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Thriller / Scifi
Dean De Servienti
4.9 11 reviews
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In the second half of January 2009, in a luxury hotel in Athens, three emissaries from the highest echelons of the three major religions—Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam— held a meeting. There is no record of that meeting, but a report did leak out: according to that report, these three individuals decided to ask Mossad, the powerful Israeli intelligence agency, for its assistance in a recovery operation. The one thing that is known is that, in the months following this meeting, two things happened: suicide attacks by Islamic fundamentalists against Israel ceased, entirely and inexplicably; and a number of prominent CIA operatives working in the Middle Eastern theater were summoned home to the United States. No spokesman for any of the institutions I contacted was willing to provide confirmation or denial of this version of events.


Frank Drake, a professor at Cornell University during the mid-sixties and fascinated by the theoretical number of galaxies thought to exist in the universe, developed an equation designed to calculate the probability of the presence of evolved life forms in the cosmos. This equation, which in time became quite famous, is based on declining probability; at each step of the equation, the likelihood drops.

In simplified terms, the number of stars found in any given sector of the universe is multiplied by the fraction of those stars that, in all likelihood, have their own planetary systems. The result is then further multiplied by the fraction of those systems that could, theoretically, host life and then, further still, by the fraction of those systems where that life could, again theoretically, be intelligent. The equation proceeds in this manner.

Because we are multiplying by fractions, with each step, the resulting number is drastically reduced. And yet, taking into consideration only the most conservative estimates, in our galaxy — the Milky Way — alone, the number of intelligent civilizations predicted by the equation is on the order of several million.

It is therefore quite likely that ours is not the only planet inhabited by advanced life forms.

The main problem is the distance between planetary systems; the cosmos is enormously vast.

In other words, if we are not alone, our closest neighbors would be at least two hundred light years away from our planet. And with the speed of light as our reference point— well, let’s just say that if we run out of sugar, the idea of borrowing a cup from our extraterrestrial neighbors is a very farfetched one, to say the least.


Darfur (in Arabic “Realm of the Fur”, after the Fur, the largest tribe in the region) is situated in western Sudan, in Northeast Africa. Darfur extends across a plateau; its center is mountainous, in the east low sandy hills dominate, and in the north the land is overtaken by the Sahara. In spite of its varied topography, the region remains plagued by the encroaching desertification that afflicts the entire Sahel region.

Some seven-and-a-half million people, mostly Muslim, Christians, and animists, live in this challenging place.

In 1987, Sudan’s ruling class proclaimed the supremacy of the “Arab” race, and in 2003 a group of non-Arab rebels in Darfur began a civil war. The rebels called themselves the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), and they were later joined by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Since then, 450,000 people have been killed, 2 million have been displaced, and 400,000 have become refugees. Numerous UN investigations, corroborated by reports issued by NGOs operating in the region, have spotlighted the crimes against humanity committed during this conflict: villages burned, women and children raped, livestock confiscated, wells and crops destroyed. Violence has been directed, in particular, against black Muslims, Catholics, and animists— all guilty of being “non-Arabs.”

In spite of the approval of several resolutions by the UN Security Council, in spite of the fact that an African Union mission (AMIS) was sent to Darfur, followed later by a UN peacekeeping mission (United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur, UNAMID), Darfur is currently considered, by the UN, to be suffering the world’s gravest food emergency. Environmental conditions aside, the absence of security conditions has also blocked access to humanitarian aid.

Currently, there are ninety-seven aid agencies present in Darfur, a mix of NGOs and UN agencies, and a total of over fourteen thousand humanitarian personnel, largely concentrated in Nyala, Darfur’s southern capital.

This tragedy of biblical proportions receives only sporadic attention from the international media.

In the meanwhile, ten thousand people starve to death every month; it’s impossible to state with any certainty the number of deaths caused by guerrilla warfare.

And the world still fails to feel so much as a twinge of shame.

The Kalma refugee camp, outside Nyala, was one of the most crowded of the eighty in Darfur—and also one of the most dangerous. UNAMID was still just getting organized and the UN’s military force had not yet been fully deployed. Nevertheless, from their first days on the ground, the mission commanders had been receiving countless aid requests from representatives of the thousands of refugees crowded into the camp.

