hand up to her face. Now she
was the one focusing on the wobbly globule. As it was just about to make contact with her skin, she panicked and squirmed. But Charlie didn’t let go, and when the droplet did touch her skin, the liquid sizzled immediately, an acidic chemical burning through the epidermal lay- ers until blood oozed. She stumbled back, screaming, and scrambled to the sink where she splashed water all over her face and neck.
“I already told you who I was,” she growled. And when she turned around, he saw the face of a warrior readying herself for battle. “The Killer Blonde, remember?”
She flipped her wrist and a long, sharp blade shot out from a leather strapped bracelet.
As she charged, Charlie ducked away just in time and used her angry momentum to shove her into the wall, causing her to trip over the bed and drop the knife.
Time to go, thought Charlie, but as he turned to run out the door, she sprang back up, swinging with jabs, kicks and a flurry of masterful, artful moves.
Charlie was a little clumsy at first, caught off guard, taking a few shots to the face and ribs, taken aback by her speed and skill, but he used her reactionary wrath to fend her off, and his size advantage to overpower her. Eventu- ally he grabbed hold of one arm, then the other. They circled until they lost their combined balance and plowed through the door, into the hallway, and then through an- other doorway.
When they landed, they froze for a moment, both re- alizing they had crashed onto the stage of a live sex show. Strobe lights flashed and music pounded as they lay on a stage with a female Village People lookalike in crotch- less leather pants and a mask straddling a bound, blind- folded dominatrix bent over a chair.
The crowd was baffled at first, assuming that Tanya and Charlie were just part of the freak show, wondering if they were about to get their money’s worth. And once Tanya and Charlie went at it, they started howling madly, assuming that this wasn’t only about sex, but hardcore violence as well.
A huge Red Light District crowd pleaser.
Tanya grabbed the chair from under the one with the crotch-less garter belt, causing the hellcat provocateur to tumble, and then Tanya slammed it over Charlie’s back. The blindfolded sex slave and her masked partner took cover, truly upstaged. The crowd went wild; Amsterdam never disappoints.
As bouncers charged the stage, Charlie spied the back exit, picked himself up, and dove wildly into the crowd, who tossed him above, concert-style, bouncing him to- ward the back.
Tanya shoved her way through the herd, but by the time she got to the back, Charlie had already made it through the exit.
She smiled. This guy was going to give her a run for her money, and she didn’t mind one bit. It had been a while since she’d been challenged and it made the kill so much more satisfying. So she burst out the door and took off after her American frou-frou.
Ariel paid her admission at the Museo Civico Correr
kiosk and pushed past the turnstiles at the entrance. She saw no signs of the Frescobaldi brothers and hadn’t for a while.
As she made her way inside the museum, she ran through her possible pursuers. The obvious nemeses would know what she was after and would be there to beat her to the punch; they had been waiting for this day as long as she had. But the Frescobaldi twins weren’t skin- heads, neo-Nazis, boot boys, and they definitely weren’t government issued. These were new enemies of a differ- ent breed. So she deduced, correctly, that somebody was wise enough to send hired professionals. And so she pre- pared herself.
She made her way through the first floor exhibit, pass- ing displays of eighteenth century period dress, relics, and weapons of all kinds. As she contemplated how to dismantle one of the weapons, if need be, an English tour guide led a group through.
“In the 1700’s, Italian military protected the Venice shores with knights of valor, trained warriors who had posts at every Piazza... In the next room, we will see some well preserved Borgo Medievale, bearing witness to No- li’s past glories...”
Once the tour passed, Ariel found a directory and learned that nineteenth and twentieth century exhibits were on the next level. She found the stairwell and went upstairs.
There was a guard at the far entrance who noticed Ar- iel when she made it inside the World War II wing. She tried not to engage him, but he wouldn’t take his eyes off of her. She was used to men doing that, but usually men on duty displayed some constraint. She tried to lose him, but he followed her down every hallway. Eventually she ran into the last exhibit, which was a dead end. When she turned to go back, feeling like a mouse in a maze, a gate closed down at the other end. No one else was in this en- closure and she knew that probably wasn’t a coincidence.
When she turned to go the other way, the twins were waiting for her.
No pleasantries exchanged this time; no explanation necessary as they approached. She let Manfredo make the first move. It would tell her a lot about whom she was dealing with. And when he started with an ashi barai, a Ju-Jitsu leg sweep, combined with a highly skilled Win Chun blow aimed at her throat, she knew he was not a military man, not a thug, not a gold digger—these were professional assassins, and they weren’t here to scare; ei- ther she or they would be dead in a matter of minutes.
She didn’t have trouble moving around his first attack, but he came around with a quick sidekick that caught her off guard and knocked her down. He turned back and smiled at his brother.
These were guys who loved their work.
It was time for Ariel to change that.
She went to town with a rapid flurry of closed-in powerful elbow punches and knee kicks, a skillful display of precision Krav Maga, the Israeli Army eclectic hand-to- hand combat system. And she followed with an acrobatic turn of flipping and spinning that made Manfredo turn beet red and kick in the glass of one of the displays in frustration.
Inside the exposed exhibit was a display of uniformed Italian military mannequins. Manfredo noticed a sword on one of their hips and he pulled it from its sheath. He smiled back at Luca, who knew what Ariel didn’t: This was Manfredo’s weapon of choice.
Ariel was less concerned about their skill set than she was about their connections being high enough up the food chain to have had the security gates engaged and the alarms shut down in a federally funded facility while they were attending to their business. That would present a bigger problem once she had to get out of this building.
But first things first. She was going nowhere unless she got past these two. She took a defensive stance as Manfredo attacked, swinging his blade expertly. But he missed her, again and again, something he was not used to. She was too quick, dodging and countering. He’d swing. She’d duck. And she snuck in a few snap kicks to the sternum, and jabs to his face that caught him off guard along the way.
Luca was watching, enjoying his better half earn his pay. Manfredo turned and yelled for his brother to quit playing games and jump in so they could finish off this “mamaluke.”
That gave Ariel enough time to reach through the broken glass and grab a sword of her own.
And that’s when she laid eyes on the most beautiful historic relic she had seen all day.
Under a sign, “THE ALCHEMIST CIRCOLO: Preparing for the final battle,” were two military manne- quins looking up to their sergeant, seemingly taking or- ders. The sergeant wore a crest around his neck, shaped like an old style key. A miracle, she thought, the reason she was there.
She swiftly grabbed the crest, shoved it in her pocket, and turned to face both twins.
Luca and Manfredo charged together. Both were well versed, wielding a whirl of slicing, dicing moves, forcing Ariel back into the next exhibit, a medieval showroom.
As Luca took over the assault, Manfredo snaked be- hind her, releasing a wire from a Panerai Luminor chro- nograph on his wrist. He gripped each end of the wire, swung it around her neck and tried to strangle her.
She was surprised that he would attempt such an ama- teurish move and easily back-kicked with her right foot, blowing out his knee, forcing him to let go of the wire and fall like a tree trunk. When she turned, he swung his sword from the ground, inches from her face, too close for comfort. Before he could do that again, she shoved her blade straight down into his sternum.
Manfredo’s eyes bulged, his last act of defiance.
Luca knew better than to stop and react, but this was his twin brother, and after a lifetime of watching each other’s backs, from all the street fights growing up in Na- ples to years of successful hits for hire, they had never left an altercation with anything worse than a broken arm or a superficial wound. And now, with one thrust of a sword, it was all over. And to add insult to injury, it was a woman who ended it all, a most disgraceful Neapolitan death.
Luca’s shock gave Ariel enough time to reach past the broken glass casing once again and grab a timeworn crossbow.
He came after her with reckless fury.
She aimed, released the arrow, and nailed him right between his eyes.
Luca tumbled like a 250-pound rag doll.
The Frescobaldi brothers were now history, the his- toric repository was in shambles, and Ariel had to escape the building as quickly as she came.
It wasn’t so hard getting by the indolent museum guards, following the fire escapes to the first level, and then bolting through the entrance. But she knew that it wasn’t going to be easy getting past the line of defense waiting for her once she got outside.
Back in the Venice of the North, Charlie found his
way to Prinsengracht by asking directions from a couple with a guidebook.
He scanned the area to be sure there was no sign of Tanya or any other shady looking Dutch treats, and then entered the Anne Frank Museum, the preserved flat where Anne Frank hid during the war.
The stairways and hallways were narrow and crowded with tourists, and Charlie passed through as if he were one of them. He scoured the exhibits for any alchemist imagery, searching the attic creviced bed, the portal for sneaking food, the retractable bookcases, and a wall of photographs.
He stopped and stared at a picture of Anne Frank, circa 1938, labeled “a ferocious appetite for life,” followed by a series of family members including Otto Frank’s marker:“After Auschwitz, liberated by Russian troops, repatri- ated to Amsterdam.”
Charlie reflected on the atrocities inflicted on other human beings, as well as people’s fascination with the mercilessness of man that kept this museum busy all these years, an exhibit intended to prevent history from repeat- ing itself. After years of archeological pursuits, he was beginning to suspect that the cruelest side of mankind might be the biggest riddle of all; the reason the ultimate quest and the greatest mysteries may just be unsolvable; his, as well as mankind’s. All the big questions required a level of faith, be it the existence of God or the history of man. And all his pursuits, professional and personal, had always circled back to dead ends or more unknowns. He had heard people say that life is about the journey, not the reward, but as he was reminded of the Franks’ journey, he felt a lack of faith he had never before experienced.
The museum was intentionally sparse to emulate the claustrophobic sense that the Frank family must have en- dured, so it didn’t take Charlie long to thoroughly scour the tenement.
On the attic floor, there was a casing that displayed a spread of the family’s personal belongings—hats, gloves, a pocketknife, and eyeglasses. Charlie noticed something embedded on one of the hats. When he took a closer look, he laid eyes on the very thing he came here for:
The crest with an embedded windmill.
As he reached toward the glass case, a grey-haired museum guard grabbed his shoulder. “I’m sorry, mister, please do not touch.”
“Of course. I’m so sorry,” Charlie replied as he stepped back and waited for the guard to move on. Once he did, Charlie grabbed the metal top of a garbage can and slammed it into the glass casing.
Tourists screamed and scattered as Charlie snatched the crest and dashed down the stairs.
The stunned, old guard made a futile attempt to stop him, but Charlie easily pushed his way past him. A younger, more agile guard tried for a diving tackle when Charlie turned into the first floor corridor, but Charlie spun around, Adrian Peterson-style, sending the guard sliding into the wall headfirst.
Charlie made it out to Vicinage Street, the district’s busiest artery.
And the first thing he saw was the face of The Killer Blonde.
The look in her eyes told him that this time she planned on living up to her name.
He immediately took off, running through the pedes- trian streets, tearing in and out of restaurants and shops, through a farmers’ market, and past endless blooming rows at the vibrant Amsterdam tulip bazaar.
Eventually, he figured he lost his black widow, and he slowed to a walking pace, to avoid any unwanted atten- tion. He crossed the jam-packed Magere Brug, and in the middle of the bridge, he straddled the rail and looked down.
It was a far fall, but not for Charlie. In his wildest imag- ination, he would never have guessed that all his years of training for high board diving competitions would have prepared him for much of anything in life, especially the need to ditch a professional hit woman, a getaway that would save his life. But here he was.
As he contemplated, he heard a fuss at the other end of the bridge, and wouldn’t you know it, The Killer Blonde was shoving her way through the throng, a relentless, rapid pit bull charging toward him.
Charlie welcomed her with a smile. “Now you’re in my world, bitch. Come and get it.”
He spread his arms and sprung into a perfectly formed reverse dive, “a gainer,” what his coach used to call his se- cret weapon. He slipped into the water like a needle into a haystack, barely making a splash, and disappeared into the deep canal waters.
Stunned passersby gathered to look over the ledge. Tanya shoved through and stared down.
She hadn’t been hired to fail. There was a reason the job paid so well. And there was a reason only a handful of professionals qualified. This was a kill or be killed as- signment and it was exactly as its name implied. Either the mission was to be accomplished successfully, or she died trying. That was the deal. She either came back with a confirmation, or she came back in a body bag. There were no misunderstandings about that.
So she didn’t hesitate, vaulted herself feet first, and hoped for the best.
She hit the water hard, sank several feet, dazed, won- dering if she were still alive. When she gained her bear- ings and made it back to the surface, she saw Charlie right away. He was already climbing onto a passing cabin cruiser.
Now she would have to welcome him to her world and show him why she was Holland’s highest paid hired gun.
Ariel moved across Ponte Di Rialto, the oldest of four
bridges spanning the Grand Canal, well aware that two members of the Polizia di Stato, one of the national po- lice forces that patrol motorways, railways, airports, and waterways, were approaching on her right, and five Cara- binieri, military police, were coming toward her from the left.
Her only hope of escaping was the body of water sur- rounding her, the waterways that defined Venice as the most beautiful city built by man, but to Ariel, just an end- less saltwater lagoon that made the Queen of the Adriatic her recurring, submerging nightmare. Drowning was her only real fear. Trapped helplessly in a large body of water made her wince like a cow in a slaughterhouse, some- thing even the Mossad couldn’t help her overcome.
She walked briskly up an inclined ramp that led to a central Portico laced with endless rows of shops. She weaved in and out, browsing like a tourist, stalling, know- ing that she’d never shake this tail and somehow have to face her demons.
Eventually she gathered her nerve, took a running start at the canal, and jumped.
She landed into a gondola. The boat rocked and the
striped shirted gondolier screamed Italian profanities.
She shoved a handful of Euros in his face and screamed back: “Vie, per favore, go!”
A chump for good tippers, as well as beautiful women, the gondolier pushed off into the middle of the canal.
The police came to the ledge, arguing about who would dive in first.
Ariel noticed that her slow-going gondola was angling close to a passing motorboat, and so she made a bold move: closed her eyes, screamed silently to herself, and leapt.
The boat owner was as pissed off as the gondolier, and even more so when Ariel threw him overboard and took off with his pride and joy.
The stranded police called for backup, never far away in Venice.
Two nearby Carabinieri boats responded immediately and took off after Ariel.
She led them through the weaving channels, making a forbidden wake that knocked over several other gondolas and caused a ripple of waves that splashed the walkway herd, a cardinal Venetian sin.
The bridges were low, the aqueducts were narrow, and Ariel navigated a rampageous chase, bouncing off other boats like bumper cars at the funfair, and when she barely missed a head-on with a tugboat, the first Carabinieri boat was not so fortunate.
It collided and slammed into a concrete conduit, ex- ploding on impact.
Ariel turned back and noticed that three Guardia di Fianza patrol boats, Italian customs and border protec- tion police, had joined in on the chase, powering through the flames, revealing their fierce attacking prows.
She maneuvered through the winding channels, even- tually realizing that she was circling a futile maze that would eventually trap her in the web of the sinking city. The mouth of the Adriatic was behind her, the only out- flow she knew of, so she prepared for her next, even bold- er move.
She spun a half donut, 180 degrees, facing the on- coming nautical law enforcement, who were confused at first, and then stupefied by her level of insanity when she slammed her throttle forward, heading directly toward them, chicken-style.
One Carabinieri boat turned hard left, and capsized. Another skidded to the right, sparks spraying as it scraped the concrete barrier wall until it slammed into a wooden dock, splintering amass. The others barely cleared the way as Ariel passed through, threading the needle.
Now she had a clear trajectory into the wide body of the Adriatic Sea.
She kept her throttle fully open and watched the land- mass fade away as she headed due south into the wide- open waters.
It made her head swirl.
But a mile out, her persistent panic attack diminished when she noticed a large luxury yacht ahead, and she re- alized that she was not alone.
It didn’t take long for her speedboat to catch up with the cruising super-yacht. Some drink-toting guests on- board the yacht noticed her approaching and cheered her on as she pulled up beside the starboard stern and ex- ecuted her third bold move.
She stood on her seat doing her best not to look down, and jumped up onto the yacht’s lower deck where she landed to whistles, cheers and more helpful male hands than she really needed.
Two oiled-up sun worshipping Pisans in Speedos watched her cross the deck, her soaked clothes clinging to her Venusian form. “Molto sexy!” one of them said, loud enough for her to hear.
She stopped and turned. “Grazie, boys. Mostrarmi al bar.” (Show me to the bar.)
And they escorted her to the sunset party by the pool where she enjoyed a much needed, but short-lived holi- day. In a just a few hours, the super yacht was scheduled to dock in Spain, the destination for her final bold move for the day. Maybe the year.
By the third glass of cognac, Gregor and Mikhail Pikantní were laughing about childhood memories and sharing family secrets. They were both surprised at how well they got along and realized this was the first time they were relaxed enough to enjoy each other’s company.
Mikhail learned that his aunt, Gregor’s mother, had in- deed resented that the brewery was bestowed solely upon Mikhail’s father, and ultimately, Mikhail. She felt that the will should have been amended once she had given birth to a male son. She contested, but was turned down, and after the 4th Czechoslovakian Writers’ Congress was held 1967, her future in Prague looked so bleak that she left for good to make a better life for her family in Spain.
Mikhail explained to Gregor that Uncle Rusian made it very clear that only one person should inherit Pilsner Pikantní. He had felt that more than one General bred unhealthy competition and that the alchemy legacy ex- acerbated that possibility. Mikhail knew he was breaking the vow by telling his cousin all of this, but he also knew that aside from their third aperitif, it was the only way to persuade him to break into Casa Gaudi that evening.
“So now you understand the reason for this visit,” Mikhail summed up. “By doing this task, we will both be carrying on the wishes of our Uncle Rusian.”
