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“What has happened?”
In a red-velvet-draped castle room on a granite bluff overlooking the Mediterranean, seven robed men sat around a circular table of polished pearwood. On the table were silver pitchers of ice water and individual chalices in front of each man. The walls between the curtains were hung with a pair of tapestries so old and valuable they rightfully belonged in a major museum. One depicted the Ascension of Christ, still bleeding from being crucified; the other was a hunting scene of a stag at bay, bleeding from the bites of a pack of slavering hounds.
Seven men, and Cardinal Duchamp makes eight. An unfortunate number, thought Aldus Reichmann. Inauspicious. As Nauarchus of the Knights of Saint Clement of the Holy Land he was not supposed to believe in numerology, banned like other esoteric disciplines by the Vatican. But what he studied on his own time, what he believed in … well, whatever helped him gain power would help him retain it. Eight was the number of death. But it could not be helped. The Vatican, in the person of Cardinal Duchamp, had come to Malta on urgent business.
The cardinal cleared his throat. He was a tall, imposing individual with a ruddy complexion that belied his soft, rather feminine Irish-French skin and the lax muscles beneath. He gave the appearance of being powdered all over, as if being nearer to God had sucked all the juice out of him. Proof that he wasn’t even interested in altar boys, Reichmann thought wryly. He was as dry as a date, only it was his insides that were shriveled.
“Again we ask: What happened?”
On the other hand, Reichmann thought as he aligned the manila envelope in front of him with the arc of the table, one mustn’t forget that being the pope’s personal emissary, Duchamp wields untold power, even within the College of Cardinals in Vatican City.
“Where is Valentin Kite?”
Like crickets in a field, there was a rustling around the table as the members of the Circle Council, the ruling body of the Knights, shifted uncomfortably from one buttock to the other, as if on cue.
The cardinal’s cold, clear eyes settled on Reichmann like ravens on a carcass. “We wish only the truth, Nauarchus. Always and forever.”
“This is of course understood.”
“We would pray so, Nauarchus.” Cardinal Duchamp’s ruddy lips compressed, further showing his extreme displeasure. “Now. What happened?”
“Evidently, Valentin found the entrance to King Solomon’s mine,” Reichmann began.
The cardinal put such a sarcastic spin on the word that six of the seven Knights all but cringed. Not so Reichmann, who had risen within the ranks to become Nauarchus by employing a great deal of cunning, knowing how and when to apply stressors, and dispensing highly effective measures of intimidation. He was damned if he was going to let Felix Duchamp intimidate him. Nevertheless, before he delivered his answer, he buried the fingers of his right hand in the thick black ruff of Maximilian, his Caucasian shepherd, a massive guard dog with the size and aspect of a small bear. The dog, with good reason, terrified the castle’s staff, along with a good number of the Circle Council, though they would rather be strung up by their thumbs than admit it out loud.
Reichmann nodded, as if deaf to the cardinal’s tone. “That was the last communiqué we received from him.”
“Then, presumably, he entered the cave with his guide and guards.”
“Who are now…?”
“Dead, Your Eminence. Unfortunately.”
“Unfortunate for all of us who sent Kite on this mission.”
Reichmann said nothing; there was nothing to add. The Knights, ancient and irretrievably linked to the pope, who originally granted them their charter in return for their undying fealty, were a religious and military order. Though founded around 1023, they didn’t come to prominence until the First Crusade in 1099, when the pope moved them into the military sphere as soldiers of Christ.
“Who killed them?” the cardinal asked now with the tone of one who already knew the answer.
“Where they set up outside the cave mouth was in complete shambles. The working hypothesis is they were set upon by one of the cadres of local rebel jihadists that infest the area.”
“Isn’t that what the guards were there to protect against?”
“Of course,” Reichmann said. “We don’t know how large the jihadist cadre was, but from the damage inflicted we can glean that Val’s group was heavily outnumbered.”
Reichmann drew several photographs from the manila folder, spread them out for the cardinal to look at. Duchamp leaned forward but would not touch the photos, as if they had been contaminated by the abominable methods of the deaths they had recorded.
“What…?” He could not go on. His lower lip trembled minutely.
“We simply don’t know, Your Eminence.”
“Am I seeing right?” The cardinal peered from the in situ photo to the close-ups. “Is every bone in this man’s body broken?”
“That’s what my people tell me.”
“And two were burned to death,” Duchamp said. “That’s clear enough.”
“Val’s group was attacked while they were inside the cavern, which would have made defense exceedingly difficult.”
“What of the mine itself?” Duchamp said abruptly.
“Unknown. Our people found nothing to indicate a shaft or a gold hoard. Perhaps it had already been looted. But they had little time for exploration; the jihadists who attacked Val and his team were still in the area. They had to fight their way out.”
“I’m beginning to think Valentin didn’t find the mine at all.” Duchamp’s hands were working on the table, as if, deep down, he was harboring violent impulses. “I’m of a mind to believe that this was all a folly, that you have ill-used Vatican funds.”