The main problem was one of security. Women couldn’t venture outside the confines of the tent-city for fear of being targeted for robbery or rape; young men who dared set foot in the outside world were rarely seen again. And the food rations issued inside the camp were never sufficient.

Dan Foster, a physician with Doctors Without Borders, was in his eleventh month at Kalma. As he stepped out of his tent- clinic to go in search of disinfectant, he looked up at the sky, shielding his eyes with one hand against the blinding light of the sun. The white transport plane was gaining altitude as it approached from the south.

“Another arms shipment, right?” asked a voice from behind him.

Dan turned around. Jodie Stanford, a doctor from an American NGO operating in the camp, was also tracking the aircraft as it passed overhead.

“Yeah,” he replied, disheartened. “The Sudanese government is up to its usual tricks. Airplanes painted white are easily mistaken for UN aircraft; they can play on that uncertainty in order to get arms through to the pro-government militias. This mayhem isn’t about to stop anytime soon. How’re you doing?”

Jodie was thirty-seven, a brilliant virologist. Divorced and childless, she’d thrown herself heart and soul into humanitarian aid work after breaking up with her husband four years ago. Darfur was her third foreign assignment. Dan and Jodie had met a few months earlier, after a brutal nighttime militia attack, which had killed twenty refugees and injured dozens more. They’d become good friends and neither of them had ever ventured past that point. Quite simply, there wasn’t the spare time to indulge a personal life at Kalma.

“I was looking for you,” she said. “There’s something strange I need to talk to you about. Can you come see me tonight, when you’re done?”

Dan nodded, furrowing his brow. “Some problem?” he asked.

“No, I don’t really think so. But there’s something I want to show you. Maybe you can figure it out, because I can’t. Seven o’clock okay with you?”

“Sure. See you later. Have a good day.”

“You, too,” said Jodie and moved off.

Dan watched her walking in the bright sunlight. Even if she wasn’t an especially showy woman, there was no question that she was attractive: straw blonde hair, above average height, with a muscular but well-proportioned physique and pleasing features; she needed no make up to highlight her sparkling, ocean-green eyes.

What a mess this place is, he thought to himself as he rummaged through the supplies, finally locating the disinfectant. With people dying around you every day, the last thing that would occur to you is to try and strike up a relationship.

The fleeting thought vanished as soon as he stepped back into the clinic: thirty or so refugees were waiting their turn to be seen by the doctor.


Via Vittorio Veneto, Rome

January 23, 10:03 AM, local time

Rome was beautiful in spite of the annoying wind that had been buffeting the city for the past couple of days. It was late January and winter was still making itself felt, though far less ferociously than it had the month before.

Yoshi was walking up Via Veneto on his way to the Grand Hotel, where his client was waiting for him. His cell phone rang, and he answered on the second ring.


“I’m still alive, dear heart. How are you?”

It was his sister Midori. After two months of radio silence. But Yoshi was used to it.

“Next time I won’t even answer when I see it’s you. Where did you disappear to this time?” he upbraided her affectionately.

“Oh, hell! It was an exhausting tour this time. First Australia, then Seoul. Pain in the ass. I’m ready to retire. And I’m not kidding around.”

Midori was thirty-five years old and an international corporate consultant. Her work took her all around the world and she seemed utterly indifferent to the appeal of a long-term relationship. Yoshi smiled.

“That’s what you say whenever you call me, and then, like always, you vanish into thin air again. How much more money are you planning on earning?”

“I’ve told you before: Pretty soon I’ll quit, and when I do I’ll buy you a magnificent house on some Pacific island; you can marry a pretty girl, have lots of kids, and I’ll spend my days babysitting while you make your wife happy traveling to fantastic places all around the world.”

“You know that’s never going to happen. First, because you’re never going to stop working, and second, because I’m not looking for anyone to marry.”

“Where are you now?”

“Rome. I’m going to see an English client of mine. An authentic gentleman. The type that would be just perfect for you.”

Midori snorted impatiently.

“Nyet, you know I can’t stand the subjects of Her Majesty the Harpy. How old is he?”

“Fifty. Salt-and-pepper hair, dark eyes, a sharp dresser. Not only is he one of my best clients, he’s also crazy about kendo. Normally, whenever we meet, we work out together.”

