She did not waste words on fools. She spoke instead to the prisoner, using an ancient dialect of Arabic. “When were you born?”
Those eyes bore into her, even pushing her back by the sheer force of his will, a buffeting wind of inner strength. He seemed to be judging whether to offer her a lie, but from whatever he found in her face, he recognized the futility of it.
When he spoke, his words were soft but came from a place of great weight. “I was born in Muharram in the Hijri year five-and-ninety.”
Godefroy understood enough Arabic to scoff. “The year ninety-five? That would make him over a thousand years old.”
“No,” she said, more to herself than him, calculating in her head. “His people use a different accounting of years than we do, starting when their prophet Muhammad arrived in Mecca.”
“So the man here is not a thousand years old?”
“Not at all,” she said, finishing the conversion in her head. “He’s only lived five hundred and twenty years.”
From the corner of her eye, she noted Godefroy turn toward her, aghast.
“Impossible,” he said with a tremulous quaver that betrayed the shallow depth of his disbelief.
She never broke from the prisoner’s gaze. Within those eyes, she sensed an unfathomable, frightening knowledge. She tried to picture all he had witnessed over the centuries: mighty empires rising and falling, cities thrusting out of the sands only to be worn back down by the ages. How much could he reveal of ancient mysteries and lost histories?
But she was not here to press questions upon him.
And she doubted he would answer them anyway.
Not this man—if he could still be called a man.
When next he spoke, it came with a warning, his fingers tightening on his staff. “The world is not ready for what you seek. It is forbidden.”
She refused to back down. “That is not for you to decide. If a man is fierce enough to grasp it, then it is his right to claim and possess it.”
He stared back at her, his gaze drifting to her chest, to what was hidden beneath hard armor. “So Eve herself believed in the Garden of Eden when she listened to the snake and stole from the Tree of Knowledge.”
“Ah,” she sighed, leaning closer. “You mistake me. I am not Eve. And it is not the Tree of Knowledge I seek—but the Tree of Life.”
Slipping a dagger from her belt, she quickly stood and drove the blade to its hilt under the prisoner’s jaw, lifting him off his knees with her strength of will. In that single thrust, the endless march of centuries came to a bloody halt—along with the danger he posed.
Godefroy gasped, stepping back. “But is this not the man you came so far to find?”
She yanked free the dagger, spraying blood, and kicked the body away. She caught the staff before it fell free from the prisoner’s slack fingers.
“It was not the man I sought,” she said, “but what he carried.”
Godefroy stared at the length of olive wood in her hand. Fresh blood flowed in rivulets down its surface, revealing a faint carving along its length: an intricate weave of serpents and vines, curling around and around the shaft.
“What is it?” the knight asked, his eyes wide.
She faced him fully for the first time—and drove her blade into his left eye. He had seen too much to live. As he fell to his knees, his body wracking itself to death in ghastly heaves upon her dagger’s point, she answered his last question, her fingers firm on the ancient wooden rod.
“Behold the Bachal Isu,” she whispered to the centuries to come. “Wielded by Moses, carried by David, and borne by the King of Kings, here is the staff of Jesus Christ.”
Fourth of July:
Five days from now
The assassin stared through the rifle’s scope and lowered the crosshairs to the profile of President James T. Gant. He double-checked his range—seven hundred yards—and fixed the main targeting chevron of the USMC M40A3 sniper rifle upon the occipital bone behind the man’s left ear, knowing a shot there would do the most damage. Festive music and bright laughter from the holiday picnic filtered through his earpiece. He let it all fade into the background as he concentrated on his target, on his mission.
In U.S. history, three presidents had died on the exact same day, on July 4, on the birthday of this country. It seemed beyond mere chance.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe.
Today would mark the fourth.
Steadying his breath, Commander Gray Pierce pulled the trigger.
June 30, 11:44 A.M. EST
Takoma Park, Maryland
Gray Pierce pulled into the driveway with a coughing growl of the 1960 Thunderbird’s V-8 engine.
He felt like growling himself.
“I thought the plan was to sell this place?” Kenny asked.
Gray’s younger brother sat in the passenger seat, his head half out the window, staring up at the craftsman bungalow with the wraparound wooden porch and overhanging gable. It was their family home.
“Not any longer,” Gray answered. “And don’t mention any of that to Dad. His dementia makes him paranoid enough.”