“And if this legend turns out to be real?”
Mikhail knew this question would eventually come and he was prepared. “I will surely split my share with you, whatever it is. It’s only fair.”
And on that note, his cousin got up and grabbed his car keys. “Let’s go to the Gaudi museum and find that missing piece.”
Back in Amsterdam, a Dutch pleasure craft moved
through the outermost canal of the Grachtengordel, designed for warehouses and artisans’ housing with a breezy, laidback air, peppered with cafés, art galleries and houseboats. Everything seemed routine, but on the port side of this watercraft, Charlie was tucked behind a stack of boat covers waiting for a deckhand to pass by. Once he did, Charlie started to make his way around the periphery when he heard a familiar voice:
“Not so fast, baby cakes.”
And when he turned, Tanya was coming toward him with a cold steel spike knife poised, which she had swiped from a fisherman’s tackle box on the lower level.
Charlie ducked out of the way just in time and she hit the fiberglass side hard.
Charlie had had his share of angry ex-girlfriends and obsessive stalkers, but The Killer Blonde brought per- sistence to an entirely new level. “You don’t give up very easily, do you?”
“What kind of service would I be providing if I didn’t finish the job?” she said with a derisive grin as she got back up on her feet and searched for the fishing knife which had slid far from her reach.
“You have a lot of integrity. That’s very hard to find in a prostitute these days.”
She yanked a fire extinguisher from the hull and moved toward him. “That’s right, honey bun. I take pride in my work.”
He took a few steps backward. “It’s easy to find a hap- py hooker, but proud prostitutes are hard to come by.”
He bumped into a bulkhead and tripped over a moor- ing line. There was nowhere else to go, and as he scram- bled back up, she charged at him, shoving him into the rail. As he tried to regain his balance, she kneed him, thrust him into a half nelson, and then tried to elbow him in the gut. But she missed and her elbow hit the teak border, causing her “funny bone” to send a shower of painful pins and needles throughout her body.
Charlie shoved her to the floor, grabbed her by the leg and started dragging her toward the ledge. But she scrambled away, sprang into a double back flip, and then hounded back toward him.
Charlie backed away. “Who do you work for?”
“I work alone. No agencies, no drivers, no rip-offs.” “That’s helpful because I always feel so taken advan-
tage of by call girls who try to kill me.”
“With me, you pay a little more, but I make it well
But that was the extent of her playfulness. She attacked
with a whirlwind of punches, knees, elbows, and steadily she started to gain the upper hand. He was in great shape and an accomplished athlete, but she was trained to kill, and she was used to hardcore targets who were much more merciless than this civilian gold digger.
After a sidekick connected with his breastbone, he went down. But it worked in his favor because he had a chance to scramble away and bump into a ladder leading to the upper deck. He grabbed it and clambered up.
She followed him to the highest part of the ship, cor- nered him at the top level, and a Dragon Claw Finger shot out from her belt, its sharp tip and serrated blade pointing at Charlie.
“Okay, big boy, time to show what you’re hiding.”
“Come and get it, Lil Mama.”
She attacked with a vengeance, and he turned to avoid
getting stabbed. She twisted her arm around his neck, and then flipped him back down on his back, the fiber- glass beneath him shuddering with the impact. She had him now, so she didn’t understand his response, why he was looking up at her, grinning.
And then she realized that he was looking behind her.
When she turned back to look, all she could see the fast-approaching concrete mass of the tunnel that the forward half of the boat had already entered—
Her head was the only thing that didn’t clear.
Charlie winced as her decapitation made a horren- dous, echoing sound as they entered the burrow of com- plete darkness where everything went silent. Charlie held the headless torso of Tanya with one arm, felt for the rail with his free hand, and then dropped it overboard. The splash reverberated with a damp ripple, then faded as fast as it came.
When they came out the other side of the tunnel, Charlie saw the last orange streaks of the setting sun, closing out another day over the the patchy, chocolate box, layer cake skyline, as if nothing unusual had hap- pened. He made his way down to the cabin so he could meet the captain and find the fastest way to Spain.
It was a balmy, breezy evening in Barcelona. A long
row of European hackberry trees swayed along the drive up to the museum. The Casa Museu Gaudi was a capri- cious mixture of classical Spanish styles, a molded castle rising from the hill, illuminated by after-hour security lights.
The black, elliptic XJS drifted into the parking lot, si- lent as a shark. Mikhail Pikantní got out of the car with his cousin Gregor. Two security guards met them at the door, as directed. Gregor nodded in gratitude and pro- ceeded to enter the security codes and unlock the side entrance.
This is the house Gaudi lived in at the end of his life, located near the major Parc Guell landmark. There are about half a dozen rooms split between two floors and each room has a theme, many dedicated to major build- ings Gaudi designed with furniture from those homes, similar to what you would see in Casa Mila or perhaps Casa Batlló. When Mikhail had described what he was looking for, Gregor had known immediately. There was only one piece of work that referenced any state of war.
Gregor led his cousin through the lavish and well pre- served décor until they came upon Gaudi’s “Finale,” a huge three-dimensional landscape covering the wall, inter-coastal channels leading into a futuristic, Antonio Gaudi inspired miniature city. Inside, a mannequin guard protected the city entrance. His uniform had a shield em- bedded on his chest:
It was the third crest—the eagle and mountain embed- ded.
“That’s it!” Mikhail brightened.
Gregor unlocked the casing and Mikhail reached in- side, detaching the crest from the mannequin, and stared at it admiringly.
The crest had been thought of as a worthless orna- ment, until now, and it wouldn’t be missed. But just to be certain, Gregor adjusted the mannequin’s shirt so it covered the chest area where the crest had been before he locked up the display.
He was fairly certain he had covered all angles. He knew how to shut down the security system, including the security cameras, and he knew how to grease the guards so they would forget he was ever there. His heart raced. He had never done anything like this before. But he was certain it was well worth the risk. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I don’t believe it. I don’t know how to thank you.” Mikhail said.
“You already have, cousin. I’m just glad to be part of our family heritage, finally.”
They both knew, of course, that being part of the fam- ily heritage had little interest to Gregor. He might have been a curator who loved preserving history, but when it came to his own family’s cryptic past, he only longed for reconciliation, aka an inheritance. After all those years that his mother made sure he knew that he had been slighted, left out, wrongfully eliminated from uncle Ru- sian’s infamous brewery—his time had come.
As they exited, the possibilities of unlimited gold flashed through Gregor’s mind. This favor alone could eliminate all the injustice he and his mother had endured, and pay it off in spades.
“Well worth the risk,” he muttered to himself as they marched out of Casa Museu Gaudi.
He had no way of knowing that it would be the very last time he would do so.
Back in Langley, Jay Martin had a private booth in the Directorate of Intelligence division, sur- rounded by a bank of controls and monitors, and the center screen projected a live feed of Simon Bryant from an airplane.
“Just got off with our embassy in Italy,” Martin report- ed. “She wasted two known assassins in Venice. Seemed like self-defense, but she fled, left a mess.”
“Who ordered the hit on her?” Simon Bryant asked.
“No idea. They were independents, so we can’t trace it to any affiliation.”
“Where is she now?”
“Italian police lost her in a boat chase. They found the boat she snatched, but no body.”
“Anybody see her go overboard?”
“No, sir. Last they saw of her, she was heading out into the Adriatic.”
Simon Bryant took a long moment to process this.
“If she drowned, they would have found her body by now. Assuming they’re searching, that is.”
“Oh, they’re searching, believe me,” Martin con- firmed.
“Did you check the marine schedules?”
“There was a private charter super yacht leaving the harbor at the time she fled. Next stop is Barcelona, ac- cording to the booking agent.”
“Then that’s where she’s got to be. Anything else I should know?”
“Actually, yeah. I finally got someone from the Moss- ad to talk. I found out why they let her go.”
“You’re kidding me? You buried the lede?”
“Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”
Simon Bryant was edgy. His years of serving as an ana-
lyst demanded that he sort intelligence in order of impor- tance, and now that he was in the field, he expected the same consideration.
“I thought you’d be more interested in where she was going, than where she’s been,” Martin explained.
“Her past might tell us where she’s going.” Simon Bryant was aware that he came off persnickety, something he didn’t like when he was on the other side. And he was reminded that feeling pressure changes behavior, even his own, the reason agency analysts use the same disclaim- er as Wall Street: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. His first boss often told him that the hu- man element is always too unpredictable to qualify for; it should be considered, but never unconditionally. And so Simon Bryant lightened up, took his hand off the switch and leaned back in his seat. “Now tell me everything.”
A chilly, rainy evening in Berlin resulted in very lit-
tle activity outside the Reichstag building, save for the armed guards circling the perimeter and a TV reporter at the bottom of the steps being videotaped by his crew:
“In a move to limit neo-Nazi rallies during the upcom- ing anniversary of the end of World War II, the lower house of the German Parliament voted Friday to tighten restrictions on gatherings around landmarks honoring Holocaust victims. The move came amid government fears of a resurgence of right-wing extremism.”
In a boardroom inside, government officials sat around a conference table, Matthias at the helm, Freund to her right, as they all watched a big monitor replaying Matth- ias’ speech at a press conference earlier in the day:
“To think of anyone demonstrating in front of memo- rials for victims of Nazi crimes, either endorsing, denying or playing down these crimes against humanity is unbear- able.”
Matthias waved toward the back of the boardroom, the playback was shut off, and she addressed her staff with deep concern. “The National Democratic Party will no doubt make waves about freedom of speech. Others may be wary. What do the polls say?”
One of the aides referenced his notes. “There is cer- tainly a significant response, almost seven percent de- crease in Berlin alone.”
The Secretary of the Treasury chimed in. “Add this to over eleven percent unemployment, our chronically chal- lenged economy, the mounting problems with the Euro, the unwavering debt crisis, and we have a problem the size of the Zugspitze.”
“In an election year like this,” Matthias said, visibly concerned, “all I need now is to open the can of worms that lies in that godforsaken U-boat.” She turned to Freund. “Have we made any progress with the States?”
“They’re still stalling,” Freund answered. “It’s time to move in, make a statement to the world, in my opinion.” “I asked for a status report, not your opinion,” Matth-
ias shot back, in no mood for Freund’s posturing or poli- ticking. She had been warned many times about Freund’s agenda, his reputation as an opportunist, the potential betrayal, and the chancellor wanted to make sure every- one at this table didn’t think she was blind. “This is a matter for the general, is it not?”
Oddly, this made Freund grin. “Of course, how negli- gent of me. General, what sayeth?”
If Freund was trying to make light of the situation, or diminish the chancellor with hopes of provoking likeminded disloyalties, he was sorely mistaken: no one jumped on the bandwagon. They all turned to General Reinhard for his recommendation, knowing that Matth- ias usually sided with her very conservative military head.
“We can send our navy in,” the general said. “It’s most likely our only chance to retrieve the U-boat. But make no mistake, it will be seen as an act of aggression. And we have to be prepared for a United States response that will be hard-hitting. Your call, chancellor.”
Matthias took a long beat before she made her deci- sion.
“God help us all.”
The dive site was swarming with U.S. navy ships. Underwater sea cranes surrounded the sub, testing the circumference with high-tech sensors. On the flagship cruiser, the admiral in command of the task force ap- proached the NSA officer in charge, who answered the admiral’s question before it was asked:
“Every entrance has a series of triggers, backups, back- ups to the backups. I’ve never seen anything like this, sir.” “Let’s bring it up then,” the admiral said. “I’m not go- ing to risk my ships and men out here. I want you people
to dismantle this thing on land.”
Sea crane lines were secured around the bottom of the
U-boat. The admiral signaled for the ship to be raised.
But as the pulley system cranked and the lines tugged,
the submarine broke into sections and slid back down to
the bottom. The divers waved frantically to stop the lifting.
“Stop the crane!” the admiral ordered before turning
to the NSA man. “What the hell!?”
“Looks like the thing was also designed so it can’t be
lifted,” the NSA man said.”
The admiral took a deep breath. “What the hell are
they protecting down there?”
Back at the Reichstag building, Freund left the boardroom meeting and hurried toward his office to see if there had been any progress on his self-directed manhunt for Ariel and Charlie. Before he got there, his Android beeped, indicating an urgent video call. He answered without hesitations. “Tell me something good.”
“You wanted us to trace the CIA jet...”
“Where is it?”
“Just requested an unscheduled landing in Barcelona.” “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day. They must
know something we don’t. Stay on them like a bun on bratwurst. I’m on my way to Spain.”
In the port of Barcelona at the foot of La Rambla, the city’s most famous boulevard, the usual naval activity had settled down at the end of the day when the chartered super yacht pulled in to dock, just thirteen minutes past its scheduled arrival.
Ariel stepped off the pier along with the still-partying guests, and was making her way up the ramp and through the turnstiles when a large hand grabbed her shoulder. She spun around to face Simon Bryant who did his best to greet her with a smile, albeit an austere one. “Ms. Ellis, we need to talk.”
She looked around for an escape, but immediately no- ticed the handful of his cohorts positioned at every exit. CIA Director Goss had sent a half-dozen extra opera- tives, not so much to keep an eye on the new field agent, but because he wanted to equip him with every advan- tage—and he was allowed to use them as he saw fit.
Simon Bryant had known she’d be beautiful. He had, of course, seen pictures, but none of them had done her justice. She was even more striking with her windblown hair and the glow in her cheeks from the fresh ocean air. And if she lacked any sleep from this journey, it only made her look even more sultry. It had been a long time since he felt this kind of immediate allure, and an even much longer time that he were far enough away from his stifling home life that he could do anything about it. A pang of his struggling, tense marriage came over him. He thought of the field agents he knew over the years who often joked about their excursions on the road with the famous ad slogan: What happens in Vegas, stays in Ve- gas. Nevertheless, he maintained a professional tone and stuck to the business at hand. “You could run, but you won’t get very far,” he warned. “And it will only make things worse.”
She had been in his position many times and knew her options were shrinking.
“You can’t go back to Israel,” he continued. “And I would venture to guess that you like being a U.S. citizen. So I suggest that you cooperate.”
“I read your dissertation. Fascinating stuff. How much is true so far?”
“I’m trying to find out.”“It took a lot of courage to do what you did. But we have to step in now. And I need to bring back Charlie Rocklin as well. Where is he?”
“I’m not sure exactly.”
Simon Bryant really did appreciate her fortitude, and he hated squashing a dream, but he also had a job to do. He figured he’d try one more time to appeal to her good sense, maybe even meet her half way.
“What is it you really want from this?” he asked.
“The truth,” her stock answer, “I just want to learn the truth.”
“If it’s just answers you need to know, we can help,” he assured her. “Cooperate, and you have my word. I’ll keep you informed about everything we learn. We’re much better equipped to do this. And like I said, you re- ally don’t have a choice right now. It’s become a high level international matter.”
Ariel took one more glance at the guarded exits before she divulged. “I don’t have the entire key yet, but I think we’re close.”
“So there is a key. Where is it?”
“I can’t say for sure.”
He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.
“You don’t want history to repeat itself, do you?” he
said. “I know everything about what happened to you in the Mossad. You ignored orders. You went off the deep end.”
“The deep end is usually more satisfying than the shal- low side, don’t you think?”
“I think second chances are rare,” he told her as she looked out to sea. “And you can’t start over until you let go of the past.”
He understood her sacrifice, sympathized with her ob- ligation, and hated having to play this role. “We can offer you protection. Real protection.” And he hoped he was able to live up to his promise.
“For both of us?” she asked after a beat, surprised that her concern for Charlie was the first thing that came to mind.
“Yes. For both of you.”
“Like you said, I don’t really have a choice, do I?” “It’s the right thing to do.”
“I hope so.”
“Can we give you a lift somewhere? We can work out
the details on the way.”
“No. Thanks. We can work out the details right here,
right now. And please do not follow me all night. Let me play this out my way.”
“Of course,” he agreed.
This would prove to be a mistake on Simon Bryant’s part, but not for the reasons he would have imagined.
He proceeded to explain how they would execute the exchange, when and where. And once they walked through the main gate leading to La Rambla, they split off in opposite directions, each heading to very different consigns of the nocturnal city of dreams and thieves, each disappearing into the night that would change their lives forever.
The Port Olympic division of Barcelona had two sec-
tions, divided by the infamous Arts Hotel. To the right were the more refined shops and restaurants. To the left, facing the sea, was a strip of bars and discos offering free shots, hip-hop, and reggaeton to every passerby—the cheaper side of night clubbing where the odd bit of trou- ble is always a possibility.
Ariel made her way through the strip with a little more than an hour to kill before she was to reconvene with Charlie and Mikhail. She was fairly certain that Simon Bryant had kept his word, that she wasn’t being followed. Just to be sure, she turned inside a crowded discothèque called Club Catwalk, wove through the crowded dance floor, in part, to be sure she wasn’t being trailed, but also to bump into a tipsy patron, lift his cell phone from his suit pocket, and make sure her time waiting would be productive.
All phone calls to her “former employer” had to be made from phones that could never be traced back to her, or any affiliate. So she went out the back exit that led into an alley, dialed an old familiar number, and the voice on the other end asked the routine questions, beginning with: “What number are you calling?”
Ariel answered with a twelve-digit number, which was her ID number in reverse. The voice on the other end typed the numbers into his computer, and Ariel’s stats came up. The GPS phone tracker automatically signaled her exact location with a digital map, so she wouldn’t have to say it out loud.
“How can I help you?” the voice asked.
“I just need some advice.”