The brief pause before her reply told Yoshi that he’d managed to catch his sister’s attention.

“Mmmh . . . Maybe you can introduce me sometime. Just out of curiosity. How long are you staying?”

“Two or three days. The reason my client called me is that he wants to tell me about a very special item. Truthfully, I don’t know exactly what this is all about; he told me he needs to see me to get a better idea.”

“And you have the nerve to lecture me! You run hither and yon hunting down ancient art on behalf of bored rich people, but you don’t have time to find some nice mummy just for you!”

Yoshi smiled.

“Yes, but mine is a pure passion. And the good thing about it is that it will never betray me.”

“One of the two of us will have to procreate, sooner or later,” Midori decreed, “and it would make most sense for it to be you. You know, all that bullshit about carrying on the family name, and so on and so forth . . . Anyway, where are you heading?”

Yoshi entered the lobby of the Grand Hotel and steered straight for the reception desk.

“I’m supposed to go to Paris to see this special object. We might be leaving directly from the hotel. What about you?” “I’m free for a couple of weeks. I was thinking about taking a vacation. I could meet you in the Ville Lumiére.”

“That would be lovely, but I know perfectly well you’re never going to do it. I have to go now. I’ll let you know when I leave. All my love, dear heart.”

“This time I may surprise you, dear heart. Kisses to you.” Yoshi ended the call and asked the concierge to let Mr. Hooper know that Yoshi Araki had arrived.

Hadar Dafna Building, King Saul Boulevard, Tel Aviv

January 23, 12:24 PM, local time

Nahud Oz was looking out his office window down onto the street. Despite the constant looming threat of terrorist attacks, the city was vibrant with energy. Life wins out over fear; life wins out no matter what.

Someone knocked on his office door. “Come in!” he called out loudly without bothering to turn around.

Zvi Shalit, director of the Collections Department, and Efraim Harel, director of the Political Action and Liaison Department, both walked in, saluting.

Oz continued watching the traffic below him as he invited them to make themselves comfortable. The director of Mossad was notorious for his apparently distracted demeanor, as well as for his pragmatism.

“Coffee?” asked Oz, finally turning around.

The two men nodded and Oz picked up the phone to place an order with his assistant.

“I was in a meeting until ten o’clock last night with the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis. Longest day of my life. Better to be under attack by a Syrian brigade.”

Shalit and Harel chuckled. The chief rabbis the director had met with were the country’s highest religious authorities, and Oz, like most non-Orthodox sabras(1), was amiably irreverent when it came to religion.

1)The sabra are Jews born in the state of Israel.

The director’s assistant came in carrying a tray piled high with coffee and sandwiches, a sign that this was not going to be a quick meeting. He set everything down on the conference table and quickly left the room.

“We may have a problem on our hands,” said Oz. “I still can’t say how big of a problem, but my instincts tell me this is going to be a nasty one,” he continued, as he served the coffee.

“As it happens, a couple of months ago, two physicians working for two non-governmental organizations operating in Darfur found something. Don’t ask me to tell you exactly what it was, because as things now stand, we don’t really know, but it’s believed to be an artifact of some kind — and that is the root of the problem.”

The director took a sip of coffee before continuing.

“Now, the object in question seems to be — according to what we were told by the two rabbis — of primary importance to relations between the three biggest religions on this planet. From what I was able to gather, it seems to constitute a sort of ark of the covenant, capable of reconciling all groups. I have no reason to suppose that anyone is pulling my leg.” Shalit and Harel exchanged a baffled glance. Harel was the first to speak.

“I don’t quite see what you’re saying, sir. Are you telling us that the chance discovery of an artifact in a desert area of Sudan is a national security problem?”

Oz bit into a sandwich and nodded as he looked at his men. They were professionals, longtime members of the most effective security agency on earth. It was only natural that they would have the same doubts he had. He finished chewing and pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket; on it were a few notes he had jotted down.