“How is that different from any other day …?” Kenny mumbled sourly under his breath.
Gray glowered at his brother. He’d picked Kenny up at Dulles after a cross-country flight from Northern California. His brother’s eyes were red-rimmed from jet lag—or maybe from too many small bottles of gin in first class. At this moment, Kenny reminded Gray of their father, especially with the pall of alcohol on his breath.
He caught his own reflection in the rearview mirror as he pulled the vintage Thunderbird into the family garage. While the two brothers both shared the same ruddy Welsh complexion and dark hair as their father, Gray kept his hair cropped short; Kenny had his tied in a short ponytail that looked too young even for someone still in his late twenties. To make matters worse, he also wore cargo shorts and a loose T-shirt with the logo of a surfing company. Kenny was a software engineer for a company in Palo Alto, and apparently this was his version of business attire.
Gray climbed out of the car, trying his best to push back his irritation with his brother. On the ride here, Kenny had spent the entire time on his cell phone, dealing with business on the other coast. He’d barely shared a word, relegating Gray to the role of chauffeur.
It’s not like I don’t have my own business to attend, too.
For the past month, Gray had put his life on hold, dealing with the aftermath of the death of their mother and the continuing mental decline of their father. Kenny had come out for the funeral, promising to spend a week helping to get their affairs in order, but after two days, a business emergency drew him back across the country, and everything got dumped back on Gray’s shoulders. In some ways, it would have been easier if Kenny had not bothered coming out at all. In his wake, he’d left a disheveled mess of insurance forms and probate paperwork for Gray to clean up.
That changed today.
After a long, heated call, Kenny had agreed to come out at this critical juncture. With their father suffering from advancing Alzheimer’s, the sudden death of his wife sent him into a downward spiral. He’d spent the past three weeks in a memory-care unit, but he’d come home last night. And during this transition, Gray needed an extra pair of hands. Kenny had accumulated enough vacation time to be able to come out for a full two weeks. Gray intended to hold him to it this time.
Gray had taken a month off from work himself and was due back at Sigma headquarters in a week. Before that, he needed a few days of downtime to get his own house in order. That’s where Kenny came in.
His brother hauled his luggage out of the convertible’s trunk, slammed the lid, but kept his palm on the chrome bumper. “And what about Dad’s car? We might as well sell it. It’s not like he can drive it.”
Gray pocketed the keys. The classic Thunderbird—raven black with a red leather interior—was his father’s pride and joy. The man had gone to painstaking ends to restore it: tricking it out with a new Holly carburetor, a flame-thrower coil, and an electric choke.
“It stays,” he said. “According to Dad’s neurologist, it’s important to keep his environment as stable and consistent as possible, to maintain a familiar routine. Besides, even if he can’t drive it, it’ll give him something to tinker with.”
Before Kenny could figure out what else to sell of his father’s belongings, Gray headed toward the door. He didn’t bother to offer to carry his brother’s luggage. He’d had enough baggage to deal with lately.
But Kenny wasn’t done. “If we’re supposed to keep everything the same—to pretend nothing’s changed—then what am I doing here?”
Gray swung toward him, balling a fist and tempted to use it. “Because you’re still his son—and it’s high time you acted like it.”
Kenny stared him down. Anger burned in his brother’s eyes, further reminding Gray of their father. He’d seen that fury all too often in his dad, especially of late, a belligerence born of dementia and fear. Not that such anger was new. His father had always been a hard man, a former oil worker out of Texas until an industrial accident took most of his left leg and all of his pride, turning an oilman into a housewife. Raising two boys while his spouse went to work had been hard on him. To compensate, he had run the household like a boot camp. And Gray, as stubborn as his father, had always pushed the envelope, a born rebel. Until at last, at eighteen years of age, he had simply packed his bags and joined the army.
It was his mother who finally drew them all back together, the proverbial glue of the family.
And now she was gone.
What were they to do without her?
Kenny finally hauled up his bag, shouldered past Gray, and mumbled words he knew would cut like rusted barbed wire: “At least I didn’t get Mom killed.”
A month ago, that gut-punch would have dropped Gray to his knees. But after mandatory psychiatric sessions—not that he hadn’t missed a few—his brother’s accusation only left him iron-hard, momentarily rooted in place. A booby trap meant for Gray had taken out his mother. Collateral damage was the phrase the psychiatrist had used, seeking to blunt the guilt.