“I can assure Your Eminence—”
“Your assurances are unacceptable, Nauarchus.” Cardinal Duchamp’s head wagged from side to side. “What evidence have you that Valentin did, in fact, discover King Solomon’s mine?”
Reichmann handed over another set of photos, these fairly blurry, obviously taken in haste. “Wall paintings inside the cave depict King Solomon. His seal is quite evident, Your Eminence. There can be no doubt.”
Cardinal Duchamp’s fist rose and fell onto the table with a crash that caused Maximilian to raise his regal head. “Then where is the mine itself? Where is the hoard of gold Solomon secreted away?” He leaned forward. “You understand the special nature of this gold, Nauarchus.”
“I do, Your Eminence.”
Nevertheless, out of either spite or pedantry, Duchamp felt obliged to explain. “Solomon’s gold is unlike any other ever produced. It is said to have been created by his cabal of alchemists by an arcane method known only to them. There is an added element to the gold—perhaps, as it is rumored in certain historical texts—”
“I believe you mean banned religious texts, Your Eminence.”
This not very subtle reminder that the cardinal himself was dabbling in a subject heretical to canonical law clearly did not sit well with Duchamp, who revealed his intense displeasure through a scowl.
“These texts,” he emphasized, “posit the theory that what made the gold in Solomon’s mine so intensely valuable was that it had been infused with the Quintessence, the so-called life force of the universe. Anyone who came into possession of the gold would have their life extended far beyond normal human parameters.” He lifted a finger, wagging it in warning. “Let me remind you, Nauarchus, that your predecessor promised, and failed, to unequivocally ascertain whether Braverman Shaw’s father had indeed unearthed the Quintessence.” He glared at Reichmann with open hostility. “Now you too have failed at your mission. I can only guess at His Holiness’s reaction when I report back to him.”
Abruptly Reichmann was fed up with this pompous creature. He resented in extremis that Duchamp had been dispatched to reprimand him and demand answers he could not, as yet, provide. It seemed to him now the last straw in the increasingly adversarial relationship with the Vatican. Ever since his predecessor’s death, the Holy See had turned its eye on the Knights as never before. No one knew better than he did the rampant political infighting that led to the corruption within Vatican City. The new pope was trying his best to eradicate all corruption, but over the centuries it had become so institutionalized that nothing short of replacing the entire College of Cardinals would suffice. That, Reichmann knew for a certainty, would never happen. The Church was too addicted to money, to filling its coffers, to catering to those wealthy individuals who gave most generously.
The cardinal had sat back, crossing his arms over his chest. Not only his body language but also his expression told Reichmann a storm was fast rushing toward him. But rather than intimidate him, the darkening horizon only fueled his anger. Normally, he kept it on a tight leash, but there were triggers that set it free, snarling like Max with strangers.
“What of Valentin Kite?” Duchamp said, his voice tight and coiled like a deadly thing. “Where is he? What happened to him?”
Reichmann was again being humiliated in front of the Order’s ruling body. “The extramuros team found no trace of him, either in the cave or in the immediate vicinity.”
“You told me they were being hounded by the local jihadists.”
“We know for certain that no one made it out of the area.” The two men were now making a habit of not answering each other directly. “The photos prove that Valentin’s entire team perished.”
“But what about Valentin himself?”
The cardinal repeated his question in a pro forma voice, while he studied his perfectly manicured nails. Reichmann wondered whether he even cared what happened to the explorer.
“Valentin is either dead or, worse, captured by local jihadists. He’s a good Catholic. What do you imagine they’d do to him?”
Breaking the ensuing silence, Reichmann continued. “And as for the Quintessence, Your Eminence, my spies report that no one has it. Not us, not the Gnostic Observatines. Braverman Shaw led my predecessor on one nasty wild-goose chase that cost him his life.”
“And elevated you to his exalted position,” Cardinal Duchamp said with evident distaste. “The Gnostic Observatines—even speaking their name makes me sick to my stomach. They have been a thorn in the pontiffs’ side since the fourteenth century. We can never forget how their rise after the split in the Franciscan Order in the early 1300s caused both chaos and consternation in the Holy See. Pope John the Twenty-Second quite rightly sided with the Franciscan Conventuals. But instead of complying with his order to stay inside their monasteries and obey the pontiff’s will, the Observatines chose to rebel, and dispersed into what we now know as the Middle East. They won’t fight the Islamics as good Catholics should, although everyone knows that there are Islamic practitioners of heretical magic, Sufi mysticism, what have you. No, the Observatines believe in the rights of all men, a secular notion that has no place in the Church.” The derision in Duchamp’s voice was unmistakable. “It is whispered by some that they have completely forsaken the dictates of Christ, that they even help the Islamics. What can you do with people like that but exterminate them?”