If Ariel had said that she needed help with something,
the person on the line would know she was in a life- threatening situation, but by asking for advice, the voice on the other end understood that she was looking for a weapon on foreign soil.
“I have a gamer shop three streets away,” the voice said. “It’s British, but we can play.”
Everyone doing undercover and covert work abroad had the same problem when traveling: they couldn’t get on commercial airplanes with firearms, and they couldn’t legally buy weapons in most foreign countries. There- fore, nearly every city around the world had underground access to arms, with reciprocity to friendly nations. Ariel knew that anything she wanted, within reason, would be available to her within minutes. She wanted to be pre- pared and protected. So she checked the time to confirm that she had almost an hour before the rendezvous with Charlie and Mikhail, and placed her order: “I’m ready to roll.”
“Walk to the end of the alley and you’ll come out on Carrer Avinyo,” the voice explained. “Turn right, go thir- ty-five meters, and turn left on Carrer Arai. It will be on the east side of the street. Do you need anything else?”
“Not at the moment.”
“We look forward to hearing from you soon.” Which meant that it was clear she was about to have some kind of confrontation, and they would be standing by, and she
should leave no trail behind, including the civilian, trace- able phone she was calling on.
“I’m on my way,” Ariel confirmed as she tossed the phone in a dumpster and followed the directions.
The storefront of Game Station was exactly where the voice on the other line had said it would be, and once Ar- iel entered, there was nothing unusual about the flock of teenagers dispersed about the first floor video consoles. At the back of the shop was a staircase with an armed guard who gave Ariel a nod when she made eye contact, and then he opened the gate to direct her upstairs.
The second floor was geared toward paintball gamers, tactlessly decorated with posters of bikini-clad women with guns. A pimple-faced clerk behind the counter rec- ognized Ariel from the way the voice on the other line had described her, but since Ariel’s beauty was indescrib- able, and because the clerk’s twenty-one-year-old hor- mones were raging, sweat stains began to appear through his t-shirt as she approached.
“Welcome to Game Station,” the Clerk’s voice squeaked. “Are you ready to play?”
“Show me your stuff, handsome,” she said in a velvety cadence that made the clerk begin to shake.
He led her through the back room, up another flight of stairs, and into a five hundred square foot private weap- ons shop with glass counters encasing authentic combat, military, and police paraphernalia.
“There’s more in the back,” the clerk boasted. “Just let me know what you’re looking for.”“Can I see that one?” she asked, pointing to a handgun under the glass.
He unlocking the casing and handed her the gun.
She handled it expertly, adding fuel to the clerk’s ulti-
mate fantasy fire.
“It’s a Tanfoglio Witness cal 45ACP,” he informed her,
“one eight round double stacked mag, single and double action.”
“Nice balance,” she observed.
“Nice look for you,” he winced.
He reached for another weapon, placed it up on the
counter, postured audaciously. “I think you’ll be even more impressed with this one.”
She examined it closely, ran her fingers gently along the barrel. “Mmmm...impressive. Looks like, what, an eight-inch barrel?
“Eight and a half,” the clerk defensively corrected her.
“You’re well-equipped,” she indulged. “I’ll take ’em both.”
“Great. You’ll need silencers, too?”
“Always better not to make a bang.”
He fit both guns with suppressors. “These are new.
Guaranteed to render your shots inaudible.”
“And you’ll need bullets.” He pulled a box from his
“While your there,” she pointed to the rack above
him, “I’ll take two of those bulletproof vests.” “Sure thing.”
As he gathered everything, she noticed a few odd de- vices in the glass cabinet, and pointed to one masked with a small flower broach, and a wire attached to a miniature microphone. “What’s this cute little thing?”
“It’s a digital video camera. Only five grams. And wa- terproof.”
“Great. It could come in handy, you never know.”
“Right. You never know,” he agreed.
She then grabbed a stylish High Sierra trail pack, “And
this should make it all nice and easy to carry.”
“You bet. Anything else?”
“Nope. Ring me up.”
He entertained the thought, “Oh yeah, I’d sure like to
ring you up, baby,” as he packed her arsenal.
But the only words that came out were, “You know, it’s taken care of.” Meaning that her former employer would
pay the tab.
After the years of risking her life, she had certainly
earned a lifetime of free protection.
And as she headed back out onto the streets of Barce-
lona, she hoped that her lifetime would last beyond the transfer she had promised the American agent.
Unbeknown to Simon Bryant, just a half hour after he had left the port, The Nieuw Amsterdam I, a Holland America cruise ship, pulled into the harbor, dropping off Charlie Rocklin with a boatload of sightseers for a romp of Barcelona nightlife, which was just getting underway.
Back in Grachtengordela, Charlie had gotten off the Dutch pleasure craft at its first stop, the Port of Amsterdam, not only to flee any potential connection to Tanya’s death, but also to board the next transport heading for the City of Catalans.
Luckily, there were available seats on The Nieuw Amsterdam I, a state of the art cruiser in which Charlie would enjoy only the first leg. He had spent a few hours hopping from the Pan-Asian restaurant to a sampling of the Canaletto and Tamarind fare, and then picking off the decadent dessert spread at the gourmet buffet. Over the next few hours, he sat alone in his lavish, appointed stateroom where he looked out at the starry night and reflected on the last four decades.
It was his fortieth birthday, he realized, and spending it on the sea, alone, was the most perfect way to celebrate. He felt a reprieve from his burdens, a moment of peace he rarely experienced. His nagging, omnipresent aspira- tions, his often obsessive searches, mismatched romanc- es, and all the close calls, near misses, derailed dreams, and broken hearts that he had attributed to his lack of synchronicity and bad luck—they were all necessary, he decided—an unexpected perspective shift. Time had not been wasted; there was purpose to everything. And he felt blessed. He pegged the North Star, Polaris, and told her that he was grateful for being one of the lucky ones who followed their passion, their truth, without compromise, and then he made a wish: 40 more years of the same—but this half to be shared.
And then he let it go.
After his arrival in the Spanish port, he trekked through the busy Sitges District, de Maig and its continuation, a long run of bars and clubs like Shoko, CDLC and Opium Mar, designer clubbing at its best, interspersed with res- taurants and cocktail bars with crowded outdoor tables.
Charlie moved through, enjoying the Costa Brava ex- cess. The young people of Barcelona knew how to party. Charlie enjoyed their carefree zeal, and noted how that part of his life had long passed, or in reality, never was. He had never been much of a nightlife enthusiast, and was never really carefree about anything. If turning 40 would be some kind of milestone where one door would close and another would open, he hoped it had something to do with confluence he, Ariel, and Mikhail had planned back in Prague, and the future it would soon reveal.
Inside Club Red, hipsters drank regional Rioja, dined
on Catalan delights, and danced to a throbbing Buddha Bar mix.
Charlie was waiting at the bar when Ariel walked through the door, right at midnight. Both were visibly relieved to find the other alive and well, and they came together on the crowded dance floor.
“How was the trip?” Charlie said, leaning in close so she could hear over the loud music.
“Fantastic,” she said. “I took a cruise.”
“No kidding. So did I.”
“You look well rested.”
“As do you. The food was divine.” “And the service was superb.”
The harum-scarum vibe in this club made Charlie want to indulge in their playfulness for a moment. He spun her around and they danced for a short while. He couldn’t help thinking about how glad he was to see her, and how good she looked. Better than good. Delicious, actually.
The music changed to a slow tempo. She put her arms around him, and they moved well together. “Anyone fol- low you here?” she whispered in his ear.
“Don’t think so,” he whispered in hers. “Did you get your part of the key?”
“Yep,” he confirmed as he looked around. “I wonder where Mikhail is.”
“He’ll be here.”
“Hope you’re right.”
“How was Amsterdam?”
“Not only is prostitution legal, but the working girls
can moonlight as assassins.”
“Thanks, because now that I’m certain someone’s try-
ing to kill me, I’d sure like to know exactly what we’re dealing with here.”
“You still think I’m withholding, don’t you?”
Some dancers passed through, then Charlie pulled Ariel back even closer, “You want to be partners? Then I need to know everything.”
“The more you know, the more difficult it will be.”
“And some people still think it’s possible to turn scrap into gold,” he reminded her.
“The alchemists had many personal legends. One be- ing that the formula was so simple that it could be written on the surface of a philosopher’s stone, an emerald, but so complex that it contained the elixir of life, the soul of the world.”
“Right, the infamous philosopher’s stone,” Charlie said with obvious skepticism. “The elixir of life, eternal youth and immortality...”
“In order to succeed, you must believe you deserve it. People always say they want to take risks, but most people can’t tolerate a life out of control. Ironic, don’t you think?”
Charlie considered her meaning. “Maybe that’s why you teach history, because it’s impossible to change?” And then he caught himself, realizing the parallel. “And may- be that’s what I like about finding shipwrecks.”
“I teach history because it repeats itself...He’s here.” She gestured toward the entrance where Mikhail was moving through. “Let’s continue this conversation an- other time.”
Charlie agreed. “Another place, another time.” #
Mikhail, Ariel, and Charlie sat in a small private booth talking over the din. Ariel put her hand over Mikhail’s and looked him in the eye. “Has anyone made you?”
“Clean as a whistle,” he answered.
“That’s good,” Ariel said as she reached in her blouse. She was the first to disclose her crest, the old-style key,
and placed it on the table.
Mikhail slid his crest with the eagle next to it.
Then Charlie laid down the crest with the windmill.
As Ariel reached for them, she knocked over her High Sierra trail pack stuffed with gamer store goods onto the floor. As she bent over to pick it up, Mikhail noticed a tat- too on the small of her back: the symbol of the old style key, the symbol of Clara Molnar.
“Let’s see if they fit,” Ariel said as she came back up.
But Mikhail snatched his back and closed his fist. “No. Not until we all come clean.”
Charlie was taken aback. “What are you talking about, Mikhail?”
Ariel also seemed bewildered. “Yeah, I don’t under- stand.”
“You know damn well what I’m talking about,” Mikhail insinuated, staring down Ariel. “I know who you are.”
“And I know who you are,” Ariel snapped back.
“And I know who you both are,” Charlie added. “What’s going on, you two?”
“Her connection to Clara Molnar,” Mikhail answered.
Ariel had really hoped to avoid this conversation, but now she knew she had been delusional in thinking she could.
“Well?” Charlie asked, both men staring her down.
“She’s my grandmother.”
“The third lead chemist?” Charlie asked.
Back in Theresienstadt, Clara Molnar, the third chem- ist in the alchemist lab, wears an old-style key as a locket. As R. H. Pikantní, and Frederick Maisel are forced out at gunpoint by shouting SS Officers, Clara Molnar begs:
“There is no key! It must be destroyed. The formula must be destroyed.” And she gets Frederick Meisel’s atten- tion as he looks back. “Please, Frederick, tell me there is no key!”
Ariel pulled herself together. “Mikhail, your fam- ily kept the Pilsner recipe secret for many, many years, right?”
“I never met my grandmother. She died in the camps, as you know. But I believe that she felt the same way about her work in the alchemy lab. It must be protected.”
“They knew that the power of unlimited gold,” Mikhail acknowledged, “or worse, the ability to turn one element into another, would be abused,”
He placed his crest in Ariel’s hand and reassured her. “That’s why we’re together now. To make sure their wishes are honored.”
Charlie was taken back by the emotional heritage that was unfolding.
Mikhail was incredulous, finally connecting with Clara Molnar’s granddaughter, after all these years. He welled up and hugged her. And she had a hard time fighting back the tears as well.
In the engine room where the U-boats were once stored, the wires that Frederick Mikhail had rigged ignite.
In the Theresienstadt woods, Ariel’s grandmother, Mikhail’s uncle, and Josef’s father are shoved in front of freshly dug graves, guns aimed at them. They hold hands as the guns blast.
All eight submarines, each escaping, each in a different ocean... their gyroscopic steering mechanisms turn back on them, and they all plunge suddenly to the bottom...
Mikhail helped Ariel fit all three crests into the key, and they fit perfectly—a uniform, taut, beautiful form, just as they had imagined. And Mikhail couldn’t help himself, holding it up to the light, examining the ornate configuration, running his fingers over the refined en- gravings, the three keys that made up the ultimate key.
But Charlie broke their reverential silence to reiterate their most perplexing dilemma:
“If they sunk the eight U-boats because they didn’t want their secret found, we still don’t know why this key exists. If the alchemists believed the secret to alchemy would be too much power for anyone to handle, why would they leave anything at all?”
“Right,” Mikhail agreed. “We still don’t know why they didn’t just destroy the formula.”
“We may never know,” Ariel said as she took the crests away from Mikhail. “Because it’s time to let go.”
The two men looked at her, not understanding what she meant.
“We’ve taken this as far as we can. The three of us cannot fight a war. Tomorrow morning we’ll transfer this to a CIA agent in Placa de Sant Josep Oriol, a crowded place. Then we will have done all we could do.”
“What?!” Charlie protested, “Are you crazy?” 178
The Alchemist Agenda
“We’ve come this far already,” Mikhail pointed out.
“I was followed,” she explained. “And I made a deal.”
“How will we do this?” Mikhail asked.
“I meant Charlie and me. You won’t be coming with
us. You’re as clean as a whistle, right? No one’s followed you?”
Mikhail nodded. “No one followed me.”
“Then you still have a chance to go back to a normal life. Charlie and I may not have that luxury.”
Mikhail exhaled, almost relieved. “I understand.”
“It’s our only option,” Ariel said, almost convincingly. “And it’s the right thing to do.”
Simon Bryant had been somewhat uneasy about let-
ting Ariel free back at the harbor, well aware that he probably wouldn’t have been so agreeable if he weren’t so enamored with her beauty. Watching her on an all night stakeout seemed like a dream job, but per their agree- ment, it was not to be.
The other operatives questioned his decision, assum- ing she was a flight risk, but he was in charge, and he be- lieved that she would keep her word. He told his backup, well-trained intelligence muscle, those “oxymorons” of the CIA, to take the night off. This gave him a rare op- portunity to roam the streets like an anonymous civilian and enjoy a highly desired exploration of the local flavors.
He had been married for fifteen years, ten of which had been stale at best—tolerable when inebriated; for- gettable when immersed at work—but he didn’t have the heart to cut bait. Instead, he took the lower road, politicked diligently for a field agent position so he could work overseas, and live out some repressed fantasies. He had told his wife that fieldwork would be dangerous, but rewarding, and his absence from home would be a great sacrifice. He even lied to himself when he imagined that the occasional surreptitious indulgences abroad would be risk-free; if no one knew about them, no one would get hurt; no harm, no foul.
But he of all people should have known better. He had often told subordinate analysts, “The truth traps more than it sets free. The human element puts every assump- tion at risk.” And this was to be the night that by ignoring his favorite insight, his own human element would cost him more than he ever imagined.
They no longer called these places brothels. But that’s what they were. They were advertised as VIP Clubs, Body Shops, or Gentlemen’s Clubs; but ironically, that’s exactly what they were not.
A fee at the door completed his qualifications to enter: He had cash to burn and he was over 21.
Once inside, he walked up to the bar, ordered a drink, and waited for the ladies to approach him. He bought lap dances from the first few. They were fun, but not his type.
But when he saw the girl who called herself Miss Val- entina, he believed she was well worth the wait: tall, sul- try, and young. In retrospect, he should have asked how young, because in Spain, there were laws, just like back home.
Simon and Miss Valentina agreed upon a price and she took him to a back room.
“You pay first, si?”
Simon Bryant counted out the cash and handed it to her. “Muchas gracias.”
“Take off clothes and be comfortable. I come right back.”
He got naked and lay down on the well-worn mat- tress. With his training, he should have noticed the in- frared cameras planted in the corner of the room, but he was as nervous as he was excited with the possibility of having sex with the first woman other than his wife in nearly twenty years. He was being unfaithful for the first time. He was breaking the law for the first time. And he felt momentarily liberated from his tenacious marital sentence for the first time.
His mind wandered from imagining what Miss Valen- tina would feel like to how sexy Ariel was when he first laid eyes on her. And then his arousal began to fade. He started to feel chilled as he waited for what seemed to be an eternity. Why was Miss Valentina taking so long? What were the real risks here from an analytical perspec- tive? What was the probability factor of something going wrong? Then he started to question his reasons for doing this, why he thought a clandestine infidelity would some- how serve as his recompense for the painful wedlock he was part responsible for, and why he was he risking his first shot at his dream job so soon. It was improbable that he would be there, he acknowledged; based on his past behavior, it was highly unlikely that he should be lying there naked waiting for Miss Valentina. And then he re- membered the human factor, the unqualifiable element, and he began chanting the analyst’s doctrine out loud: “Past performance does not guarantee future results...”
Sure enough, when Miss Valentina returned, she brought three undercover police with her.
Barcelona’s finest had to occasionally demonstrate that they were upholding the laws that restricted a place like this. They had a quota to meet every month, and so they had a deal with the local establishments: they would only make an arrest when signaled, and they would only arrest foreigners, so they wouldn’t shun away the local clientele.
Simon Bryant was arrested, jailed, and charged with solicitation of a minor. The digital infrared video cameras provided undeniable proof that money had been offered in exchange for sex.
And when the authorities checked his passport and credentials and learned that he was an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, they took full advantage of a rare opportunity. It gave them leverage. And it gave them pleasure. They told him they planned to use him as an example of the ugly American hypocrite by releasing photos for the morning tabloids and video to flood the Internet.
It was a long night for Simon Bryant. His pleading about the importance of his high security investigation and the sensitivity of the international issue he was in- volved in fell on deaf ears. They would not set bail. And they would not get him a public defender until the next day.