“I’m not the one who says so. This morning I got a phone call from the Prime Minister basically ordering me to give this case absolute and maximum priority over everything else. Let’s take a look at our hand and see the cards we’ve been dealt. First of all, we aren’t the only ones to have been alerted. The Vatican’s intelligence service will be getting in touch with us in the next few hours. And we need to activate our network to exchange information with the Saudis as quickly as possible. The Arabs will put their intelligence agencies on alert, but they’ll be coordinated by Riyadh. They’re willing to put a halt to their suicide bombings until we’ve solved this problem.” His two men stopped eating and stared at him in disbelief. Oz made a face.

“I told you this was going to be a nasty one. Let’s continue. The object was found by . . .” he took a glance at his notes, “. . . Jodie Stanford, an American virologist, thirty-five years old, from Savannah, Georgia, and Dan Foster, Scottish neurologist, forty-one, from Aberdeen. The two of them had been stationed in Darfur for roughly a year. Pretty normal people: She’s divorced and childless; he’s single. Both brilliant. For different, but in both cases strictly personal, reasons they decided to become involved in humanitarian aid.”

Shalit and Harel were frantically taking notes.

“At the beginning of December they return to London together, certainly carrying the object, which does not appear to be particularly bulky, and they get in touch with four other individuals. Jean Boulanger, a French researcher at CERN, with a Ph.D. in computer science, thirty-two years old, unmarried, considered a genius in his field. Pavlov Kurilov, a Russian physicist with a Finnish passport, sixty-eight years old; he fled with his family from the then-Soviet Union in 1985 after giving the Americans several items connected to research on a revolutionary new type of ICBM rocket engine he had invented. Apparently, this was a blow to the Soviets that accelerated their collapse. George Kowalsky, American, forty-seven years old. He lost his wife and two children in a car crash five years ago, and is the head of the Computer Science research department at MIT; born into a Jewish family, it was he who provided what scanty information we possess to the head rabbi of Boston. Francesca Farini, Italian, thirty-six years old, a biochemist, divorced, with one son; she lives in London, is noted for her research into mitochondrial DNA, and is a consultant for the ESA.”

Oz took another bite of his sandwich and drank some more coffee. The two men across from him were waiting, alert. The director wiped his mouth with a napkin.

“A little before Christmas, these six people all meet in London, at the laboratory where Farini works. They stay in the laboratory, cooped up for a few days, and emerge only to withdraw cash with their debit cards. The total withdrawn is . . . let’s see here . . . 34,000 pounds sterling. Then, on Christmas Eve, they vanish into thin air. Kowalsky gets in touch with the head rabbi of Boston, an old friend of his, and informs him that he and his friends have discovered something extraordinary, something he calls ‘an ancient artifact,’ and that this discovery could radically alter — pay close attention here — our understanding of technology. In short, it could be a coup for mankind — or it could be a way of destroying it entirely. Kowalsky also says that, although they are sorry to have to do it, the six of them must disappear for a while until they can decide what to do, and that they can’t predict how long this disappearance is going to last. When the rabbi insists on more information, the answer is that this artifact, figuratively speaking, could be a latter-day ark of the covenant, but that it’s not possible to be more precise than that. In the days that follow, all the family members of the people involved in this plot receive letters or phone calls telling them not to do anything to try to find their loved ones for any reason whatsoever if they value their own lives. But there are no further explanations. The various police forces are powerless to do anything because the ‘fugitives’ are all adults, and there’s no reason to think this is a kidnapping.

Voluntarily disappearing is no crime. That’s all we know. The orders that have come down are to find them and recover the object. Any questions?”

Shalit cleared his throat.

“Let’s start from the bottom. Kowalsky mentioned ‘an ancient artifact,’ which would mean that it was something built or assembled by human beings in antiquity. But then he says that this is something that’s also technologically advanced, and that it could be a ‘sort of latter-day ark of the covenant.’ Aside from the fact that none of the fugitives is an archeologist or a semiologist or a paleoanthropologist, how could an ancient object, perhaps a religious symbol of some kind, also be a piece of advanced high technology?”

Oz nodded.

“It struck me right away as odd, too. But it could be something that mainly has to do with mathematics or physics. I don’t know, formulas to be decoded that aren’t linked to any specific language. Mathematics is the only genuine lingua franca. It might be that its intrinsic value is bound up with this, rather than with the age of the object. And after all, there’s an expert biochemist in the group. By studying mitochondrial DNA, it’s possible to trace our lineage back to Eve, for those who believe in Eve.”

