Nineteen years later
Raoul LaDouceur hummed as he opened the trunk of his rented Jaguar. As he slid the rifle from beneath a plaid wool ski blanket, he became aware that his stomach was grumbling. Well, not for long. He’d spotted an open air taverna some ten miles back and had a sudden irresistible yen for a platter of braised lamb shanks and a glass of ouzo.
He checked his watch. There should be time. He’d already dispatched the two security guards and rolled their bodies down the hillside. He was ahead of schedule and still had five hours before he had to return the rental car and fly back to London to await his next assignment. Time enough even for two glasses of ouzo.
He walked purposefully through the olive grove, feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Despite his sunglasses, he was aware of the waning, still-hot Mediterranean sun. He preferred to do his work in darkness.
But as he’d learned to tolerate the sun on so many scorching digs during his younger years, so, too, he would tolerate it today. Ignoring the perspiration running from his armpits, he selected his position, the one that best afforded him a view of the entire rear of the house. Then he took a puff from his inhaler and settled in to wait.
The fragrance of these olive trees made his throat burn. It brought back memories of his grandfather’s farm in Tunisia, where he’d labored as a grafter from the age of six. Slicing off branches and rooting them into new olive trees, he’d spent ten hours a day at monotonous work beneath an unforgiving sun, his throat dry and raw as pipe ash.
And what did he get when he was done—a crust of bread, a scrap of cheese? And more often than not, a beating with a switch made from one of the very branches he had cut.
His grandfather was the first man he’d killed. He’d beaten him to death on the day he’d turned fifteen.
Today, too, must be someone’s birthday, he thought, his gaze flitting over the balloons tied in bunches to the lounge chairs, then to the table piled high with gaily wrapped gifts.
The party was about to begin.
Beverly Panagoupolos had been baking all afternoon. It wasn’t that her brother’s chef was incapable of making a birthday cake, it was just that for her grandchildren, she liked to do it herself.
Her littlest granddaughter, Alerissa, was nine today. In an hour the birthday girl and her big brothers, Estevao, Nilo, and Takis, would all be gathered around the pool deck with their parents, their cousins, aunts, and uncles. Alerissa was so timid she would be shy throughout the party, then would talk of nothing else for days to come.
Beverly licked the cinnamon frosting from her thumb and strode outside to check that the pink and silver balloons and bright array of gifts were arranged as she intended.
She paused for a moment, gazing with pleasure at the silvery blue water of the pool, where soon all the children would be splashing before dinner.
She didn’t hear a thing until the gunshots cracked through the palm trees.
She didn’t feel a thing until the bullets razored across her back.
She didn’t see the silvery blue water turn crimson with her blood.
She died with cinnamon frosting at the corners of her lips.
The car snaked out from the secluded hilltop and roared down the road. Flipping the radio dial in search of a classical station, Raoul caught the tail end of a news broadcast. Terrorists had blown up the Melbourne Airport’s international terminal and thousands were feared dead inside the collapsed building.
He smiled to himself. He was good. The best. The proof was written across the ever-increasing chaos in the world. Soon he’d be hailed as one of the principal heroes of the new order.
The thirty-six Hidden Ones were dwindling. Beverly Panagoupolos was the fourteenth to die by his hand. No one else had ever killed so many. Now, only three of the thirty-six remained. Once they were eliminated, Raoul thought with pride, God’s foul world would be finished.
Already it was deteriorating. War, earthquake, famine, fire, disease—one by one, every type of natural and man-made catastrophe was proliferating across the globe like never before. It was merely a matter of days now.
When the final three were gone—the light of the Hidden Ones extinguished—the time of the Gnoseos would dawn and the world would be no more.
Brooklyn, New York
Time was running out.
Nearly five thousand miles away, in his small office on Avenue Z, Rabbi Eliezer ben Moshe closed his rheumy eyes and prayed.
Throughout his eighty-nine years, those eyes had seen much tragedy and evil, simcha and goodness in the world. But of late, the evil seemed to be multiplying. He knew it wasn’t a coincidence.