His desperation increased as the hours passed. His mind raced about how his life would implode the instant his indiscretion was exposed. He had devoted his life to serve and protect his country. He had always been on the pursuer’s team. Now he was the perp. He had never felt shame like this. He swore on his life that he would nev- er do anything like this again, if there was some way he could somehow minimize the damage, even make it go away. And the potential embarrassment paled in compar- ison to the repercussions if he didn’t find a way to show up for the exchange with Ariel to secure the U-boat key.
So he used his one phone call to ring the Bat Phone.
It took about one hour, two conversations with the American ambassador in Spain, and three more with Spanish government officials before an agreement was made. Simon Bryant was released just before sunrise and his arrest would be kept from the press.
Simon Bryant was escorted back to his hotel where he would sleep until dawn, take a long, hot shower, put on fresh clothes, have a hearty breakfast, and start anew. He was certain he was going to be able to turn things back around, finish his assignment, and return home with a slap on the wrist, and an Intelligence Star.
But once again, he naïvely hadn’t factored in the hu-
The full moon dappled shadows through the trees of Parc Guell. Ariel and Charlie snuck up to a Le Parc estate with stunning views across the city, pavilions of contorted stone, giant decorative lizards, a vast hall of columns, manic swirls of outdoor design.
They lay down on a huge ceramic bench, calmed by the steadfast flow from an enormous four-tiered fountain, and Ariel was finally ready to share.
After a lifetime of carrying the burden of other peoples’ secrets, the lineage of pain and suffering, and a promise to prevent more injustices, she spared anyone close to her the encumbrance of her past; and so she didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin. The idea of letting her guard down made her as anxious as much as it excited her. It would be a long overdue release in which she had never indulged, and she was more than eager. But to do so, she still felt conflicted as her first lesson growing up the way she did was so deeply embedded: Trust no one.
Charlie put his arm around her, and in turn she rested her head on his chest. His free hand caressed her hair and neck, and then he kissed her softly on the forehead, reassuringly, as if he knew the few simple soft spots that would break down the hardened barriers and allow her to feel secure enough to believe that he could be trusted.
She closed her eyes, debated how vulnerable she would allow herself to be, weighing the risks or rewards she would enjoy or suffer. He was knocking on the door of real intimacy and she had a few ways she could deal with it. She could cross the line of sexuality and keep it physical, which she had done in the past; expose herself emotionally, which she had never done; or both, which she had deeply longed for.
And so she began:
“I was raised in Israel, did my requirements in the army, and was recruited by the the HaMossad leModi’in uleTafkidim Meyuchadim while I was still at the Univer- sity.”
“The Institute of Intelligence was your ‘former em- ployer’ who got us our passports and tickets back at JFK?” “Yes. I’m no longer in their service, but you never re-
ally leave, if you know what I mean.”
“My last assignment was an investigation into a Pales-
tinian training center. Potential suicide bombers. I went undercover and spent several months getting close to the sources. What I found was much more deadly than an- ticipated. I wound up breaking up a very large network. I was commended and promoted.”
“Not in the end it wasn’t. When I came home, my brothers were dead. Both of them. It was a message to me.”
“Like I said, the network was large, and I exposed it.” “So they made sure you paid the price?”
“They murdered my brothers.”
“I lost control,” she continued. “I tracked down the
killers who did it and slaughtered each and every one of them, against orders. Against strict orders. I reignited old problems and caused new ones. And I broke every rule in the book to do so. I went off the deep end, so to speak.”
“Sometimes the deep end is more satisfying than the shallow end, don’t you think?”
She did. And for the very first time, she finally felt known. She kissed him on the lips, slow and long, but then she pulled back, and he wasn’t sure why.
“Now tell me your story,” she said.
And he was more than happy to comply.
Under the moonlight, U.S. Navy vessels circled the
area. Onboard the flagship cruiser an officer looked up from his radar scope, awestruck, as the ship’s captain ap- proached him. “What is it?”
“The German ships, sir. They’re no longer standing off. They’ve changed course and are headed this way. I thought they didn’t have clearance to do that.”
“They don’t,” the skipper replied.
“Do we intercept?”
“It’s not our call to make,” and he turned to a nearby
lieutenant commander. “Get the admiral.” #
Mikhail thought about taking a red eye back to Prague but instead decided to call Gregor and see if it would be okay to stay with him a night or two. He thought it would good to get to know his cousin a little better, and he really wanted to stay nearby when Ariel and Charlie handed off the key to the CIA. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but leav- ing them, and the key, back in Club Red didn’t sit well. Maybe it was the anticlimactic end to the secret he kept most of his life; perhaps it was how it was handled, a deal made in private, passing the baton to a foreign intelli- gence agency; or possibly, it was simply just a gut feeling.
He wanted to talk about it and there was only one per- son he knew of who would understand, so he made the call from the backseat of the taxicab and was happily sur- prised when Josef Maisel picked up at this late hour, as if he were expecting the call.
“Hello, Mikhail. How did it go?”
“I hope I didn’t wake you, Josef.”
“Not at all. I’m staying at a friend’s home. This is my
cell phone you dialed.”
Mikhail didn’t want to pry into the old man’s personal
life, the reason he assumed he would be at a “friend’s” at this late hour. And Josef didn’t want to elaborate on the real reason he was shacking up at a trusted Russian cello player’s apartment in the neighborhood of Zizkov.
Zizkov was traditionally a Roman outpost, but had become a residential district popular with ex-pats from all over. And the cello player’s apartment served Josef as one of the many safe havens he had arranged in case he had unwanted visitors. After the episode some twenty years ago when intruders beat him so badly that he nearly died, he had a hidden door built in his flat that led to the fire escape and onto the rooftop of the adjacent building where he could escape to the next street over, should it ever happen again.
And it did happen again, just hours after Ariel and Charlie left him the day before. Thugs with shaved heads broke his door down and stormed his home. He had enough time to slip out before they tore his home to shreds looking for clues, which thankfully, he had earlier entrusted to other alchemist allies.
But Josef didn’t burden Mikhail with any of this; he cared only about one thing: the key.
“Please,” Josef begged, “tell me everything.”
Mikhail filled him in on how they got to Spain and how they pulled together the key.
“Well done,” Josef said, pleased that his security mea- sures had finally paid off.
But those tides immediately turned when Mikhail ex- plained that Ariel made a deal with the CIA.
“She what!” Josef shouted.
“She made a deal.”
“It’s a trap.”
“I don’t think so. Tomorrow morning they’re meeting
a CIA agent in Placa Sant Josep Oriol, a crowded square, so it will all be in the open. And I think that she’s doing the right thing, Josef. The Americans can keep it safer than we can.”
Josef didn’t agree. He was livid when he hung up the phone.
He thanked his trusted Russian cello player for the hospitality and left the Zizkov neighborhood as quickly as possible.
Mikhail felt terrible and conflicted. And when he
made it back to Gregor Pikantní’s Barrio Alto & Gràcia Tudor, he received a tirade of sentiments similar to Josef Maisel ’s.
“How in God’s name could you just give it away?” Gregor lamented.
“On some level, I feel a relief releasing this burden,” he told his cousin. “Something for nothing always brings more problems than answers, more pain than pleasure. I think it’s the right decision.”
“It wasn’t only your decision to make,” Gregor snapped, disappointed that his share of unlimited gold had just evaporated for good.
“Let’s be honest. The United States leads the world. They are best suited to keep it safe, and least likely to use it.”
“Nonsense. If you really wanted to avoid anyone us- ing it, then you should have tossed the thing back in the middle of the ocean and forgotten about it altogether. But no one has ever been able to truly let go of power, once they have it.”
Mikhail knew on some level that his cousin was right, posing the same vexing, perplexing dilemma: Why was there a key in the first place?
Mikhail lay awake for hours, debating and vacillating. In the morning, he concluded, he would have another discussion with his cousin, and together they would de- cide what should be done.
Josef Maisel hated to fly, so he always kept a prepaid
Rail Europe pass in his wallet. Since the trains ran all night, he took a taxicab to the main railway station, and made arrangements to catch the 3 a.m. nonstop.
The ride to Barcelona was smooth. The passenger cars were kept dark and quiet, and most of the people slept the entire way.
But Josef wasn’t one of them. He looked out the win- dow, the pitch-black landscape flashing by as his mind drifted back to his unshakable memories of Theresien- stadt.
Young Josef makes his way to a concrete building with no windows, save for the ones with steel bars leading to the basement. His father sees Josef, brightens, and excuses himself from the others. His father hands him the book of “Golem.” Clara Molnar and R.H. Pikantní notice and share a concerned glance before they go back to work. They don’t notice Frederick showing his son the code he had written inside the book.
And that’s when SS officers storm in and begin round- ing up the Alchemist Club.“Frederick Maisel!”
Josef’s father turns to see the Clara Molnar and R.H. Pikantní being led away.
One of the officers grabs Frederick and leads him away; the last time Josef ever sees his father.
Josef thought about what little time he had with his parents, yet how their influence stayed ever present. He remembered his mother’s raspy but gentle voice. He re- membered how his father always looked at him with an ounce of hope and a pound of regret. Josef thought about the key, about its inherited burden all these years, and how it was also the only bond left between him and his beloved parents.
And he thought about how he could never break that bond.
Ariel lay on top of Charlie as he finished telling her
about the handwritten Codex Sinaiticus he had found in a cave near the Red Sea, how disappointed he was when it was stolen, as well as the entire Sterling Ray episode, and how defeated he felt when he was betrayed. She had learned about the broad strokes of these affairs from her news sources and inquiries on him, but his back-story in- cluded the emotions behind those letdowns, and so she empathized with the totality of their impact.
“Tell me something else. Tell me about your child- hood,” she asked playfully, her tactic to continue turning the tables on him.“I was on a swim team.”
“Come on, something more personal.”
“My first crush broke my heart.”
“I never liked chocolate.”
“How about something that would surprise me?” “Today’s my birthday,” he said. “The big four-oh.” “That is big news.” She kissed him on the cheek and
ruffed up his hair. “Happy, happy birthday.” “Thanks.”
They held each other in silence for a long while. Charlie wondered if there were any e-mails or messages on his voice mail back home, if any of his old friends who might have remembered, possibly a brother or sister, but he doubted it.
He grew up in the Lincoln section of Middlesex and was now the only member of his family who still had a New Jersey address. His father had been the fire chief for the biggest fire company in the borough, an unwanted heritage he carried on, resentfully, from Charlie’s grand- father. But that wasn’t the only thing his father had inher- ited; his third heart attack killed him ten years ago, just as Charlie was finally getting to know him as a person.
Charlie’s mother died just two years afterwards, from lung cancer, even though she never smoked a day in her life. During the service at the cemetery, one of Charlie’s brothers joked that she must have inhaled too much of their father’s toxic anger, which no one found to be funny. And her funeral was the last time Charlie saw any of his brothers or sisters.They had all moved away over the years, as soon as they were able, finding jobs and lives around the coun- try, hoping the distance would erase their venomous up- bringing. None of the children were ever close, and as far as Charlie knew, none of them kept in touch.
Nothing terrible had ever happened between them to cause the silence. It was just that with both parents gone, they had nothing left in common.
There were two older sisters and two younger broth- ers. Charlie was the middle child, the middle child from Middlesex. And although he suffered severe middle child syndrome—more neglected and ignored than the others, more at home with independence, as well as the inher- ent loneliness—he was the most stable and driven of the bunch.
It was no secret that he was also both of his parents’ fa- vorite, the obscured middle child who always tried harder. And Charlie had always been cognizant of the irony, that as the mislaid middle child he had made a career search- ing for the forgotten treasures of the world.
Usually too much attention on himself made Charlie uneasy, but 40 was an undeniable milestone, this middle child encroaching on middle age, and he felt comfortable enough with Ariel to indulge a little. Maybe more than a little.
“I’ll tell you this,” he reflected. “It usually makes me sad when I think too much about my past. Both of my parents are gone, I haven’t spoken to my brothers or sis- ters in years, and I’m still single.”
“Why do you think you’re still alone?” Ariel asked, re- lating only too well, hoping he wouldn’t turn the mirror around on her this time.
He thought about his forgettable string of girlfriends, how each ex was only a precursor for the next. There was never a shortage of dates, but usually a lack of connec- tion, and always an empty heart.
“I’m not really sure,” he admitted. “I would like to share my life with someone and I definitely want kids. I’ve come close a few times, but I never seem to find the right match.”
“Couple-hood’s not for everyone.”
“I’ve thought about that possibility, too. It hasn’t been all that bad. I come and go as I like. I’m alive, I’m healthy, I’ve always pursued my passions and haven’t sold out in a way that would give me any regrets, even though things haven’t always panned out the way I wanted them to... I’m rambling, aren’t I?”
“I like it. Keep talking.”
“I like getting to know you.”
“I feel the same way about you.”
The conversation was flowing, but the undercurrent
was surging. They both felt trapped in the throes of des- peration, out of their minds with desire, longing to be touched by the other, to be kissed and loved properly, to feel connected and fulfilled.
But at the same time, they were both conflicted— frightened of the unknown, terrified to be alone, ravenous but immobile, aroused but motionless, ready but un- certain.
If they allowed themselves to be completely vulner- able, something neither of them had ever fully done, would they be too exposed? If they went “there,” there would be no turning back. And then what?
And with all these variant thoughts about the repercus- sions and what it meant to let go, they still both felt more in sync, relaxed, and drawn to each other than either ever had. And being adventure seekers, neither wanted to miss out on such a potentially life-changing opportunity.
They let go at the same time, with tender kisses and affectionate caresses, still measured and reserved, but inexorable now. And then the tension built, a delirium of anticipation, both trembling as they undressed each other, intoxicated as they devoured the contours of their bodies. Bare skin pressed, shuddered, their naked legs en- twining—and then they found the synchronistic rhythm where they separated from conscious thought and fell into the abyss.
Charlie ran his hands all over her, his charge building, unflagging, indefatigable.
Ariel kissed him hard, with an aggression he hadn’t expected, unfaltering, persistent.
They were desperate for each other, their hunger insa- tiable, the intermingling of their conjoined spirits insane with the notion that they both entered the most impor- tant justification for being alive, sharing a moment that would last a lifetime whether they were never to see each other again, live together forever, or turn up dead tomorrow. And none of those concerns mattered. They were here now. And this was all there was.
Chancellor Freida Matthias sat in a dark communica- tions room facing a live feed of CIA Director Richard Goss. These two had enjoyed amicable relations through- out their terms; they respected each other and had easily resolved delicate, no-press-coverage matters this way in the past, out of the standard head-of-state channel but with the blessing of the president.
The president had felt the same way after receiving the emergency call from the Pentagon, informing him of the approaching German ships. After consulting his military advisors, he chose to allow the CIA to continue handling the problem in order to keep it under the radar. Thus the direct call between Matthias and Goss.
The chancellor kept three trusted men close by, just off the live-feed camera: General Reinhard, her conservative military man, the president of Bundesnachrichtendienst, and the head of the Kommando Strategische Aufklärung.
But Matthias also included a fourth man at this meet- ing, on camera, one who she never truly trusted: Michael Freund, her vice-chancellor. It was customary to keep the chancellor’s son-of-a-bitch close by; he was, after all, the front man, the peacemaker, the face of goodwill, even though this one thought of himself as the hatchet man, the trigger finger, the necessary evil.
“Your navy has entered our waters without permis- sion,” Goss proclaimed.
“Your navy has broken international law by not allow- ing us access,” Matthias shot back.
“We’ve explained our reasoning.”
“And we’ve explained ours. We can draw by agree- ment, stalemate, or threefold repetition, because we’re just going in circles.”
“If this were a game, I’d laugh,” Goss said. “But your chess metaphors aren’t going to get us anywhere. And neither will the presence of your ships in our waters. Are you going to concede or are we going to dance?”
They were both growing more impatient by the sec- ond. The chancellor was glancing over at her General. And the CIA Director was deciding if it was time to send this problem back to the White House, despite their col- lective fear that the president’s involvement would cause this to spiral out of control.
“The irony,” Matthias observed, “is that you and I just want this to go away, we want the same thing.”
“It’s not you and I that we should be worried about.” Goss replied as he flipped through Ariel’s dissertation. “History teaches us that it only takes one bad seed to bring down an empire, as we both well know.”Josef Maisel arrived in Narbonne just before sunrise
and then transferred onto one of Spain’s new high-speed Talgo trains, one of the Herculean improvements in the Spanish state railway system. This leg of his trip was so smooth, he dosed off, missing the sun coming up over the picturesque country landscape, and almost missing his stop in Barcelona.
Fortunately, a woman sitting next to him had noticed his ticket and tapped him on the shoulder as they ap- proached the station, “Excusa dispenseme, señor, su estación, no?”
And he scrambled to his feet, “Muchas gracias, señorita.”
He made his journey through a string of neighbor- hoods until he came to the vacant square of Placa Sant Josep Oriol. It would be another hour or so before the markets and vendors would assemble.
So he found a nice bench in the corner and restlessly waited for the day to begin.
As dawn came, Charlie woke up alone, a little stiff
from the makeshift Parc Guell bed, but agog from the evening’s deed, feeling more alive than he had in years. He found a nearby bush to relieve himself when he heard a voice that startled him. “Turn around slowly.”
When he did, Ariel was holding one of the guns she had purchased at the gamer shop. Charlie was uncertain how to respond, so he raised his hands and inquired: “Was it something I said?”
She laughed as she pulled the other gun from the backside of her belt. “Know how to use one of these?”
“I don’t know, let’s see,” he said.
She made sure the silencer was on properly, and then she handed it over.
