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PARIS: PRESENT DAY
Under a porcelain-blue sky, striped with whipped-cream clouds, Lilith Swan strode along the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. She was tall, lissome, athletic. Dressed in a flowing ankle-length oyster-gray coat over a charcoal pencil skirt and a lacy blouse buttoned to her throat, she cut a stylish figure even among the chic Parisian, Japanese, and Arabic women entering and exiting the ateliers of the Faubourg’s high-end couturiers. The only curious note was the pink ballet flats on her feet, which were certainly not made for walking the sidewalks of any city. Her thick hair, the color of midnight, reflected both light and shadow. A raven’s wing dipped down from her sharp widow’s peak partially obscuring one eye. Her gait was both provocative and artless, as can be typical with athletes of a certain type. It obscured an inner tension, which was, perhaps, simply nerves.
She turned into a narrow storefront between Bottega Veneta and Prada, its only sign a discreet brass plaque that unknowing tourists passed by without even noticing. Inside all was cool, dim, perfumed. One wall held three shelves of meticulously handmade shoes, below which was a large mirror. On the opposite wall, above two leather chairs, hung a chart of the thirty-five steps taken by the shop’s master craftsman in assembling his made-to-measure footwear.
The master himself emerged from his workshop in the rear to greet Mlle. Swan. In one hand he held a pair of black suede shoes with five-inch heels.
“Finished,” he said with a huge smile, after they had exchanged familiar greetings. He held the shoes aloft. “Every detail precisely to your specifications.” He gestured. “Sit, sit. Please.”
Lilith lowered herself into one of the chairs, slipped off her ballet shoes, offered the shoemaker her right foot. The shoe fit like a glove, felt exquisitely cushioned, and yet when she tried both on, rising and walking toward the mirror, they felt sturdy, not even a hint of a balancing wobble from the stiletto heels.
“Magnificent, Albrecht,” she said, for the shoemaker had been born in the north of Italy, grew up speaking German and eating Alsatian schnitzel.
Albrecht beamed. He lived for his shoes. “Shall I wrap them for you, Mademoiselle Swan?”
“Oh no, I’m going to show them off, Albrecht.”
The shoemaker blushed. “Then I’ll just pack up your ballet slippers.”
Across the boulevard, hard by Moncler, was a small establishment, its plate-glass window revealing a spare number of exquisite pieces of jewelry—one each of a necklace and ring with a pair of ruby-and-diamond earrings artfully hung between them.
Inside, Lilith slipped on the platinum bracelet she had designed and had made for her. Two twining branches encircled her left wrist. She walked out with it on, feeling it against the bones at the base of her hand.
Her third stop was a block beyond, across rue Royale, where the Faubourg ended and rue Saint-Honoré began. There she picked up a pair of long hairpins made to her specifications, allowing the salesperson to push them through the dense gathered hair at the back of her head, so just the teardrop-shaped green jade ends were visible.
Just next door she popped into Ladurée Royale, entering the gilt-and-cream nineteenth-century Empire interior. She took a small marble-topped table, ordered a hot chocolate, thick and rich as a melted chocolate bar. She sat straight backed, with a flinty, determined air that often flustered those attending her, waitpersons, front desk personnel, salespeople. It was not so much that she disdained convention as she willfully had no knowledge of it.
While she slowly drank, she allowed herself to experience the pleasure of her new purchases. The caffeine and sugar helped clear her mind for the morning ahead. She felt calm and strong, the blood rushing through her, rich as the Ladurée hot chocolate. She felt ready for anything.
When she was finished, she paid and left, walked two blocks farther east, entered a large deep-cream-colored building on the corner of rue Duphot. The old-fashioned vestibule lit up at the press of a button; the light would go off after sixty seconds. Bypassing the claustrophobic elevator, she walked up the wide marble stairs, pressing the light button at each landing. On the fourth floor, as Europeans counted, she went down the shadowed hallway to the end, fished a key out of her handbag, and opened the door. It was a special key to fit a special lock that was guaranteed by the manufacturer to be pickproof. This was a legitimate claim, she knew, as the manufacturer was owned by the Knights of St. Clement, the order of which she was a newly elected member.
The guards in the foyer nodded to her, but not, she was certain, with the deference they would have shown were she a man. In fact, one of them, a dark-haired handsome man named Naylor, with a saturnine face and the shoulders of a brawler, ogled her with obvious interest, his gaze lingering over her bust and long legs. She gave him a smile that was a bit coquettish, a bit cowed. He liked that. Very much.