Desperate fear filled his heart. He’d spent his entire life in the study of Kabbalah, meditating upon God’s mystical secrets, calling upon His many names. He’d murmured them, praying for protection—not for himself—for the world.
For the world was in peril, a peril greater than the Flood. The dark souls of an ancient cult had found the Book of Names. He was convinced of it.
And all of the Lamed Vovniks listed in the ancient parchment were being killed, one by one. How many were left? Only God and the Gnoseos knew.
Sighing, he turned to the talismans arrayed on his desk. Some he understood. Some he did not. He picked them up, one by one, and stuffed them back inside the cracked leather satchel sitting open on his desk. His fingers ached from arthritis as he pulled the ancient volumes of the Zohar and the Tanach away from the bookshelf and spun the dial of the safe hidden behind them. Only when the lock clicked and the satchel was again secured within the fireproof metal did he pick up his worn Book of Psalms and shuffle toward the door.
His long silver beard quivered as his lips moved in prayer.
Dear God, give us the strength and the knowledge to stop the evil ones.
Beneath his desk, the tiny microphone carried his prayer.
But not to God.
When David Shepherd walked into Houligan’s Bar after teaching his morning classes, the only things on his mind were a pounding headache and the desperate need for nourishment. He’d been too wired to sleep last night after having hosted Tony Blair’s two-day visit to the campus. Blair’s address had brought the students to their feet and the afterglow at Dean Myer’s had lasted until nearly one.
Blair’s visit had been considered a coup on his part, but really it was only luck. David had met the British statesman seven months ago when he’d been invited to present a seminar at Oxford. Following the seminar he’d been fêted at a dinner at Boisdale of Belgravia, and Blair, seated across from him, had complimented him on his latest book, Empowering the Nations: The Struggle for Peace in an Era of Nuclear Proliferation.
They’d exchanged e-mails, and to his surprise, the statesman had accepted his invitation to speak at Georgetown.
The visit had been a huge success but this morning had been pure hell. He’d floundered, sleepless, until four in the morning, snored through the alarm, and then rushed in late to deliver his 8 a.m. lecture. There hadn’t even been time to gulp some Tylenol, much less grab a power drink from the fridge. He hadn’t even shaved, he’d only taken time to jump in the shower and to slick back his thick dark hair.
“Dave, what gives?” He recognized Tom McIntyre’s nasal voice above the din. Tom waved him over from two tables away.
“For Myer’s golden boy, you sure look down in the mouth. Did your pal Tony have you contemplating the state of the world a little too deeply last night?”
The balding assistant professor with whom David shared an office in the poli-sci department signaled to the waitress across the room. Also single and in his mid-thirties, Tom was a brilliant sparring partner and one of the most popular professors on campus. Each semester Tom kept a running check on which of them filled up their classes first. David sensed more than friendly competition in the way Tom tried to needle him, but as the son of a U.S. senator, David had grown up surrounded by politics and was immune to it.
He usually shrugged off Tom’s need to be top dog—except when the two of them took their annual rock-climbing trip out west. Tom was a good guy and a hell of a climber and excelled in the one area where David enjoyed competition—pitting himself against man and nature, testing himself against the cliffs.
With a groan, David folded his long muscular body into a hardbacked chair opposite Tom.
His office mate hoisted a beer. “One of these might cure what ails you.”
“And a sledgehammer might knock this headache loose.” David forced a smile. “You happen to have one of those handy?”
Tom’s attention had already shifted away, his gaze fastened on the TV screen above the bar. “Chicken Little was right, my friend. The end is near.”
“No argument from me.” David ordered a hamburger, chili with onions, and a Heineken. He slouched back in his seat, rubbing his temples. His gaze automatically followed Tom’s to CNN. Another terrorist attack in Melbourne. He grimaced. Disasters were erupting all over the world with the regularity of Old Faithful.
Copyright © 2007 by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori. All rights reserved.