He checked the weapon out carefully. “Just point and shoot, right?”
“You want to close one eye and aim with the other. When you have your target in the sight, you want to squeeze the trigger, nice and easy, just squeeze it, and keep it steady, nice and...”
While she directed, Charlie effortlessly aimed at a coke bottle sitting on a stump about 25 feet from where they were standing and fired.
“Beginners luck,” he shrugged with a smile, a little surprised himself, in the same way his athleticism at dive competitions would heighten under pressure, often as- tonishing him as much as his rivals.
“My kind of guy,” she admitted as she dug into the High Sierra backpack and tossed him one of the bullet- proof vests. “Put this on under your shirt.”
“Are you having doubts?”
“Just to be safe.”
“Are you sure?”
“What are you getting at?”
“You still sure you want to do this?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m sure. And we better get moving or we’re going to be late.”
She was all business again, focused and assured. What
they had shared the night before was momentous and he didn’t want to doubt its impact. If his past were any indication, there would be plenty of time for him to do that later.
So he played along, pulled it back a notch or two, and prepared for the drop off.
The Eurocopter AS 532 Cougar, a twin-engine, medium-weight, multipurpose militarized helicopter was commandeered periodically by the German Bundestag, and in particular, by Vice-Chancellor Freund’s surrepti- tious jaunts, always designated as confidential and dis- cretionary. Today the chopper landed on the cliff above the Bilbao harbor where the principal Shack combatants, Munchen and Hengst, eagerly awaited.
As a political precaution, Michael Freund’s blood rela- tions to Munchen (they were second cousins) had never been disclosed. This allowed Freund to attain public of- fice, and in Munchen’s mind, it would eventually behoove The Shack; after all, the cousins shared the same political beliefs, just different means of attaining results. They had aligned on ideologies all their lives, their parents shared the same views, and they were both committed to taking back their great country when the time was right.
When Freund ran for office, Munchen promised that he would take every precaution to bury their relation. He had changed his surname long ago and their extended family had all emigrated over the years. And once Freund became the vice-chancellor, it wasn’t difficult for him to have all public records of the former Munchen (aka Al- fred Egmont Freund) to simply disappear, from birth cer- tificate to high school diploma. If he were ever arrested for his other “extracurricular activities,” or if there were any publicity leaked about The Shack, there would be no reason for the authorities or the press to link him to Freund.
And erasing Munchen’s former identity to give the il- lusion that Freund’s little cousin didn’t exist served them both well. The ubiquitous Shack needed a leader who didn’t have any conflicting ties and who seemed to live an ordinary civilian life. Munchen did his best to keep up appearances as a solid citizen, stayed gainfully employed as a mechanic in Lloret De Mar, one of the coastal towns about an hour northeast of Barcelona, and volunteered on weekends at The Parque Natural de las Sierras, Spain’s largest natural park.
But now Michael Freund needed his cousin’s discreet muscle, a well-funded underground army ready to be called up for duty. Of course, in Freund’s mind, this would be temporary; he would eventually have a real army of his own, no doubt.
Until that day came, his cousin and his cronies were the perfect solution to help execute his perfect plan. Munchen had been waiting in the wings, cooperating with his anonymity. He had followed orders and would finally be allowed to serve.
So when Munchen and his cohort, Hengst, climbed aboard the whirlybird, they couldn’t suppress their ex- citement. It was time to risk it all, make their move, cash in all their chips. The entire flight consisted of an unre- mitting rant about what it would be like when they got their country back.
Their time had come
Ariel and Charlie snaked through the series of in- terconnecting squares in Placa Sant Felip Neri, and because they were running a few minutes early, they stopped for breakfast at a market in front of a Romanesque Catalan church.
They enjoyed cappuccinos and freshly baked empa- nadas on the front steps of the chapel, both taking in the magnificence of the surrounding architecture and the splendor of the passing locals. Since Ariel had vowed to appreciate the beauty in the face of chaos, life’s precious moments amidst the persistent danger her life often ren- dered, she enjoyed the delights and realized that they had more impact when shared.
At one point, Ariel held his hand and admitted, “Last night...I loved last night.”
Charlie returned the sentiment, something he had never been comfortable with, until now. “I love every- thing about the way we are together, that indescribable feeling. It’s different than anything I’ve ever experienced. And last night was amazing. I loved it, too.”
“Not a bad birthday then?”
“Best so far.”
Ariel felt herself blush; his eyes seemed to penetrate
her entire being. She grabbed his hand to acknowledge, and then they continued on through the winding maze of parish streets.
They arrived at Placa Sant Josep Oriol right on time. The square was full of activity, packed with buskers and street performers, shoppers and sightseers. Tourists snapped pictures, locals indulged in the coffees and pas- try treats of Bar del Pi, and an artist market prepared for the day.
A man tossed some breadcrumbs and a flock of pi- geons scattered, revealing Simon Bryant waiting on the ledge of the Joan Miro fountain in the center of the plaza. He was uneasy and out of his element, but he was grate- ful that he had made it, considering his transgression the night before.
Charlie was first to spot the fidgeting operative. “That’s him, isn’t it?”
“You’re getting really good at this,” Ariel said. “And without any professional training. Very impressive.”
They approached Simon Bryant and he scooted over to make room. “Have a seat.”
But instead of complying, Ariel scoped the piazza. “Are you sure this place is such a good idea?”
Ariel’s extensive training in terrorist counterintelli- gence always served her well, and the precautionary measures were something she never disregarded or second- guessed. So before she would take a seat, she needed to ensure they weren’t being set up.
“When not on home turf,” Simon Bryant assured, “the rule of thumb is safety in numbers.”
She was well aware of the protocol, but nevertheless, crowds always made her nervous. She scanned the perim- eter and took note of all the people that seemed a little off: a bum (suspect), a mime (always suspect), a sausage vendor (should always be suspect)...
Simon Bryant noticed that she was uneasy, but he didn’t want to wait any longer. He leaned forward and initiated their meeting with a hushed pitch: “You do have the key with you, correct?”
After last night’s cathouse fiasco, the last thing he needed was for this handoff to go awry. Two strikes on one assignment, especially his first, would never be for- given. A wave of nausea struck him as he reminded him- self of the still-possible repercussions of his reckless folly.
“Did you bring the papers?” Ariel asked.
“Of course,” he said as he handed her the envelope. “A deal’s a deal.”
She opened it, checked the new passports and tickets, counted the cash, and then stuffed it all back inside.
“Then why didn’t you keep it?” she asked.
“It should all be here,” he assured her.
“That’s not what I meant. You were supposed to come
“But I am alone.”
“Oh, really? There’s a delivery truck by the café. Strange how there’s a telephoto lens pointing out the window.”
“And that guy making animal balloons is packing a gun,” Charlie chimed in. “Not very kid friendly.”
Simon Bryant had told his men to stay away, so if anyone was hovering, it was certainly not by his orders. His analytical mind raced through the probabilities and possibilities: Could Richard Goss have begun his casti- gation, diminishing his authority by sending in backup? Unlikely. Could it be remnants of the Barcelona police who arrested him the night before? Possible, but doubt- ful. A significant amount of time had passed since the U- boat had been discovered. Could there be an unexpected party, someone else who was after this key? Most prob- ably. And to Simon Bryant, probability was king.
He held his hand in front of his eyes to shield the sun’s harsh glare. And in silhouette, an old man, who he did not recognize, stepped in front of them, pointing a gun from inside his jacket pocket.
Ariel and Charlie, however, immediately knew who it was.
“What are you doing here?” Ariel fumed.
“Mikhail told me about the deal you made and I can- not allow it,” the old man said. “The key is for alchemists, and the descendents of alchemists, not for governments.”
“The CIA is going to make sure it doesn’t get in the wrong hands, Josef, and they can do that better than any of us can,” Ariel protested.
Simon Bryant might have lost his moral compass the night before, but he had always had keen insight, in-depth knowledge of his cases, as well as great resolve under pressure. He immediately figured out that this obstructer was Frederick Maisel’s son, Josef, the successor of the al- chemist ancestors so thoroughly outlined in Ariel’s dis- sertation. He was ready to talk him down from the ledge.
“I can promise you, Mr. Maisel, we will protect it. And we will protect you.”
Josef just laughed. “Why now? You never have!”
“We’ve only learned about The Alchemist Agenda recently, because of the U-boat Mr. Rocklin discovered, and through Ms. Ellis’ dissertation. This is all new to us. If we had known—”
“You may be sincere, young man, but I assure you that your government, like any government, will only say such things when they are trying to get the power. Once they have it, they will surely embrace it. When the time of need comes, and it always does, they will use it. And then they will abuse it. That’s just human nature. Doesn’t mat- ter if it is gold or diamonds or oil...”
“Josef, you’ve gone to great lengths to keep the key safe all these years,” Charlie interrupted. “And you could have easily destroyed it to eliminate the possibility of anyone turning it into a Golem, to avoid what you had told us about absolute power.”
“That’s true,” Josef acknowledged.
“This is the thing we don’t understand,” Charlie continued. “If the Alchemist Club didn’t want the formula to get into the wrong hands, why did they make this key, and why did you protect it?”
“Not all of the alchemists wanted to destroy the for- mula,” Josef answered.
“You mean your father?” Ariel asked.
“Yes. He felt differently than the others.”
And Josef’s memory flashed back to Theresienstadt:
Josef meets his father, Frederic Maisel, through the
one window in the laboratory. Frederic hands him the key when the others aren’t looking, holds the boy’s hand for the very last time, and says goodbye.
“My father, like the others, did not want the Nazis to get away with the formula, and he was successful at making sure of it,” Josef explained. “When he was ordered to deliver the formula to the escape subs, he rigged them all so they would sink.”
“But he also made this key to get into those U-boats, allowing the formula to survive,” Ariel reiterated. “Why?” “My family had pursued the secret to alchemy for generations, literally hundreds of years. They believed it was the ultimate quest. Whoever could crack the great mystery would not only become the rightful owner, but would also acquire the challenge of keeping the power in check. Not an easy task. That’s why I told you the story of Golem and the destructive nature of absolute power. It was a miracle that the secret to alchemy was finally dis- covered. My father felt it was his responsibility to pass it on according to the alchemy traditions—or at least to try. He taught me the methods used by the alchemists to protect their secrets and he left me with the key. That is why I had placed the three parts of the keys in museums, to assure their safety, until the day came.”
“Until one of the U-boats was discovered, you mean?” Charlie asked.
Josef answered as he looked directly at Ariel. “I thought you understood this, my dear. When you called me from New York, you spoke like an alchemist. You told me of your life-long commitment to finding the truth. How you felt when the U-boat was found. You promised me that you would do anything to make sure the alchemists didn’t die in vain.”
Charlie stared at the ground wondering where this was going. And he tried to put one passing thought out of his mind: Could Ariel have played them all for an agenda of her own?
“I assure you, Josef, that was, and always will be, my intention,” Ariel said.
“I almost made the biggest mistake of my life by turn- ing it over to you,” Josef continued. “The key is for al- chemists, not to be given away to any government. Now give me the key.”
Ariel reached in her pocket and held it out to him.
Josef took the key, grasped it tightly, and professed his last will and testament: “It will die with me. There is no one alive who can handle the power. I realize that now. And maybe that’s the real lesson of alchemy, one even my father could never accept—”
And with those last words, Josef jolted forward. His final wish had just come true, though it was short lived.
As the shape-shifter fell dead into Ariel’s arms, his hand opened up revealing the key, and Ariel took it back. The ultimate power had changed hands once again, as it always does, moving on to its next Golem.
Simon Bryant saw the bullet wound immediately and looked in the direction behind Josef. Munchen and Hengst were approaching, guns with silencers concealed under their coats, and following right behind was Vice- Chancellor Michael Freund.
“You look surprised to see me, Mr. Bryant,” Freund said.
“Why are you here?”
“That’s a really stupid question for a man in intelli- gence,” Freund barked back. “Now make this easy and hand it over.”
“Are you kidding me?” Simon Bryant said. “You were bitching about international law back in Langley. Ger- many’s not going to obstruct justice without consequenc- es...”
“Germany’s got nothing to do with this,” Charlie in- terrupted, noticing the red light wavering on Simon Bry- ant’s forehead. “There’s a gun aimed at your head. He’s going to kill you if we don’t comply.”
“Smart boy,” Freund quipped, “but not entirely cor- rect, I’m afraid. Actually, you’re going to kill him. You and the girl. Or at least that is what the press will learn: ‘CIA Special Agent Simon Bryant was shot and killed in the busy Placa Sant Josep Oriol square by an ex-Mossad agent, illustriously known for disobeying orders, and a New Jersey based buccaneer remembered fondly for countless attempts to rob the ocean floor of Spanish plunder.’ The U.S. Embassy will apologize for the con- frontation on foreign soil, and everything will go back to normal.”
“That doesn’t explain what happened to the ex-Moss- ad agent and the New Jersey based buccaneer,” Charlie said, partly to find out his intent, mostly to stall the inevi- table. “The readers would surely like to know.”
“They tried to run, but local police, heroes if you will, shot them to death as they tried to escape.” And the chan- cellor’s son-of-a-bitch turned even nastier as he gestured toward a few of his men, fraudulently attired as Barcelona police, at the ready. “Don’t be an idiot, we can’t let you two live, you would talk. Now let’s get this over with. Which one of you has the goddamn key?”
Last night Simon Bryant loathed the idea of returning to CIA Director Goss’s surefire, humiliating reprimand, but at this moment, his infidelity and its consequences were just a trivial blip. He thought it ironic that just the night before he had wished he was dead, and at this mo- ment, he would have done anything to stay alive. And his next thought was of a more practical notion: Since they were going to kill him anyway, he might as well go down with a fight.
So he lunged forward with a right hook that nailed Freund in the jaw, a satisfying but short-lived moment that signaled a sharpshooter in a tenement window to squeeze the trigger of an M86 sniper rifle which, unfortunately for Simon Bryant, was a military workhorse built for long range accuracy. The bullet struck the center of Simon Bryant’s chest, his body snapped back, then went limp as he sprawled.
Ironic, he thought. And that, ironically, was his final thought.
Charlie and Ariel bolted.
Vice-Chancellor Freund stared at Special Agent Si- mon Bryant’s lifeless gaze and remembered their first meeting:
“Frankly, Mr. Freund, the Atlantic Ocean is an aw- fully large body of water and we don’t have the foggiest idea where this wreck is, let alone what it is.”
And the son-of-a-bitch recalled his promise: If and when this all played out in his favor, he would make sure that this punk paid the price for his rudeness.
Freund rubbed his aching jaw, feeling superior, as he ordered the others to now secure his prize. “Get them! And find that goddamn key!”
People screamed, pigeons fluttered, vendors floun- dered, and the entire square turned into complete pan- demonium.
Charlie pulled Ariel along as they ran for cover in the midst of the bedlam, sprinting toward the row of giant Statues of the Saints.
Munchen and Hengst searched through the madness, as did the dozen other police-attired goons working for them, firing their weapons haphazardly at the moving targets.
Bullets just missed Ariel and Charlie, but they eventu- ally ducked behind a large column, unscathed.
There was a moment of silence. Ariel took the time to catch her breath and notice how Charlie’s gifted lung capacity might have helped him to avoid gulping for air like she was, but it didn’t prevent his heart from racing like Saratoga.
Her angle had the better view, so he waited for her cue while she peered out. She counted off three fingers and then they both took off across the court. As they did, more bullets ricocheted off the statues, and ancient pieces of the Saint’s faces and bodies crumbled all around them.
But they made it to an apartment building, came out the other end, crossed a street, and headed for the medi- eval brick arched entrance to the church of Santa Maria.
There they hid for a good five minutes and waited for everything to settle down. Ariel made sure their guns were loaded and ready. Charlie kept tabs on the after- math of the mayhem.
“What do you think?” Ariel asked, acknowledging to herself that Charlie was gifted with good instincts, some- thing many of the best-trained operatives lacked.
“I think we smoked ’em.” He took another gander through the cathedral’s open doors. “But I think we should take cover in Santa Maria’s good graces for a while, just to be safe.”
“You don’t strike me as the religious type.” 212
The Alchemist Agenda
“I haven’t been, up till now, but if we make it out of here alive, I would gratefully become a believer.”
“A faith of convenience, huh?”
“Is there any other kind?”
Inside the four hundred-year-old house of worship, a constant flow of sinners milled about. Ariel and Charlie moved down the aisle, slowly, guns concealed, trying not to draw any attention.
“Wanna make a confession?” Charlie whispered, no- ticing the small, enclosed booths as a possible place to hide.
“Sorry, I like keeping my sins to myself, as you now know.”
“Probably a good idea. We don’t want to get trapped.”
“Right. It’s best if we just keep moving.”
All eyes seemed to be on them as they crossed the
roped off entrance to the altar. A Monsignor cut them off. “Do you have a ticket?”
Charlie dug into his pocket for some cash. “No, sorry, how much is it?”
“Tickets can be purchased in the line over there.” The Monsignor pointed back toward the admission booth.
“Rules are rules,” Ariel consented.
And they made their way back until they noticed com- bat booted men in the entrance doorway.
They quickly ducked behind the pews, but one of the boot boys yelled across the chapel, “Dort drüben!” (Over there!), and then blasted the pews with bullets.
The churchgoers panicked and scrambled in every di- rection, forgetting their manners, their faith, even their impending Hail Mary’s.
Munchen and Hengst worked their way down the aisle, waving their guns in every row as they went.
“There’s nowhere to run,” Munchen pronounced. “Even if you make it out this door, there’s nowhere to go. Matter of fact, you’re already dead.”