The entire flat had the air of a traditional British men’s club, where, apart from gender, class, privilege, and entitlement mattered most. Where an invisible sign that read “Gentlemen Only” kept out the riffraff and the chaff not lucky enough to be born to the manor in Surrey or the townhome in Kensington. Landed, in other words.
In the long cherrywood-paneled hallway, Lilith paused a moment. The soft murmur of men’s voices came to her, but for the moment her thoughts were elsewhere. They were with Maria Elena Donohue, the only female member of the extramuros team sent to retrieve the Veil of Veronica purported to be buried in the mountains of Arizona. All had been hunted down and killed by Braverman Shaw and his Gnostic Observatine crew, a bloodletting for which she was determined to take revenge.
When she entered the library turned conference room all conversation ceased. The thirteen men seated around the circular basalt table all looked at her at once, as if they were marionettes whose strings were being manipulated by a single hand. All but one of these men were between fifty-five and eighty-five years old. They made up the Circle Council, the brain trust of the Knights of St. Clement, at least those who had survived the all-consuming fire at their ancestral castle in Malta. The current expansion from seven to fourteen members was in response to the disaster. Among the dead: Aldus Reichmann, their former leader, the Nauarchus of the Circle Council. At present, no one sat in the Nauarchus’s throne-like seat. In fact, this convocation had been called to elect the new Nauarchus. Lilith knew full well there was sure to be fierce debate and infighting before someone took Reichmann’s place.
The room was filled with light from a crystal chandelier depending from the center of the ceiling. There was a large mirror adorning one wall, on another an enormous painting of their castle high on the Maltese bluffs, which now lay in blackened ruins. Heavy drapes covered the windows overlooking the rue Saint-Honoré. On the fourth wall was a large, exquisitely carved rendering of Christ on the Cross.
“You’re late,” Newell said from across the gleaming table as Lilith sat down. He was the Order’s official conduit to Cardinal Felix Duchamp, their powerful contact inside the Vatican. “Had to stop to get your nails done?” Newell, silver haired, with a face cratered by overuse of a steroid cream during a hyper-hormonal adolescence, tapped his thumbs together, further showing his impatience at her tardiness.
She was well aware that he wouldn’t treat any of his male peers with such outright contempt. If any of them expected her to apologize they were sorely mistaken. “I was working out a strategy that would prevent future extramuros groups from being slaughtered by the Gnostic Observatines.”
“A useless exercise.” Newell smirked. “Clearly, it was a mistake for a female to be part of an extramuros team.”
“An experiment gone bad,” Muller offered, echoing Newell’s sentiment. A pale, balding man in his sixties with wire-rimmed spectacles and a bad case of ADHD, he was always fiddling with the position of the small things around him, lining and relining them up. Two spots of color high up on his cheeks, as if he applied rouge, gave him a vaguely effeminate air. He was the religious zealot among them. He kept the flame of God and Christ burning brightly within all the Knights. He would have made a fine monk.
By this time, she knew they had already decided her fate, the fate of allowing females into the Knights after centuries of systematically keeping them out.
“The experiment,” Santiago said. He had a sour countenance, was a recidivist in all matters. As the overseer of the Knights’ banking interests he wielded enormous power within the Circle Council. “We have no choice but to conclude that the experiment is an abject failure.”
“How can it be judged a failure or a success,” Lilith responded, “when it’s been running for less than a year?”
“Everyone here realizes that Maria Elena was a friend of yours,” Newell said in the most condescending tone possible, “but the facts speak for themselves. The extramuros team of which she was a part not only failed to retrieve the Veil of Veronica, but they also got themselves killed, each and every one.”
“Including the Archer, the team’s leader,” Santiago pointed out, “an invaluable member of the Order, with many Gnostic Observatine kills to his credit.”
There was a small silence that Lilith correctly identified as hostility congealing around her.
“The loss of the Archer,” Newell said, “has caused consternation all up and down the extramuros corps.”
“He will be sorely missed by us all,” Obarton said in his basso profundo. Pushing eighty, he was the elder statesman of the Council; those watchful eyes had observed more than three Nauarchus come and go. Two of them killed by Bravo Shaw, the third by Bravo’s father.
Santiago pursed his ruddy lips. “Which is more than can be said for Maria Elena.”
“Surely you’re not fatuous enough to blame Maria Elena for the failure of the entire extramuros team,” Lilith said, aware that she was struggling against a rising tide.
“The team would have been stronger had it been all male,” Obarton said with the kind of finality that brooked no further argument.