“Who warned Rome and Riyadh, and why?” asked Harel. The director leaned back against the padded backrest of his chair.

“I alerted Rome and they arranged to contact the Arabs. At the Prime Minister’s orders. The powers that be wish to get a clear picture as quickly as possible and so it doesn’t much matter whether it has to do with technology, or religion, or both. The fact that the Arabs are willing to hold their fire for a while only helps us at this juncture. Gaza remains a powder keg, and this will just give us more time to get ourselves reorganized. It strikes me as an eminently acceptable compromise.”

Shalit glanced down at his notes.

“Don’t we have even the slightest indication of where they might have run to? Maybe their family members might be able to give us a hint of some kind.”

Oz shook his head.

“We can’t approach them without arousing suspicions. According to what we know, their family members are applying absolutely no pressure for the authorities to investigate. Let me repeat, these are ordinary people and I’m sure we wouldn’t find anything fishy in their personal or professional lives. In any case, Zvi, what I want is for you to gather all the information you can about them, from when they started working right up until they vanished. Use all the contacts we have in the various cities they lived in. We might not come up with much, but we have to at least try.”

Shalit nodded. “Certainly, sir. How much time do I have?” “Not much. A week, ten days at most. Meanwhile, you, Efraim, try to find out what really happened in Darfur. We need to know what we’re looking for. You’ll be dealing with Arabs, so it’ll be carrot and stick. How are we set up in Sudan?” “Well, I’d say. We have a couple of decent contacts. That shouldn’t be a problem. In a week or so I think I ought to be able to get some solid answers,” Harel replied.

“One last thing: If the individuals refuse to cooperate, once we’ve recovered the object, we no longer need them.”

Again, both men exchanged a glance. Oz threw his arms out wide.

“No one wants to run the risk of having them go around telling this story.”

“Do you want to alert the Metsada(2), sir?” asked Shalit.

2)Mossad’s division for special operations.

The director shook his head no. “No special operations, no kidon(3). Once the hunt is on, the hunter will have to be a freelancer, an independent operator. No one that can be traced back to us. Both Rome and Riyadh are willing to pay as much as it takes as long as we take care of the dirty work. So we’re going to need to watch where we put our feet. Any suggestions?”

3)Death squads, which can be deployed anywhere on the planet.

Again, it was Shalit who spoke.

“The most reliable operative is Shadow. But we’ll have to be ready to pay top dollar. The last time we used Shadow, the kidon we sent to avoid paying the rest of the bill ended up dead. I don’t think there’s any need for me to remind you, sir.”

Oz felt uneasy thinking back on what had happened.

Two years earlier, they’d had to use a freelancer to eliminate four fundraisers and Al Qaeda members who were working in the West. It had been a challenging operation because the targets were all respected businessmen who were, moreover, extremely well protected. Mossad couldn’t run the risk of being dragged into it, so the highest officers agreed to call on Shadow, the best hunter on the market. The hunter completed the operation, and managed to pass the assassinations off as accidents, but the price requested had been ten million dollars per target, twenty up front and the rest when the job was complete. Some idiotic politician recommended killing the hunter instead of paying the remaining fifty percent agreed upon. A four-man kidon was sent out. Not only did none of them come back, but Oz himself, contacted by Shadow over the phone, was asked to make sure the payment was made in full, to stave off any further disagreeable complications. The sum was paid and the incident was put behind them, to the director’s enormous relief. Shadow was truly worthy of the nickname: No one had ever seen this individual and anyone who wanted to hire the hunter was obliged to initiate contact through a system entirely of the freelancer’s own devising. And prices were never negotiable.

“All right. Gather all the information we need. There’ll be a meeting back here in exactly ten days, at this same time, after which we’ll contact the hunter. This time, I’d guess we’ll have to pay in advance.”

Kalma Refugee Camp, Darfur, Sudan

January 29, 2:32 PM, local time

Jorge Mestres was Spanish, born to a Jewish mother, and had been working as a Mossad informant for eleven years. For about the past five, he’d also been working as a reporter, covering the NGOs operating in the Middle East and in Muslim nations in particular, gathering information that might help to identify Arabic terrorist cells that moved easily within the refugee camps.