Ariel sidled closer to Charlie, searching hopelessly for another exit. “He’s right, you know.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Charlie answered with a new sense of hope, and he gestured toward the chapel’s en- trance.
Mikhail Pikantní graced the entryway, heroically backlit and silhouetted, gun poised. Standing beside him, also armed, was his cousin Gregor, who had helped his cousin play out the probable scenario, figured out Josef Maisel’s intent, drove them to the square, raced through the ghastly morning traffic, and even supplied the guns— a last ditch, but impressive effort to secure the ultimate, ever-evasive family heirloom.
Mikhail and Gregor simultaneously pulled their triggers. Gregor’s shot hit Hengst in the leg, causing him to tumble and fall on his back, looking straight up at a gigantic candelabra hanging from the ceiling. This was doubly unfortunate because Mikhail’s wild shot struck a chain that had supported the candelabra, and it came crashing down on Hengst, its hefty cast-iron points penetrating his gut, his heart, and just to add insult to injury, his testicles.
Hengst was history.
From a cover behind the pulpit, Munchen winced as he watched the demise of his cohort. His position af- forded him a clear view of Mikhail and Gregor in the doorway and he took full advantage, returning a volley of six shots in rapid succession. One bullet struck Gregor square in the forehead, and a stupefied glaze washed over him before he tumbled like a rag doll. Another bullet hit Mikhail in his midsection, and the brew-master fell hard.
Munchen had never killed anyone before. He came close a few times, shot someone in a street scuffle once, bashed a few bones with baseball bats, but no one had ever actually died. Now he was fairly certain that he would have two feathers in his cap, a thought that thrilled him. If he had known how good it felt, he might not have been able to keep his promise to his cousin Michael, the scheming vice-chancellor, that he would do everything in his power to avoid trouble until their time came. As he stepped closer to verify his kill, he realized how ready he was to go to battle and prayed to whatever deity who would have him that their war had finally commenced.
Gregor looked up with that prosaic gaze, lifeless. Mikhail, however, was still moving. Munchen enjoyed this, too; he had always wanted to experience the last breath, the last act, and so he watched a little too long, allowing Charlie enough time to get a shot off. It grazed Munchen’s arm, causing him to drop his gun and run for cover out the door.
Charlie ran after him, but with all the panic, confusion and disorder, he didn’t see any sign of Munchen in front of the church, so he continued searching around the side.
Meanwhile, Ariel held Mikhail’s hand, kneeling over the last Pikantní, who was resolved with his fate, but glad to have the opportunity to explain his dilemma before he went. “I told Josef Maisel everything last night, that we were giving the key to the CIA, that they would be best able to keep it safe, that it was the right thing to do. But he didn’t agree. And it dawned on me this morning that he might actually try to stop you.” He turned toward his dead cousin and winced. “We got here as soon as we could, but now it’s too late.”
“We know about Josef’s agenda,” Ariel replied, hop- ing her explanation would help him die peacefully. “His father had left the possibility for the formula to be recov- ered because he was a true alchemist and believed that the discovery was a gift to those who could solve the un- imaginable puzzle. The other chemists in the Alchemist Club felt it should simply be destroyed. They didn’t want the formula to get in the wrong hands, just like you and me. They all meant well. Even Frederick and Josef Maisel meant well.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Mikhail weakly an- swered.
He shut his eyes and the memory came back to him of the day when he opened the sealed envelope just after his father had passed away:
One of the attorneys brings young Mikhail over to a well-worn leather chair where he could more comfortably absorb the news that even the lawyers were forbidden to be privy to. Young Mikhail sits in that chair, reading and rereading the handwritten letter from R.H. Pikantní.
His uncle had poured out his heart, his dreams, his fears. Because he didn’t have a son or a protégée to carry on, he needed someone to understand his intentions, enjoy the fruits of his labor, protect and defend his legacy, and most importantly, understand the inherent risk in case the formula somehow survived: the power that alchemy granted harbored the inherent danger of ultimate greed.
Mikhail remembered how he felt when he read the let- ter. Growing up in the Československá republika, espe- cially after the “final victory of socialism,” he had never felt special before. Now he had a secret, a past, a future, and he felt extraordinary. He took what his uncle had be- stowed upon him to heart. He would learn everything he could about Pilsner Pikantní and become the best brew- master possible. And he would wear his uncle’s furtive wishes close to his chest, until its proper time:
Theresienstadt labor camp.
R. H. Pikantní, Mikhail’s uncle, is in a heated discus- sion with Frederick Maisel and Clara Molnar, as they frantically pack up and hide alchemy data throughout a damp, concrete lab. “Wir mƒssen ein Abkommen ma- chen.” (We must make a pact.), R. H. Pikantní demanded.Frederick Maisel turns away, uncertain, “Aber wir haben den Code.” (But we finally broke the code.)
R.H. Pikantní grabs Frederick by the collar, “Und es wird mit uns sterben. Dass Mittel keine Taste, Frederick.” (And it shall die with us. We should leave no key, Frederick!)
And Clara agrees with R.H., “Und es wird mit uns sterben. Dass Mittel keine Taste, Frederick.”
Frederick storms out. Once he’s left, Clara and R.H. embrace...
Mikhail looked into Ariel’s eyes and confirmed what she had already suspected. “My uncle was your grandfa- ther.”
He was shaking now and she held his hand tighter so he could continue.
“R.H. Pikantní and Clara Molnar were very much in love, but needed to keep their affections to themselves while they were in the service of the Alchemist Club. Women didn’t get pregnant often in the camps, and if they did, as you can imagine, the children didn’t usually survive. But the alchemist’s situation was unique. They were given sufficient food and shelter and Clara Molnar was able to give birth to a healthy baby girl, your mother. My uncle had hoped she would have had a son to carry on the brewery, as well as his other orders of business. Back then it wouldn’t have been acceptable for a woman to do such things. That’s why my uncle imparted everything to my father, and then to me.”“Why didn’t you ever come find me?” Ariel asked. “We are family.”
“Who do you think sent you on your quest?” Mikhail answered.
“I don’t understand.”
Mikhail was losing his strength. “Your mother never told you any of this, did she?”
“She was just an infant at the end of the war, left in the care of a trusted Zionist friend who set out for a new be- ginning in the Promised Land. They arrived in Jerusalem just a few months after the United Nations decision and made their home in Tel Aviv.”
“I know how she got to Israel—”
“Let me finish,” he interrupted. “You know that she had a decent childhood, did her service in the military, met your father at Ben-Gurion University, and had three children, you, then your two brothers. But she never spoke a word to you about her grandfather or the Alche- mist Club, did she?”
“She never spoke of it, no, she never talked of the past. But she left me a letter—”
“She didn’t leave you that letter.”
Ariel knew where Mikhail was heading with this but didn’t want to interrupt since his strength was evaporat- ing more quickly now. But her mind raced: If her moth- er didn’t leave her that letter...If her family history was shared with this man...If the cause she had devoted her life to had a different origin...
Her head was spinning as Mikhail continued: “I made the journey to meet your mother not long after your father died. I told her about her mother and my uncle, about the Alchemist Club, everything. She was apprecia- tive and congenial. But she was adamant about not telling her children. She didn’t want anything from that horrible past to burden you and your brothers. And I respected that.”
Ariel waited for him to catch his breath.
“A few years later,” he continued, “when I heard that she had gotten sick and passed away, I didn’t feel that your history should die with her. Your brothers were still too young to understand, but you were of age, and I felt you had as much right to know as I did. And so I made one more pilgrimage to Israel.”
“And you put that letter under my pillow,” Ariel said as she remembered reading that letter like it was yes- terday. It was the moment that changed her life forever, when she had inherited Clara Molnar’s legacy and made a promise to do everything in her power to make sure her grandmother and the alchemists did not die in vain.
Young Ariel places a miniature windmill with keys as blades above her door. Her caretaker asks her what it is. She says it’s just something she made in school. Her care- taker tells her that it’s beautiful, that her mother would have been proud.
As the years pass, Ariel waits for the other descendents to find her. They never do.After she is barred from the Mossad, she sells her moth- er’s home in Tel Aviv. She packs just a few things from the house, one of them being the windmill, leaving everything else behind, including Israel.
Mikhail reached to wipe the tear from Ariel’s cheek. Over her shoulder, he noticed Munchen reentering the church through a back exit and coming down the aisle toward them. “Go,” Mikhail whimpered with every last bit of life he had left. “Now!”
Ariel didn’t hesitate. She took off just as Munchen fired, grabbed Charlie outside the church door, and they ran like hell.
Munchen stormed after them, and as he stepped over Mikhail in the doorway, he heard the dying man’s last words: “You missed, you Nazi scum.”
Munchen didn’t have a good comeback, so he just shot Mikhail in the head before he ran off.
Outside the church, there was still massive hysteria. Clergymen tried to console traumatized churchgoers; on- lookers scrambled to get a glimpse, snapping their digital cameras at will; and the first police that arrived tried to assess the situation and restore order, but received little in return.
Ariel and Charlie sprinted through the heavy traffic, eventually making their way to the main street in town that led to the waterfront. They noticed a tram coming their way and hopped on board.Inside, they found an empty seat toward the back where they watched the City of the Saints fade away, and exhaled sighs of relief.
This pardon, however, would be short lived.
Ariel and Charlie got off at the last coastal tram stop, a village on a cliff called Arenys De Mar. They walked through narrow cobblestone streets lined with old stone buildings tenanted by charming stores, restaurants, and apartments. It was a warm, sunny day, and it surely would appear to any passersby that these two lovers didn’t have a care in the world.
They both noticed an elderly couple holding hands, native kin, with faces like road maps, engraved with thou- sands of miles of life. They inspired Ariel. She took Char- lie’s hand and kissed his cheek, her eyes moist and red. “Another time, another place, maybe things would have been different for us.”
“At least we got the passports and tickets,” Charlie re- minded her.
Ariel looked away, crestfallen. “Every airport, train station, harbor, bus terminal, auto rental—every way out of here—will be swarming until they find us.”
They walked in silence for a while more, until Charlie stopped and turned her around. “The truth. That’s what we came here for. That’s why we’re together. That’s who we are. So we’re not giving up until we have all the an- swers.”
“Seriously, Charlie, you can’t be that naïve. That guy in the church was right...we are already dead.”
Despite Charlie’s bad luck with business partners and former lovers, he had never given up hope for the pos- sibility of a soul mate. The great ones, he had once read, balanced their strengths and weaknesses, picked up each others’ slack, and never let the other give up on their dreams. And at this moment, he believed wholeheartedly, that this was their one chance to see if they were truly meant for each other.
“Remember what you told me about the philosopher’s stone, the alchemist’s belief about the elixir of life?”
“Yes. It’s the language of love, that the world does have a soul.”
“There were several occult like objects on Josef’s bookshelf. We both noticed.”
Ariel cut him off with a professorial embellishment, her safe haven from feelings of defeat, and occasional- ly emotion. “Alchemy is more than a theory to a lot of people. It’s a faith. Throughout North and South Amer- ica, Eastern and Western Europe, and the Southeastern countries, there are traditions and rituals that date back to antiquity, including Hermetic principles and practices, indicated by the objects on Josef’s bookshelf. I’ve studied them all. But you and I, we’re different. We make sense of the world by nailing down hard facts. And right now, we’re like mice in a maze, with no way out. And that’s the sad fact.”
“No, you’re wrong,” Charlie objected. “Everybody needs faith. People like you and I just express it differ- ently. And the reason we need it is for times like these. Especially for times like these. I get what the philoso- pher’s stone represented, and it makes perfect sense. It’s all about never giving up. But you can’t see it alone. The right person is the key. Someone has to be the key.”
She looked away, wishing he were right.
“I’ve felt trapped before,” he added. “It’s a nautical ar- cheologist’s foremost principle: There’s always a way in and there’s always a way out. And I believe there’s still a way out of this mess.”
“Can you get a message to Freund?”
“If I can get to a computer, sure. He’s a government
“Who’s obviously working on his own agenda.” “Obviously.”
“Then all we have to do is prove it.”
Ariel brightened slightly. “Is that all?”
“There is no other option but to finish what they
started, or die trying,” he concluded.
She had always lived by the sword, assumed she would
die by the sword, and now was facing a man who appeared to be the same. No matter how naïve or idealistic, at least he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, a quality she most admired.
But before she could point out how bad the odds were, Charlie kissed her tears away, and she realized there was no point in stating the obvious; it wouldn’t serve their purpose. She wanted to feel loved at this moment, with this man; and so that’s exactly what she did.
From the lighthouse above the giant cliffs, a guard signaled a lone powerboat carrying Freund, Munchen, and half-a-dozen other cronies into the harbor.
Freund read a message on his Android and turned to Munchen as they docked. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“Someone spot them?” Munchen asked.
“Even better. They want to make a deal.” Freund laughed as he excitedly plucked his response into his de- vice.
In a grungy Internet café, Ariel tracked down Vice
Chancellor Michael Freund’s personal contact informa- tion, unaware that he was less than five miles up the coast in the underwater labyrinth known as the worldwide headquarters of The Shack, waiting for her call.
It took less than an hour to debate the terms of their deal. Both shrewd negotiators, they went back and forth several times until they finally had a detailed agreement.
Charlie used the time to pick up a few supplies they would need to execute their plan.
Arenys De Mar was small and old, a charming fishing
village framed by hills that run right down to the sea. At both sides of the lower Riera were beautiful houses, old- world shops, and well-preserved defense towers built to protect against pirates.
Charlie made his way to the town center and picked up the necessary gear they would need from a local sport- ing goods store. As he headed back, he cut through the village square, imagining the generations who must have thrived there over the centuries, always fascinated by any human interaction in the sea, or by the sea, and when he passed by a window display at an off-the-beaten path mu- seum, something unimaginable caught his eye.
The Marés Museum exhibited a magnificent collec- tion of laces: bobbin lace, needle lace, and a vast range of designs and styles dating from the beginning of the first millennium throughout the Middle Ages. In a glass cas- ing labeled “Spanish Volumes of the 5th Century,” there were several moth-eaten publications wrapped in ornate, laced book covers made of fine leather weave with spec- tacular Byzantine details and medallions, a captivating pattern filled with “filigrana point,” a very delicate tie, typically used for religious ornamentation.
Charlie stopped and stared, long and hard, partly be- cause these covers didn’t seem to fit properly over the tat- ty volumes of forgotten literature on display, but mostly because they looked so much like the covers of the oldest known biblical texts ever found—the handwritten Codex Sinaiticus he had recovered a year ago in a cave on the coast of the Red Sea—his most significant discovery, stolen before verified; his greatest professional disappoint- ment to date.His mind drifted off to the most far-fetched possibili- ties. Could the surreptitious treasure hunters who stole his biblical texts have sold off the pieces on the black mar- ket, a fire sale of ancient gems misidentified as 5th century book covers? Could his texts be close by, also misidenti- fied, hiding in this remote museum, a refuge, to protect their true meaning, their lies, by a conspiratorial clergy? Or were they just temporarily hiding here, until their rightful owners could take possession, like the U-boat keys Josef Maisel had hidden for alchemists?
Charlie moved inside and wandered through the first floor exhibit, an astonishing display of polychrome wood- en religious sculptures.
“We have acquired a significant collection over the years,” a proud voice proclaimed.
Charlie turned around to face an elderly man with a white shock of hair and friendly face.
“It is impressive,” Charlie agreed.
“My name is Santiago,” the man said. “I’m the curator here.”
“Welcome to The Marés, Mr. Rocklin. Please let me know if I can answer any questions.”
“The book covers displayed in your front window,” Charlie said before Santiago could turn away. “They’re covering volumes of pagan literature, but they indicate religious origin.”
“Exactly right,” Santiago confirmed. “Covers like those were used to protect religious scriptures, from the first century up until the fifth, and even the sixth.”
Charlie was briefly hopeful, and then Santiago added: “They were also typical of book jackets for all literature during that time. And since the ones in the case were do- nated to us, paired as they are, we left them as such.”
“Who donated them?”
“A local collector.”
“Oh my...more than a dozen years ago.”
Charlie’s heart sank. The timing was off. The stars
didn’t align. Synchronicity, once again, didn’t magically reveal itself. If they had been sitting in this museum for over twelve years, then they couldn’t be the same cov- ers from his stolen texts, and he quickly realized it was ridiculous for him to even consider such a random coin- cidence as a possibility.
“I believe it was even more than a dozen years ago,” another voice from behind Charlie reconfirmed.
Charlie turned around to see a collared priest ap- proaching.
“This is Father Emanuel,” Santiago said. “You may have passed the parish church of Santa Maria on the way to the museum. It’s one of most important baroque rere- dos in Catalonia.”
“I’ll have to check it out on the way back.”
“Please do,” the priest said.
“May I ask what brings you here to the Marés?” San-
“Just wandered by,” Charlie answered.
“I’m a nautical archeologist. I had mistaken them for covers of some scriptures I had once found...and lost.”
The priest and the curator shared a glance.
“I think I’ll look around a bit,” Charlie sighed. “Thanks for your help.”
“Not at all,” Santiago said as Charlie walked away. “Enjoy your stay.”
Charlie took a quick stroll through the first floor ex- hibits and was about to head out, but he stopped, capti- vated by a display of statuettes carved in wood, painted and gilded, of Madonna and child figures of tender deli- cacy, adorned with crucifixion carvings of drama and pa- thos.
“It’s always remarkable to me how our ancestors com- municate with us,” Father Emanuel said, startling Char- lie since he was unaware the priest was still so close. “Our religious ephemeron is the most significant aspect of our human history.”