“It’s settled then,” Muller said, looking to Obarton.
“There was an error made.” Obarton spoke like an old-fashioned barrister, an affectation he had picked up from watching Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution so many times he could recite every one of Sir Wilfred Robarts’s lines by heart, and did so often when he was in his cups. “An attempt at what some people around this table call modernization. For myself, this notion is foolishness. I freely admit that I went along with the notion knowing full well that the expedition would end in tears.”
“Did you now,” Newell said shortly. “Then why did you vote in favor of Maria Elena’s inclusion?”
Obarton swung around in his chair as if impaling Newell with his barrister’s thorny gaze. “Results, my dear Newell, are more powerful than words. I might have spoken out against the motion until I was blue in the face, but the majority was against me. The herd had already made up its collective mind. So I let nature take its course.” His stubby-fingered hand swept out in a shallow arc. “And here are the consequences for all to see and absorb.”
Lilith, smiling through bared teeth, silently seethed.
“With all due respect for my elders,” Highstreet broke in.
“You know, my boy,” Obarton broke in, “it has been my experience that when someone says, ‘With all due respect,’ what they really mean is ‘Screw you.’”
Highstreet ignored the interruption. “With all due respect,” he deliberately repeated, “we’ve wandered off topic.” He was a thin young man with pale, translucent skin; blue veins pulsed in his temples. His hair, as black as Lilith’s, started high up on his domed forehead, swept back over his pate and down his neck to just above his scarecrow shoulders. It gleamed in the overhead chandelier light, slicked down with pomade. “We’re here to choose Aldus’s successor.” Highstreet, a Brit originally from Liverpool, was a genius savant; he ran all the Knights’ networking, IT, bugging, and clandestine online hacking units. A number of the elders had no clear idea what he did; their eyes rolled back in their heads when he attempted to explain it. “That will be difficult enough, I wager. I move that we table all other matters.”
“I second that,” Lilith said immediately.
Without an eye toward either her or Highstreet, Obarton continued as if neither had spoken. “With the recent debacle in Arizona as background, I think it perfectly clear that our hallowed predecessors were correct all along; women have no place in our Order, let alone in this august body. Therefore, I move that we do vote on whether or not Lilith Swan is to be kept on the Circle Council.”
“I second that,” Muller said, nose figuratively planted between Obarton’s rotund buttocks.
“A show of hands,” Newell commanded. Clearly, this motion was not up for debate.
One by one hands were raised until all thirteen men had voted in favor of the motion. No surprise there, Lilith thought, as she scraped her chair back and rose to her feet.
“There’s a good girl,” Newell said.
“Well, say this for her,” Obarton sniffed. “She knows when she’s beaten.”
Lilith circled the table, taking the long way to the door, smiled easily now that her path was made clear. “You know me so well,” she said to Obarton in a honeyed voice. As she passed behind Newell, she reached up, withdrew one of her new hairpins, and plunged it into his carotid artery. The result was startling; Newell rose off his chair as if levitating. His face drained of blood, his extremities spasmed, he slid off the chair, all but disappearing under the table.
Extreme shock ricocheted around the room, rooting everyone to their seats. No one moved; no one could even think. Their minds were frozen. Lilith, now behind Santiago, thrust her left wrist beside his head, right hand drawing from her new bracelet a length of piano wire, which she expertly wrapped around his throat. Bracing one knee against the back of his chair, she jerked on it with such force that the wire drove through skin, cartilage, muscle, nearly decapitating him.
Several members around the table were shouting, a nearly incoherent string of what she assumed to be epithets. Reaching around to her raised leg, she detached the spike heel of her new shoe and drove it through Muller’s right eye and into his brain.
The sickening stench of human death had taken hold of the room. Lilith, both shoes off and dangling from her fingertips, continued to circle until she stood behind Highstreet. The others had pushed their chairs back, were staggering to their feet, their faces blotched, their sensibilities hijacked, stupefied, rejecting what their eyes had recorded. But Highstreet remained immobile, staring straight ahead into the mirror directly across from them.
Leaning over him, Lilith sensed the entire room shudder in terror. She placed her hands against Highstreet’s cheeks and, with her lips against his ear, whispered, “Now.” Then she stood back.
Highstreet came alive. He alone had shown no horror at what had just happened. It seemed clear now that he wasn’t even surprised. “Let it be known that the last vote, along with all attendant motions and seconds, be forever stricken from the record of this august body.” Everyone was staring at him; none of those left alive could bring themselves to look at their dead compatriots or, for that matter, their murderer. He looked each and every member straight in the eye. “The motion to rescind the order is passed unanimously, yes?” Someone vomited, adding to the miasma of involuntary human evacuation; Obarton stared at Lilith stonily. Highstreet smiled. “I’ll take that as assent.”