But this time he couldn’t quite understand why he was being asked to investigate an archeological artifact found by two western physicians in that shithole. Still, Jorge had learned not to ask questions or offer comments when he was given orders. The Institute paid very well for services rendered, and the old adage, “the less you know, the longer you’ll live” had become his motto as well.

Now he was sitting with a notepad in one hand, facing a kid with a clever face who must have been about fourteen, and whom he had just bribed with a package of cereal bars.

“So while you were hiding out, waiting for the militiamen to leave, you leaned against the rock and you saw the object. Could you describe it for me, more or less?”

The kid was munching on the bar as if it were the nectar of the gods. He nodded vigorously and looked at his questioner gratefully.

It’s easy to get someone to talk if they’re starving, Jorge decided.

“Yes, Sayyid(4). It was like . . . like a shiny cane. Sparkling, like a star!”

4)“Sir,” in Arabic.

Metal, thought Jorge. A metallic cylinder. Probably gold. “Okay, but what color was it and how big was it?”

The kid laid his precious cereal bar in his lap and joined forefingers and thumbs to make a circle roughly six inches across. Then he went back to munching on the bar.

“It was as tall as . . . as your leg, Sayyid, and it glittered the same color as a star. It glittered like the instruments Dr. Jodie uses. It took me a while to dig it out, but then I did, and when those men were gone, I took it back to the camp and gave it to her. I wanted to give her a nice gift because she had been so kind to me and my sister. Do you know when she’ll come back, Sayyid? We miss her so much since she left.” Jorge flashed him a smile.

“I don’t think she’ll be back for a good long while. You know, Yussef, she went back to visit her mama, and she hasn’t seen her in a good long while.”

The boy’s eyes filled with sadness.

“I don’t have a mama anymore. One day some men came and took her away, and they left me and Yasmina all alone. That was so many years ago.”

Jorge stood up. He was almost done, and sad refugee memories always annoyed him.

“Right. Well, in any case I’m sure that your friend will come back sooner or later. By the way, what did she say when you brought her the present?”

Yussef smiled with joy before answering.

“She told me: ‘This is a wonderful gift, Yussef. Maybe the nicest gift I’ve ever received.’ And she told me that she’d keep it with her for the rest of her life.”

“And . . . nothing else?” The lad furrowed his brow.

“No, Sayyid. What other nice things should she have said?” Jorge shook his head.

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I just thought she would have explained what it was good for.”

Yussef looked at him with a quizzical glance.

“What else can a shiny cane be good for except to support you on long walks?”

“Right. Okay, thanks a million, Yussef. I’ll try to get in touch with the doctor and see if she’ll tell me when she’s coming back; then I’ll let you know.”

The boy gave him a grateful look. “And will you bring me other sweets?”

“Certainly. For you and your sister. Perhaps tomorrow, when you take me to see where you found the cane. Inshallah(5).”

5)“If God wills it,” in Arabic.

“Inshallah, Sayyid. I’ll wait here for you, anxiously.”

As he was heading off, Jorge began to think. It appeared that the boy had found a cylinder roughly five feet in length and six inches in diameter, set in a rocky sediment. The strangest thing was that the material it was made of seemed to be not gold, but steel. Now, since it was an archaeological find, how could it be made of steel? And was it truly an artifact dating from antiquity? Or if not, what was it? Jorge dried the sweat off his forehead, and did his best to drive away his doubts. “The only thing you need to do is make an accurate report. Otherwise, just remember the motto,” he told himself as he headed back to his tent.

Hotel de Crillon, Place de la Concorde, Paris

January 30, 1:38 PM, local time

Raymond Hooper finished his coffee and looked at Yoshi, who was intently studying a photograph through the pocket magnifying glass that he always carried with him.

“Well? I’m burning up with anticipation, my friend . . .” Yoshi gestured with one hand for Raymond to wait. A few moments later, he leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. They’d eaten a light meal together at the hotel restaurant, and Raymond had seemed impatient from the outset.

Yoshi opened one eye.

“Ray, I don’t get it. From the picture, it doesn’t strike me as anything special, and especially not any kind of archaeological find I recognize. Are you sure this isn’t a military device of some kind?”

Raymond shook his head decisively.