“Maybe,” Charlie replied, well aware that the priest was trying to engage him to discuss the purpose of his visit. “But all too often it poses more questions than it answers.”
“If we knew all the answers, we wouldn’t be human. That’s why I love my work, helping people make sense of the things we cannot know.”
“Everything is knowable.” Charlie countered. “That’s why I love my work, bringing up pieces of history that help put the puzzle together. Unfortunately, there are too often people who don’t want the truth of our past to be revealed, afraid it will conflict with what they’re preach- ing today.”
“You sound like you’re talking from experience, per- haps a troubling experience?”
“A year ago, I had recovered ancient Codex Sinaiticus, long lost handwritten scriptures, two of which were not part of the official New Testament and at least seven were not in the Old. And they were all stolen before I could have them verified.”
“You think that someone from the church took them?”
“It had crossed my mind,” Charlie admitted. “The texts would have disproved many of the church’s teach- ings, so I’m well aware of why they wouldn’t want them circulated. There were many items that conflicted with the church’s current beliefs, inconsistent with their claims, or simply indicated fabrications of the pagan Ro- man emperor Constantine—”
“I personally don’t encourage hiding any artifacts that would prove or disprove any of our past,” Father Eman- uel said. “But I am well aware that there are others who do not feel the same. What we believe in our hearts is all that matters. The sacrifice Christ offered once and for all on the cross remains ever present.”
“I understand your faith,” Charlie said. “But with all due respect, if the texts were stolen and hidden by the church, then someone high up the food chain doesn’t be- lieve that faith is enough.”
“You say that you’re an archeologist. You unearth the past to help understand our future...”
“In theory, yes.”
“And sometimes for profit?”
Charlie thought about what the priest was really say-
ing: consider your own motivations as well. As much as Charlie had an insatiable curiosity to unravel unsolved mysteries of past civilizations, he also aspired to recover a treasure that would render him rich. And if the church hid historical artifacts to prevent its followers from losing faith, whose intent is more questionable?
“I get your point,” Charlie said. “But let me ask you something else, a hypothetical, Father—”
“If, by chance, the church did go to the trouble of hid- ing historical artifacts—”
“I didn’t say that they did,” the priest interrupted.
“It’s just a hypothetical.”
“If they were trying to keep certain facts from their
followers, then why wouldn’t they eliminate the evidence altogether?”
Charlie was really asking the same questions he had been asking about alchemy and the alchemists: Why did they leave the key?
“Don’t you think it’s ironic that modern societies still hide their remains to prevent change?” Charlie added. “And even more ironic that the self-proclaimed ‘enlight- ened ones’ would do such things...?”
Father Emanuel smiled in agreement, “The ones who know damn well that change is inevitable.”
Charlie was taken aback by the priest’s humble re- sponse. Both men sought answers to the greatest truths, and even if the answers were most likely beyond them, they agreed that it was their God given right to try.
“Maybe our meeting here today was fate,” the priest said as he pulled a long string of rosary beads from around his neck. “I want you to have these.”
“I’m not Catholic, father. And I don’t really even be- lieve in fate. Just facts. These would be wasted on me.”
“I think not,” Father Emanuel insisted as he placed the beads around Charlie’s neck. “Rosaries are usually used to describe a sequence to prayers, but these are different. They were given to me long ago when I asked the same questions you are now asking. We often think what we are looking for is beyond our reach, and it’s closer than we think. Look inside, son. Look inside.”
They wished each other well, and then Charlie left the museum to meet Ariel.
The curator waved from the window display, where he was straightening up the Spanish Volumes of the 5th Century. Charlie waved back, smiling to himself as he re- membered the empty casing on Josef Maisel’s bookshelf that looked as if a large precious stone had once filled its space, and the sign above: “The treasure is buried where it began, but the journey will take us to our destiny.”
He thought about Ariel’s description of the philoso- phers’ stone, the elixir of life. And for the first time, he felt like he understood his own true agenda.
Ariel paid the clerk for her online usage and was happy to see Charlie approaching as she stepped outside.
“He’s game,” she informed him. “We have a deal.”
She gestured to the gear bag on his shoulder that he
had purchased at the sporting goods store. “Did you find everything we need?”
They walked over to a bench with a breathtaking view of the harbor and Ariel explained the agreement she made with Freund. It was detailed and specific, so they went over it twice. She was once again hopeful, even giddy, and Charlie was amazed how seeing her smile again lifted his spirits.
Since Sterling Ray took off with his booty in The Boo- ty Call, he had promised himself not to share his insights during any future excursions, until what he was after was found, verified, and secured. But as he looked out at the enchanting, timeworn village, he made an addendum to his policy, to make exceptions for partners he was falling in love with.
“Before we go any further, we have to consider what the impact will be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if the formula really exists, if it is truly trans- formative, if it can turn one element into another...”
“The world would change as we know it.”
“On the one hand,” he continued, “you can imagine a world where every resource was abundant. There would be no more third-world countries. Every nation would be wealthy. All diseases would be cured—”
“On the other hand,” she cut him off, “we would de- stroy ourselves. You can’t ration or control excess.”
“The human element,” Charlie said, considering her point. “The reality of a transition like that, the inherent power struggles, the economic shifts...”
“‘The human element’ always trumps good inten- tions,” she said sadly. “We don’t really have the gene to accept equality. Even if we want for nothing, we still strive for more than our brothers, and power over our enemies. If you give everyone the ability to destroy, someone will exercise that ability. Armageddon. That’s the reality. That’s the only impact we have to consider.”
Charlie regarded her conviction, but also reflected on the conversation he had with Father Emanuel. “I used to believe that all discoveries enlighten us and every truth should be revealed. But I’m starting to believe, there are no absolutes.”
“There is one. If the formula exists, it must be protect- ed.” And she put her hand on his. “Whatever happens, thank you for not letting me give up. As long as we’re together, I will never give up.”
They stared out at the stunning view in silence, until a pack of giggling children ran by, rousing them both from thoughts of the daunting task facing them.
“The lower Riera is really beautiful,” he told her. “Would you like to see the rest of this village?”
Ariel smiled and took his hand. “I have a better idea.”
It was early afternoon and they still had several hours to kill. So they checked into Castell De Mata, a charm- ing hotel with a 16th-century atmosphere and spectacu- lar views of beautiful gardens and the Mediterranean Sea. They shared a nice plate of tapas and a few glasses of Rioja in bed, made love, napped and showered.
Charlie packed up a gear bag with the equipment he purchased in town and thought about his conversation with Father Emanuel.
Ariel looked out at the gardens, and said a prayer.
Once the sun had set, they checked out, made their way back to the winding coastal road, and trekked five miles north to finish what they started.
Or to die trying.
It was after midnight in Langley when Jay Martin met Goss in the CIA Director’s office and read the State De- partment’s internal memo out loud:
“CIA Special Agent Simon Bryant was shot and killed in Spain’s heavily populated Placa Sant Josep Oriol Square. Local news agencies have reported that the as- sassination was carried out by Ariel Ellis, an ex-Mossad agent with dual citizenship in Israel and America, and Charlie Rocklin, an American nautical archeologist with ties to an ongoing Securities Exchange Commission in- vestigation. Reasons unknown. Sources for these allega- tions have been protected. More than a dozen civilians and two policemen were critically injured and hospital- ized in the altercation.”
Richard Goss felt sad at first, and responsible second. “I shouldn’t have sent him. He wasn’t ready. Hell, I don’t know if he would ever have been ready.”
Agent Martin tried to reassure him. “You had no way of knowing.”
Goss wished that were true. Simon Bryant had acted carelessly, got caught, and nearly caused an international scandal. Goss himself had been no angel when he was in the field. He thought about the out of town stakeouts, long and lonely, and the indescribable pressures of un- friendly assignments abroad. A few blunders were ex- pected. The CIA did everything in their power to protect their own, just like the NBA used to do before sex tapes, and the MLB and ICA did before steroid testing. He did not begrudge the man for his indiscretion, or blame him for the deadly firefight. But it confirmed his initial in- stinct: Simon Bryant was not meant for fieldwork. Goss knew in his gut he should not have sent the man; he al- lowed the aspiring agent’s enthusiasm to persuade him— always a mistake—this one lethal.
“You had no way of knowing that Ariel Ellis and Char- lie Rocklin were going to break the deal.”
“They didn’t break the deal,” Goss snapped at the young agent. “They’re running for their lives, if they’re still alive, that is.”
“How can you be sure?”
Richard Goss didn’t answer. “Would you excuse me?” Marten consented and left the office.
As soon as the door closed shut, Richard Goss picked
up the phone to reach the president. #
The slight sliver of moon hung over the sea and the precipice overlooking the quay was darker than usual. Nothing stirred, save for the rhythmic cacophony of crickets and the very faint, muffled rumblings from the odious business of The Shack below the peaceful wharves.
Charlie moved stealthily on the cliff overhang. He hid a gear bag behind some shrubbery and then stalked to- ward the backside of the lighthouse. The door was ajar, and he went inside, alone, just as Ariel and Freund had agreed.
A door on the upper level opened. The sound made Charlie freeze for a beat, and then he made his way up the winding staircase.
“It’s me. I’m here. I’m coming upstairs now,” he an- nounced.
There was no response. But he didn’t expect one. The deal Ariel made was for Charlie to meet a man known as Munchen in front of an upstairs window, with the light on, so Freund and Ariel could both observe an affable exchange from their respective positions.
At the top of the stairs, Charlie made his way down a narrow hallway, and then peeked inside the first room.
So he continued to the next room, a tiny bedroom. There was no one.
And when he went to the end of the hallway, he heard
a gun cock from behind him and a throaty voice with a thick accent that sounded familiar.
“Nice and easy,” Munchen ordered. “Set it down on the banister, right over there.”
Charlie turned slowly, cautiously, and then faced Munchen’s hulking shape in the dark corner.
“We said no guns,” Charlie said.
Munchen motioned with his weapon. “On the banis- ter.”
Charlie reached for the key that he had secured on a chain around his neck. “You have the money?” Munchen stepped forward, out of the dark shadows. “Don’t be dif- ficult, Mr. Gold. I’m holding the gun, remember that.”
“You didn’t really think this through, did you?” Char- lie taunted.
Munchen didn’t like being trapped at the top of this cylinder trammel to begin with, but that was Freund’s idea, orders were orders, and so he tried to move this along. He held out his hand.
“If you’re not going to live up to the agreement,” Charlie added, “what makes you think we are?”
“The key, Mr. Gold. Take the key and put it on the banister. Now.”
“How do you know this is the real key? You don’t think we came with a backup plan in case you tried to screw us?”
Munchen was certain that the American was bluff- ing. If he were in the same position, he’d probably do the same, just to stall. So he gave him one more warning: “I’m not going to ask you again.”
“So that’s it? You’re going to take your chance on this being the real key, and then shoot me? If you’re wrong—” Munchen laughed. “If you don’t have it, then the girl
does, or at the very least, she’ll know where it is.”
“She’s trained to kill with her bare hands. She’s fought in two wars. She’s led dozens of covert missions for her secret service. You really think you’ll just take it from her,
just like that?”
Munchen had learned a day ago that Ariel was not an ordinary spy, that she had been trained by Kidon, the department responsible for assassinations, known internally as “The Unseen Shield.” Bringing down an Israeli elite, even if it had to be a woman, was something Munchen had looked forward to his entire life, but he was not going to stand there discussing it like he was in a schoolyard brawl. He stepped up to Charlie, snatched the choker, and from his clenched fist, revealed the key in its full glory.
He had bagged the elephant.
And he was about to enjoy his third kill of the day— all enemies of the state—undoubtedly the most profound beginning he could imagine for his Fourth Reich life.“Goodnight, Mr. Gold.”
Charlie closed his eyes to prepare himself when he heard a jarring snap, gasp, and thud.
When he opened his eyes, Munchen’s body was sprawled on the floorboards, dead.
Ariel stood in the stairwell with her gun smoking.
“Now I really owe you,” Charlie exhaled, audibly re- lieved.
“Don’t be so grateful,” she said. “This is the end for you, too, cowboy.”
She stormed up the stairs, cornering him, forced him back to the wall, the barrel of her gun stared into his eyes. “Sorry, Charlie...”
“Wait!” he begged. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s not that complicated. What don’t you get? I’m going to kill you.”
“This was never about anything else for you—?”
“But money? No.”
Ariel reached down for Munchen’s clenched hand and
pried the key away. “And you should know this about me by now: I really don’t like to share.”
She lowered her gun toward his heart, squeezed the trigger, and he plowed into the wall before slumping down to the floor.
As Ariel turned away, coolly, Freund’s voice echoed. “Very impressive.”
“I just did what you asked me to do,” she replied, then headed back toward the winding staircase.
“Good girl. You made the smart choice.”
“Some might argue that it wasn’t so smart, just greedy. I was starting to like that guy.”
“Every deal has its sacrifice.”
“Really? What are you sacrificing?”
“That other corpse up there is actually my cousin.” “A blood relative? Now that’s impressive.”
“Not that impressive. You actually did me a big favor.
The second I become chancellor, bloodsuckers like him will demand positions they’re not qualified for and try to impose their organizations for which I will no longer have any use.”
“How do you plan on becoming chancellor? Isn’t Matthias running for another term?”
She didn’t hear a response, and when she came to the main level, she didn’t see anyone either.
“Freund? Where are you?”
“Gun on the floor,” Freund’s voice instructed.
She set her gun down and then heard another com-
mand: “Both guns.”
He may be a sociopath,” she thought, “but he’s no
dummy. She pulled the Tanfoglio Witness caliber 45ACP tucked inside her belt, and set it down next to the .38 Special, the second gun she had purchased at the gamer shop.
“Now can we do this?”
She then heard the door open and Freund’s chilling voice:
The proper procedure to awaken the president of the United States after midnight was taken, and it wasn’t tak-
en lightly. The first lady sat up and prepared for a long,
sleepless night as he was robed, escorted, and briefed.
When he arrived at the Oval Office, the secretary of state
was waiting to discuss talking points for the call and their
code of conduct should the German chancellor be un-
willing to cede.
Freund and Ariel didn’t speak a word until they ar-
rived at the clearing at the edge of the cliff. Ariel looked over the ledge. The dizzying drop to the raging waters made her head spin, but she tried not to show it as she gestured to the satchel hanging from Feund’s shoulder. “Is the cash in there?”
This amused Freund as he stepped forward. “Show me the key.”
She opened her hand and revealed three-pronged treasure, its golden surface glimmering in the moonlight. Freund was awestruck, his eyes finally coming to rest on the trifecta grail, the Alchemist Club’s pedigree, the
presumed inheritance of his bloodline.
“Now open that shoulder bag,” Ariel demanded, as if
she were still holding the gun.
Freund laughed, almost giddy. “Certainly.”
He opened the satchel, showed her that it was empty,
and then tossed it over the cliff. It fell for what to Ariel seemed to be an eternity, eventually disappearing into the raging, smothering waters—her worst nightmare dis- played.
“Now give me that little treasure of mine!”
This was the end of the line for Ariel, sink or swim, do or die. She was well aware that she had only two options left, each, most likely, ending with her demise.
Back in the lighthouse, Charlie gazed up at the ceil-
ing, a flurry of memories rewinding in his mind: falling off a bridge; a chase through city streets; raven hair; sul- try lips; piercing eyes; Ariel; and behemoth stacks of gold bullion. He had often played back the sequences of his life, backtracking through his best and worst, sometimes to help him fall asleep at night, sometimes to pinpoint his mistakes, but mostly to make sense of the unknowable.
Now he was lying on the floor of this weathered light- house, his past running through his mind’s eye, trying to give himself permission to eliminate any regrets. After all the wasted years, endless stagnation, close calls, near misses, derailed dreams, and broken hearts, he wanted to believe that everything he had gone through was neces- sary to prepare him for this moment.
He thought about the alchemists, their descendants, their agendas, and how the truth would not set them free.
Or, in some inconspicuous way, maybe it had?
Perhaps seemingly endless pursuit was the answer he had been searching for, all summed up. His life had been about many adventures—also seemingly endless pur- suits—and that was why the key, and all of life’s mysteries existed: to fuel the quest, life’s ultimate purpose.
But as he stared up at the ceiling, his heart heavy, wait- ing, he wondered if he had been looking into the past of others as a way to avoid his own history? What if his foiled partnerships, thwarted lovers, vacuous excavations, and discomfited business ventures were all simply artifice to recreate and repeat the prevarication of his own past?
Could it be, he lay there marveling, all just an elabo- rate scheme he devised simply to avoid his own truth? Just asking these questions felt liberating. Just when he was certain that he was on the cusp of figuring it all out, he considered his final destination, closed his eyes once again, and reflected on a moment he was certain would shed light: the first time he saw death.
Charlie’s father looks up at him from the hospital bed,
a jaundiced gaze from the morphine infused to numb the
pain. Charlie gives up asking him questions about last
wishes, concerns, or requests. The old man won’t talk.
He never had the gift for gab, not before the morphine, not ever. Charlie takes it personally now, always had; but for the first time, he takes into consideration that his old man’s old man had done the same to him. He realizes that it was all they knew. It had been passed on from a differ- ent time and place, and they meant well, they all meant well, but nevertheless, it still hurt, and still did damage. One of life’s great ironies was that good intentions rarely do anything good, unless real change occurs, that is. Still, Charlie wishes the old man would reprimand him, tell him that he was a disappointment, a mistake, something.