“Now.” He leaned forward, elbows on the table as if the room hadn’t been turned into a charnel house. “As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted, our business here is to elect a new Nauarchus.” Everyone expected him to continue. Everyone, that is, except Obarton, whose dawning grasp of the present situation was entirely evident.
“Go on, my dear,” Obarton said. Only a voice thinner than usual betrayed his heightened state of inner turmoil. “Take your seat.”
Lilith held his inimical gaze for a long moment. Then, returning to where Muller’s corpse sprawled slack in his chair, she reached around, pulled her heel from his eye socket. A gush of blood ran all over his front, spattered onto the gleaming tabletop. Someone moaned; another turned away.
Still holding Obarton’s gaze, Lilith wiped her weapon clean, fitted it back into the sole of her shoe. “Do you like that?” she said to Obarton. “There’s more where that came from.”
“Oh, I have no doubt,” Obarton replied, with effort summoning his basso profundo.
“You have doubts,” Highstreet said. “A whole sorority of ’em.” A tight-lipped smile. “But you’ll just have to live with the uncertainties of this new tomorrow.”
As if this was a signal, Lilith went around the table, sat in the Nauarchus’s seat. “Now,” she said, “we can get down to the business of annihilating the Gnostic Observatines.”
Obarton made one last effort. “Our circumstances have radically changed. Continuing this obsession to bring down the Gnostic Observatines once and for all is a pipe dream cleverly embedded in our culture by Conrad Shaw, then exacerbated by his grandson, Bravo.”
Lilith’s eyes blazed. “Our extramuros teams harried and killed, our last two Nauarchus assassinated. Are those pipe dreams?”
With a theatrical flourish, Obarton placed a silk handkerchief against his nose and mouth. “First, I suggest we dismiss the other members, call for a cleanup crew, and continue this discussion elsewhere in the apartment.”
When these tasks were accomplished, he and Lilith and, as she insisted, Highstreet settled themselves into plush sofas in the large salon. They did their best to ignore the comings and goings as the bodies, wrapped in plastic, were boxed and carried out so the cleaning crew could return the boardroom to its former pristine state. She saw Naylor overseeing the tasks. He carried no expression whatsoever on his face.
Someone brought a tray of coffee, a fresh baguette, butter, and a pot of strawberry jam, set it on an onyx cocktail table between them, and left as silently as he had entered, closing the sliding doors behind him.
Obarton stood at the high windows, hands clasped behind his back, observing the moving truck idling in front of the building, ready to accept the long boxes as they were loaded inside. He turned back to the room. “What is it with you two? Having an affair?”
“Not interested,” Highstreet said.
Obarton turned his attention to Lilith, who merely shrugged.
Having no choice but to accept their unexplained liaison, Obarton commenced his thesis. “This obsession with the Shaws caused our last two leaders to go head-hunting. Instead, they got their heads handed to them.” His expression grew dark. “Don’t you see, Lilith, the very obsession you seek to perpetuate made your predecessors incautious, made them susceptible to the Shaws’ legendary wiles.”
With fire in her eyes, Lilith leaned forward. “Which makes it imperative that Bravo Shaw be killed. The sooner the better.”
“And what, may I ask, do you propose to do about the demonic creature that attacked and killed everyone inside our castle?”
Her hand cut through the air. “What creature? There was a fire, doubtless motivated by revenge against the last Nauarchus, who, I may say, was both incautious and wrongheaded in all matters. But he escaped.”
“Only to be killed by Braverman Shaw in Tannourine.”
Her unblinking gaze trained on him, and even he shuddered at the sight of her clear intent. “We shall leave the fantasy of demons to the Gnostic Observatines, who dabble in that kind of anathema to Church orthodoxy,” she said with finality. “Carpe diem. We have the opportunity now, and we must seize the day! The Gnostic Observatines have been severely weakened by the destruction of their Reliquary. The Order spent centuries amassing its cache of sacred relics in Alexandria, Egypt: all dust.
“Now is the time to strike, I tell you, and strike hard, while they are at their most vulnerable. I swear to you, Obarton, I will use every last resource of the Order to eradicate the Gnostic Observatines.” She lifted a forefinger. “And Bravo Shaw is first.”
Copyright © 2018 by Eric Van Lustbader