Duchamp curled his hand into a fist, slammed it down onto the table so hard the chalices rocked on their bases. It was good that Reichmann had hold of Maximilian, else the dog would have leapt to his feet. As it was, Reichmann could feel the quiver of the beast’s powerful haunches.
Oblivious to this potentially lethal byplay, the cardinal continued. “Then why hasn’t the Order been eradicated?”
Reichmann kept his voice mild, as much to reassure Maximilian that he wasn’t in danger as to keep up his front with the cardinal. “May I be frank, Your Eminence?”
Cardinal Duchamp waved his hand. “The day you are not will be your last as Nauarchus.”
“Then allow me to say that we have never had to deal with an individual like Braverman Shaw. We believed that when we killed his father, Dexter Shaw, the man who sought to be Magister Regens, we had broken the back of the Gnostic Observatines.” Now he did take a drink of water. To hell with Felix Duchamp, he thought. After he had swallowed the long draught, he continued. “However, they’re like cockroaches—hiding everywhere, impossibly difficult to exterminate. In addition, we did not reckon with the fact that Dexter Shaw had trained his son in secret, had left secret instructions for Braverman. When we did find out, we moved heaven and earth to stop Braverman from finding and acting on his father’s instructions.”
“Yet you failed,” Cardinal Duchamp said heavily. “You failed to prevent the Haute Cour from voting Braverman Shaw as the first Magister Regens in centuries, and now he has become more powerful than his father. He has extended the Order’s businesses more deeply into the lay world than we have. Under Bravo Shaw’s direction, they have further infiltrated into every area of business and politics. They have, in effect, become as much religious warriors as your people are.”
Reichmann resisted the urge to glance at Collum, who, as usual, was sitting directly across from him, his eyes cast down as he took copious notes. “The people who preceded me failed to eradicate the Gnostic Observatines, Your Eminence. With respect, I have been trying to clean up their mess.”
The cardinal seemed not to have heard, or, possibly, he didn’t care. “Why have you not attempted an all-out assault on the Haute Cour? A mailed fist, wiping them out once and for all. We believe that is what’s needed.”
Reichmann marshaled his resources. This is what comes of men of God thinking themselves warriors, he thought drily. “That direct tactic has been tried, several times, without success,” he said. “In fact, it appears that the failed attempts are what has caused Shaw to ensure that his Order is stronger and more determined than ever. A remarkable example of cause and effect gone wrong.”
The cardinal shook his head. “Need we remind you, Nauarchus, that the pontiff agreed to your elevation so that you could fulfill your promise to put an end to all incompetence?”
“Not at all, Your Eminence,” Reichmann said with far more equanimity than he felt. “But I feel I must reiterate that Bravo Shaw has instituted policies that make our mission exponentially more difficult.”
Reichmann could not filter out the cardinal’s condescension. “He has dispersed the Haute Cour, for one thing. The heart of the Gnostic Observatines no longer gather in one place. He has scattered them across the globe.”
“The answer to that is simple, Nauarchus. Dispatch your men to eradicate them.”
“I have.” Reichmann took a breath. “None return.”
“We would offer the observation that they are not sufficiently trained.”
Not wanting to get into the whys of his men’s failures, Reichmann moved on. “Over the centuries, the Observatines have made powerful allies who go to great lengths to protect them. An all-out assault is now out of the question.”
“And Shaw himself?”
“He employs multiple layers of protection.” Reichmann raised a finger. He was determined to end what had turned into an interrogation, but before he could continue the cardinal broke in.
“You have failed and now you must pay the price. There must be changes made to our partnership. As of today we will now be taking fifty percent of the profits from the three financial and transnational shipping companies you have established with our money.”
Reichmann was reeling. These three companies were his idea. He had founded them, it was true, on the back of Duchamp’s private fortune floating somewhere between the Vatican Bank and a bevy of offshore accounts. But it was Reichmann’s vision as well as his expertise that made them both money out of the probing eye of Vatican City or any other authority. Was he not entitled to the lion’s share of the proceeds? What did Duchamp do but sit on his butt and collect the fat rolls of cash every month? What Reichmann really wanted to do was to let Maximilian rip out the cardinal’s tender throat. Instead, he said, “Our verbal contract is for a seventy-thirty split.”
The cardinal leaned forward. “‘Verbal’ is the operative word, Reichmann. You operate at our command; the contract is at our discretion. It is fungible.”
“Indeed, Your Eminence.” Reichmann smiled winningly, all too aware that Duchamp had dropped his official title. “I understand.” Inside, he was seething. Inside, this outrageous penance had finally tipped the scales. The situation had become intolerable. He knew he needed to do something drastic to get out from under Duchamp’s thumb. It was time to sever ties with the Vatican entirely. But how? As Duchamp had needlessly pointed out, the Knights had been chartered by the Holy Father centuries ago. The Order had been his strong right hand ever since. But times change. Living in the past was no longer a viable option.
Change, Reichmann thought as he continued to smile with perfect calm, must come.
Copyright © 2017 by Eric Van Lustbader