But he just returns the blank stare. Charlie has nothing but time to ponder this silence, a seemingly wasted oppor- tunity, so ludicrous, it must be a gift, some strange dem- onstration to relinquish any responsibility or burden that his father knows he carries. On the other hand, Charlie needs something to fill the silence in the room. Anything. His mind races through all the possibilities. And he comes to this: Maybe this is the best that the old man can do, the most he can give—an invitation to his deathbed. Charlie is the only person his old man has allowed in this room. Not Charlie’s mother. Not Charlie’s siblings. Not the old man’s new wife. Not the old man’s new kids. Just Charlie. Just the son he would not talk to. And then the old man grabs his hand as he gasps for his last breath. Charlie can see this in his final expression. He doesn’t want to go. But the old man no longer has a choice as life drains from his body, a violent, horrifying, charge causing his body to lunge and then go limp. Dead. Charlie just stands there staring at his old man. He doesn’t remember how long he’s standing there, just staring, staring right back at his old man. And he doesn’t remember ever leaving that room, physically or otherwise.
Until now, when it all came back to him, and he fi- nally gave himself permission to let go of the ties that had bound him for so long.
Ariel tried not to look down at the terrifying drop or
think about the plunge, the only way out. “We had a deal, you and I.”
“You had to be insane to think I would deal with you,” Freund said, moving toward her, forcing her to sidestep along the edge. “You want to jump? Jump. Do you have any idea how deep that water is? Or how rough those cur- rents are? You’d shake like a berry in a blender, choking on gulps of salt water, no? Quite a nasty thought for a girl who can’t even swim.”
“Maybe it’s time I learned.”
The chancellor’s son-of-a-bitch let out a guttural laugh. “Even if you survived, you’d spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, knowing I’d be coming for you, but never knowing when. One day there might be a delivery on your front doorsteps, and when you opened it, toxic pesticides would spray all over you and cause a slow, painful death. Or maybe when you get in your car and innocently take a drive, poison gasses would seep out, and you wouldn’t even know until you’re do- ing ninety kilometers on a highway and start to lose con- sciousness. Or perhaps you’ll visit a loo, and when you flush the toilet...Kaboom! Or someone will simply pay you a little visit and fire bullets through your skull, just like they did to your brothers. And once again, it will be all your fault. Kaput!”
This time Ariel didn’t react, she didn’t snap, and she didn’t go off the deep end—not yet, anyway. She just stood there and let him continue.
“You realize now, you have no chance and you never did,” Freund gloated. “The United States will be forced to hand over the sub, and when they do, guess who’s in charge?”
“Some people think Freida Matthias is the head of your government,” Ariel said calmly. “And that her policy on the U-boats is the same as the last brass’, to destroy it and eliminate the potential misuse of power.”
“Matthias is a puppet in an administration who forgot where they came from, and as a result, they have become weak.”
“You’re in the minority to think so. She’s still favored to win the election.”
“I’m counting on it. But when she’s gone, guess who takes her place?”
“Must be hell for big man like you to work under a woman,” Ariel taunted. “How do you plan on getting rid of her?”
“Same way I will be getting rid of you. I will take what I need, and dispose of the waste.”
“You can’t just push your head of government over a ledge and think you’ll get away with it.”
“Once I have that key, let’s be honest, I can do what- ever I damned well please. Now hand it over...”
As Freund reached out, Ariel dangled the key over the edge. “I’ll drop it, I swear!”
“You wouldn’t have gone this far just to throw it away.”
Ariel suddenly softened and ran a trembling finger along the fine engravings.
“You’re right, there’s something that has kept me, and everyone who has held this key, from destroying it. I did, at one point, think that was the only way to make sure no one can get to it, but it doesn’t seem to be an option.”
Charlie checked his watch to make sure enough time had passed. They had agreed he would wait seven min- utes. It had been six and a half. A very long six and a half minutes, he thought, as he sat up and wiggled the bullet out of the bulletproof vest Ariel had bought in the gamer shop back in Barcelona.
He snaked through the foliage around the backside of the lighthouse, came to a large Strelizia Augusta, a sub- tropical plant with large flapping leaves, where he had planted the bag of gear he picked up at the sporting goods store, and prepared for the most extreme dive of his life.
“The only way out of it for you is to jump off that goddamn cliff,” Freund crowed. “Which your lifelong pho- bia will prevent you from doing. A zebra doesn’t change its stripes no matter what’s at stake.”
“Yeah, I used to think so, too,” she confessed.
And Ariel leapt off the edge, soared through the air, and vanished in the raging waters below.
Freund screamed madly, searching over the edge, in- credulous, mortified.
He pulled his gun and fired desperately, spraying bul- lets over the ink black waters. When the chamber was empty, he stared down at raging currents, for what seemed to be an eternity, waiting for her body to resurface, which it never did.
He had underestimated her, the one mistake he could not afford.
Ariel felt an unspeakable upsurge in her belly as she
descended into the chilly subaqueous abysm, deeper and deeper. Bubbles trickled upward as air left her mouth, a horrified gaze in her eyes. Her training had taught her that the only way to overcome an enemy of greater power is to surrender until a change occurred, and the only way to tolerate capture was to relinquish resistance, and all control. She never knew what that meant until now.
There was nothing left for her to do except wait, and believe.
So that’s what she did until Charlie appeared through
the murky waters, pushed through the forceful undercur-
rents toward her, and placed a regulator in her mouth.
Once she was breathing steadily, he held her hand and led
her out of her worst nightmare.
The president of the United States spent more than an hour on the phone with the German chancellor. The negotiations went in circles, neither one swayed, and they were both left without any options.
For the remainder of the night, the American com- mander-in-chief sat in the White House Situation Room with his highest military and government officials, as well as his top speechwriter, and outlined a formal promulgation to initiate a state of war.
The world press had been notified that the president would be addressing the nation in the morning. The in- vited correspondents crowded the White House press- room at the crack of dawn and waited anxiously for his arrival.Because of the time difference, Freida Matthias had
less time to prepare. Once she and her generals outlined their position, she was escorted to the Bundeskanzler Media Center where she was readied for broadcast. Two aides combed her hair and rubbed on her war paint as she went over her speech.
But just as she marched toward the cameras, a senior security officer ran in and called for an emergency meet- ing.
Minutes later her closest advisors surrounded Freida Matthias in the War Room.
The senior security officer was holding the miniature camera that Ariel had picked up at the gamer store in Barcelona and snapped out a USB extension. “We’ve confirmed that it’s authentic. The images were taken from the point of view of the girl’s lapel.”
He handed it off to another agent who connected it to a USB port on a laptop. The recording played:
“You realize now, you have no chance, and you never did. The United States will be forced to hand over the sub, and when they do, guess who’s in charge?”
“Some people think Freida Matthias is the head of your government. And her policy on the U-boats is the same as the last brass’, to destroy it and eliminate the potential misuse of power.”
“Matthias is a puppet in an administration who forgot where they came from, and as a result, they have become weak.” “You’re in the minority to think so. She’s still favored to win
“I’m counting on it. But when she’s gone, guess who takes
“Must be hell for big man like you to work under a woman.
How do you plan on getting rid of her?”
“Same way I will be getting rid of you. I will take what I need, and dispose of the waste.”
“You can’t just push your head of government over a ledge and think you’ll get away with it.”
“Once I have that key, let’s be honest, I can do whatever I damned well please. Now hand it over...”
Frieda Matthias motioned for the BND agent to turn off the recording. “Bring him in.”
The door swung open and Freund entered, unaware of the evidence they just viewed.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Not really. But I do want to be the first to inform you that you are being arrested for treason.” She couldn’t even look at her perfidious son-of-a-bitch in the eyes. “Take the traitor away.”CIA Director Richard Goss stood far in the back-
ground as the American president addressed the world press with his usual enthusiasm, despite the fact that he had been up all night preparing to declare war.
“We have confirmed that a sunken World War Two U-boat has been located in the Atlantic Ocean, just off our shores. The discovery of this submarine holds his- toric significance and, therefore, we have been cooperat- ing with German authorities in a joint effort to recover this vessel. And of course, once it has been recovered, we will comply with international law and return it to the country of origin.”
Several journalists waved their hands and the presi- dent called on a man from the Washington Post.
“There is no record of this boat ever existing in war- time. Since it was found in our waters, shouldn’t we demand an explanation from the German government be- fore we return it?”
The president smiled. “Our countries are now at peace and share a common goal of looking forward to the possibilities of the future instead of dwelling on mistakes made in the past. This submarine sank many years ago. The men who died down there deserve a proper military burial. That’s all the German government has asked for. And that is what we will respectfully give them.”
The Reichstag building’s flag whipped in the wind at
half-mast as Freida Matthias stood on the steps address- ing the cameras.
“The sins of our fathers must not become sins of our future. We have made the mistake of hiding those iniqui- ties in the past when, in fact, disclosing them could al- low us to finally move forward. The Americans have been nothing but cooperative and forthcoming. We are grate- ful, and we thank them. The men who died in this U-boat were under service to our country. We owe them a proper burial and closure to their families—”
The Gold Diggers Exploration watercraft and a Navy
fleet surrounded the site. Underwater, Charlie led several Navy divers carrying an array of equipment and instru- mentation toward the looming form below.
When Charlie came upon the hatch, he took out the key, with all three of its pieces snapped in, and placed it inside the keypad.
It fit perfectly.
The giant hatch door slowly opened and the divers’ eyes all stared in awe. Stacks of glimmering gold reflected off their masks.
Charlie signaled for them to gather the bullion, and then pointed downward indicating that he was going to descend further. The divers looked concerned. One of them motioned to his depth gauge. It was reading nearly 188 feet, a distance already considered dangerous to most.
Charlie assured that he was okay, and then he de- scended, the pressure building in his eyes as he steadily compensated: 188...195...215...
He snaked down to the hatch at the bottom of the sub- marine, the one with the annexed, separate compartment. He checked his gauge one more time and noticed it was wavering at 229, the same depth as last time before he had dipped down to a new personal best of 231. A few of the divers gazed down, cognizant that he was now approaching a life threatening depth.
Charlie focused on its keypad, placed the three-prong key, and just like the hatch above, it also fit perfectly.
He moved inside and, lo and behold, the alchemy
room was revealed. A fantastic display of numbers and
letters engraved into a steel bulkhead surrounded this
chamber, thousands of elements in complex order.
Charlie knew immediately what was before him: the formula to turn scrap into gold, the secret of alchemy, the Holy Grail.
But the ultimate treasure was displayed in the center of this room. Encased on a pedestal arc lay a glimmering emerald stone set in a gold ring.
The first thing that came to his mind was the empty casing on Josef Maisel’s bookshelf with the sign: “The treasure is buried where it began, but the journey will take us to our destiny.”
Charlie pried open the casing, lifted the spectacular gem and held it in his palm. He thought about his dreams of recovering a significant wreck that would change his- tory, discovering a treasure that would render him rich, and finding his significant other. After all the wasted years, endless stagnation, close calls, near misses, derailed dreams, and broken hearts, the wild-eyed adventure seek- er in him had finally staked claim to its highest aspiration: synchronicity.
And he would treasure it forever.
As always, he checked his dive computer one more
time before he made his ascent, already pushing into the red zone. He also noticed that his depth had dipped to 238 feet, another boundary broken, another personal best he would keep to himself. He thought about how grate- ful he was to be living his dream as he kicked out of the submarine and upward toward his new life.
On board the semi-submersible heavy lift vessel, piles
of skeletons, nautical objects, and personal belongings were tended to. Stacks of gold were displayed for photo ops. Freida Matthias of Germany and her top general were on either side of the vice president of the United States as cameras flashed. Reporters engulfed Charlie with a barrage of questions. When he cleared his throat, they all gave him the floor.
“We did find many skeletal remains which will go into DNA testing immediately,” Charlie explained. “If Adolf Hitler is among these remains, we may finally know the truth about how he died.”
“Rewriting Hitler’s history would certainly be mo- mentous,” the newswoman from Newsday acknowl- edged. “But what about the other big speculation? What about the formula to alchemy?”
“Just a pipe dream,” Charlie lied. “We brought up everything that was worthy from the wreck. Now it’s time to take what we found back for analysis.”
The reporter from the Daily News raised his hand. “When will you bring up the submarine itself?” “We will only be able to bring up these contents,” Charlie ex- plained. “The U-boat was built to break apart should it ever be lifted up.”
“So it’s buried down there for good?” The New York Times stringer asked.
And Charlie summed it all up in the same way Ariel explained such historical mysteries to her students, by the book: “The shell down there will remain married to the ocean floor, rusting away, returning to the base elements from which it was built. But that doesn’t mean we can’t share it with you. One of my dreams for Gold Diggers Exploration was to be able to reconstruct sunken, erod- ing shipwrecks with three-dimensional imaging, and to- day that dream has come true...”
Charlie turned a large monitor around to face the re- porters. On the screen, the U-boat could be seen from various angles. Charlie had snapped numerous pictures on the dive, and the computer software had already be- gun to reconstruct the submarine’s original form.
Of course the compartment with the formula was never photographed; that image would remain only with Charlie.
As the press gathered around the monitor to get their first hand glimpse of the long lost sub, Charlie saw Ariel watching from the stern, a good distance from all the tu- mult.
Charlie pushed past the reporters as they Tweeted away, and embraced Ariel for a long while, unreservedly and fervent, neither one saying a word.
Then he gently slipped the emerald ring onto her finger.
She stared at the gorgeous stone as a tear ran down her cheek. And then she handed him a piece of paper with some handwritten, random letters: V Li Uu.
“A BEM, just for you.”
He scrambled the letters in his head and smiled. “I
love you, too.”The vessel powered up and the crew readied to depart the site.
Charlie took Ariel’s hand and led her to the port side, so they’d be facing west and could watch the sun set on their journey back to land, and also so she could see one last surprise.
He showed her a device he was holding, his thumb on its trigger.
She immediately understood what it was, and nodded in agreement.
Deep below, unheard by anyone on the surface vessel,
the explosives Charlie had planted in the alchemy compartment detonated as he squeezed the trigger, eliminating the possibility that this escape sub would ever share the formula with the world.
Ariel smiled. “I’m proud of you.”
“I’m proud of us,” he said. “Now we can both feel known, no longer alone.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Good. Then let’s go make some memories.”
He wrapped his arms around her and they watched the sun set in silence.
Along the pristine coastline of Viadma, Argentina, a magnificent little Shangri-la overlooking the ocean, Ariel and Charlie walked the cobblestone streets, past the quaint markets and shops.
“It’s spectacular here, isn’t it?” Charlie said.
“It really is,” Ariel agreed. “How’d you find this place?” “You know, researched it. Matter of fact, it may just
be a legend, but they say there’s a wreck somewhere out there.”
As Charlie looked out toward the sapphire waters, Ariel wondered if he were referring to one of the other escape subs.
“Von dem einen kommen die vielen. From the one come the many,” she said. “I suppose we haven’t completed our mission until we find all the others...”
“The ocean is massive, and deep. The likelihood of one of the others showing up in our lifetime is slim. Pos- sible, but slim. And there are more pressing mysteries to unearth.”
“You have something in mind?”
Charlie pulled the rosary beads from around his neck. “Remember the priest I told you about back in Arenys De Mar?”
“Right. Father Emanuel gave me something more than just a little insight. He also gave me these.”
“He converted you!” she joked.
“I thought he was trying to, at first. He told me that these were given to him when he was questioning the rea- sons people hide the truth, hide their pasts, that sort of thing. He told me to look inside.”
“He wanted you to pray?”
“He wanted me to look inside these beads. Literally.” Charlie twisted open one of the beads and revealed a tiny, engraved sequence. “It’s written in ancient Greek: Ae- schylus, Sophocles and Euripides.”
Ariel brightened. She knew the reference. “The lost manuscripts?”
“Just the tip of the iceberg...The Royal Library of Al- exandria was the most complete collection of the world’s knowledge in the third century, and to this day, no one knows how or why it disappeared.”
“There are many theories,” she remembered from her studies. “One of which was that it was burnt to the ground, to rid the world of an ungodly truth.”
“Another theory,” he added, “is that the entire library still exists and is protected by a secret society.”
“Everyone always blames the church,” she half-joked as she took a closer look at the rosary beads.
“I think it’s more political, if I’m reading these cor- rectly. See these Roman numerals? They’re engraved on all the beads. I took them as coordinates and plotted them on a map.”
Charlie brightened, the inspired glow that came over him at the prospect of unraveling a new mystery. “Every one leads either to a burial ground, a cemetery, a church, temple, or mosque—all except one.” Charlie gestured back out to sea. “The first location is about a mile out there.”
“A sunken library?”
“And most likely, the beginning of our next journey.” “This one could be global—”
As Charlie turned back, he noticed something across
the wharf that made his eyes bulge and jaw drop. Ariel searched in the same direction and quickly realized what Charlie saw: A boat named The Booty Call docked in the seaport.
Sitting on the deck, smoking a big Cuban while he baked in the sun, sat Sterling Ray.
“Worldwide expeditions are usually kind of expen- sive,” Charlie said. “But I think we just found our finan- cier.”
When Sterling Ray looked up, he saw Charlie com- ing for him—the last thing he would remember when he woke up in an Argentine hospital, staring up at two Securities and Exchange Commission officers, a pair of Argentine officials, and the FBI agents who would ac- company him on his flight back to the States.
After all the wasted years, endless stagnation, close calls, near misses, derailed dreams, and broken hearts, he attributed his lack of synchronicity to plain old bad luck.
But that was his explanation alone. Charlie and Ariel disagreed.
For them it was pure gold.