“What do you have to say about the tests? This thing was half covered with rock. It took them three days to clean it off.” Yoshi picked up the sheets of paper to the right of the photo with an incredulous expression.

“That’s the real mystery. Are you sure this isn’t an elaborate hoax of some kind? Are your friend’s colleagues as reliable as she is?”

Raymond nodded vigorously.

“Absolutely. This is the most respected laboratory in the United Kingdom, and the person who did the tests is beyond any sort of suspicion.”

Yoshi knitted his fingers together.

“It doesn’t make sense, Ray. A month ago this friend of yours told you that she had something sensational to show you. She tells you to meet her in the most important research laboratory in England, she introduces you to the people she’s doing the study with, and she shows you a cylinder that seems to be made of stainless steel; radiometric dating tests indicate it’s about 250 million years old. She lets you take pictures of it, and she tells you that once they’re done with their various analyses, she might even give it to you, free of charge, as long as you promise to keep it hidden. Then she sends you the results of the analyses completed up to that point” — and here Yoshi held up the sheets of paper to underline the point — “along with a letter telling you not to try to get in touch with her. Then she vanishes, along with the other five. And that’s not all . . .”

Yoshi pulled out one of the sheets of paper, which was densely covered with data.

“Here it says that the material used to make this cylinder ‘seems’ to be stainless steel, but is actually a metal that defies all attempts to understand its makeup. Frankly, this seems more like Star Wars than Indiana Jones. And to tell the truth, I prefer Indiana Jones to Star Wars, maybe because at least that’s something I can understand.”

Raymond shifted nervously in his chair.

“Listen, Yoshi. I believe that it’s worth trying to dig a little deeper into this case. I’ve been buying ancient artifacts since I was twelve. I’m intrigued by human history, same as you are. But this object intrigues me more than anything else I’ve heard about in my life. You have to help me out. I’ll pay twice your normal consulting fee. But I need you.”

Yoshi looked at him, half-closing his eyes.

“Ray, if you want me to help you, then you’ll have to tell me the whole story. I don’t yet know everything, do I?” Raymond took a long drink of water from the glass in front of him.

“Okay. I think I’m . . . no, the truth is, I’m in love with Francesca and I think something bad must have happened to her, for her to vanish like this. Aside from my genuine interest in this deal,” he added, pointing to the photo.

Cherchez la femme, Yoshi thought to himself.

“Okay. Is the letter authentic?”

“That’s her handwriting, I have no doubt about it. She and I’ve written to each other often since I first met her. It’s much better than texting.”

Raymond was right about that.

“How long have you known each other?”

“I know what you’re driving at. About five months. There were no clouds on the horizon. We just hit it off. In every way. She never would have just turned her back on me like this unless something very serious had happened. And I’m certain that it’s something connected to that object.”

Yoshi re-examined the photograph. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that could provide even the slightest clue.

“I’m not someone who knows how to find missing persons, Ray.”

“No, but you are someone who knows how to find missing objects and, frankly, that seems harder to me. More importantly, though, you’re good at what you do. I’m positive that, wherever you find that object, you’ll find her, too.” “Why don’t we just go to the police?” asked Yoshi.

“Because the letter tells me not to contact the authorities, if I really love her. I’d be putting her in serious danger — it states that very clearly.”

Yoshi could smell trouble. Big trouble. He’d gotten himself into hot water plenty of times while trying to recover artifacts from unscrupulous individuals, but this time his instinct told him that the danger was grave indeed.

But Raymond was his best customer, he was a gentleman, and by now he was also a friend. He was in love with art, and now he was in love with a woman, too. Yoshi couldn’t turn his back on him now.

“Okay, Ray. Here’s what let’s do: I’ll give it a shot, but I make no guarantees about results. And if I find her with her arms wrapped around some Australian surfer, I’ll leave her where she is and tell you so, immediately. If within . . . let’s say . . . one month, I haven’t come up with anything, I’ll withdraw from the case, and you’ll resign yourself to the situation. It would make no sense to keep wasting money and resources for nothing.”

Raymond nodded gravely.

“Now let’s see what we have to get started with. You need to show me this letter, and then we’ll try to figure out exactly how your girlfriend operated, after which it would be best if I could talk to someone from the laboratory. Tomorrow, I’d say. So now, let’s get busy.”

“Thanks, friend.”

“Okay, Ray. And to think that I had hoped to take a few days’ vacation with my sister, here in Paris. I was even planning to introduce you two. She’s a tasty morsel.”

Raymond Hooper smiled fondly.

Vatican City

February 2, 11:45 AM, local time

Matteo Gili walked into Cardinal Frappi Porini’s office after being duly announced. Being the pope’s security chief was far more stressful than he ever would have imagined. After the attempt on Paul VI’s life, in the Philippines, the papal security detail had been put under the supervision of unquestioned professionals, and the hiring criteria had been tightened still further after Ali Agca shot John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.

Gili came from the Swiss national security agency, and he was respected in his field. When the pontiff summoned him to offer him the job two years ago, Gili had accepted with pride. But he’d never dreamed he would be faced with circumstances as tricky as the ones before him now.

Cardinal Frappi Porini, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was sipping an espresso and perusing a small stack of documents. At seventy-six, he was still as clear-minded and acute as any competent thirty-year-old. He spoke six languages fluently and he was so quick to grasp a point and think it through that anyone who dealt with him felt intimidated.

He smiled at Gili and pointed him to the heavy, velvet-upholstered chair in front of his desk. “Quoi de neuf, mon cher Matteo?”

The security chief cleared his throat before speaking.

“I’ve just spoken to the director of Mossad, Your Eminence. Tomorrow he’s going to assemble his men for a final briefing before sending them into action. Apparently this is no false alarm.”

The cardinal placed his elbows on his desk and looked interested.

“The object appears to be a metal cylinder roughly five feet in length and six inches in diameter. They managed to gain access to the operating system of the laboratory where the fugitives carried out their exams. Even though all the data had been deleted, the cache memory hadn’t been completely flushed. Now we know that the object in question was subjected to radiometric dating tests with several different series of isotopes, and it appears not to be made of any known metal or metal alloys, or at least none that are currently commercially available.”

Frappi Porini massaged his temples.

“What were the findings of the radiometric tests?”

Gili shook his head.

“They weren’t able to recover the test findings, Your Eminence. At least they haven’t so far.”

The cardinal looked at him intensely with his deep grey eyes. “That’s where the key lies, Matteo. Only the findings of those exams will give us any real indication of what we’re dealing with here.”

The prelate leaned back in his leather-upholstered chair.

“By now we’re being attacked from all sides. Television, movies, books, vulgar politicians, pseudo-intellectuals. Religion is the last safe haven for the soul. It’s the one hope left to anyone hoping not to plummet into the abyss of cynicism and self-destruction. Unfortunately, ignorance is spreading like wildfire and even writers as crude as that Dan Brown character, for example, pass for accurate historians these days.”

Frappi Porini shot Gili a penetrating look.

“My dear Matteo, it’s time, now more than ever, to react. And if this . . . ‘problem’ . . . helps to solidify our beliefs and allows us to make up lost ground with the world at large, well then, we ought to consider it a gift from God, rather than a problem. Tell me how you intend to proceed.”

Gili had listened in silence. Though he was a believer, he hardly considered himself a fanatic. His true creed was his work, and he knew that he was very good at it. Still, this situation made him uncomfortable; he was basically wandering blind in the dark.

“Your Eminence, until I receive further information from the Israelis all I can do is wait. The only thing that I will certainly do is talk to the Saudis. My counterpart Aziz struck me as quite uneasy. And I understand that. He’s going to have to come up with convincing arguments to justify his position to everyone around him, while restraining the terrorist impulses of the more fanatical Muslims bent on the destruction of Israel. I’ll let him know the news we’ve received immediately. I have no idea how he’ll react.” Frappi Porini smiled slightly mockingly and waved one hand in the air with some amusement.

“They’re bloody-minded, our Arab friends. They’re going to want to get their hands on the fugitives first thing, to find out more. And so will our Jewish brothers. All we need to do is wait and offer a little advice. And we’ll have advice to offer, won’t we, Matteo?”

It sounded more like an order than a simple question. Gili nodded. The cardinal bade him farewell, and he went off to have a chat with Aziz Fahada, commander in chief of the Saudi national security agency.

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