SABRE HELD ON TO THE RISERS AND ENJOYED THE DRIFT toward the ground. The morning air and the newfangled parachute were making for a slow descent. Malone had told him about the canopies, far different from the ones he recalled from back when you fell like a stone and hoped you didn't break a leg.
He and Malone had followed Pam out of the transport, which had quickly disappeared into the eastern sky. Whether they made it to ground safely was not the crew's concern. Their job was done.
He stared down at the unsparing environment.
A vast, flat plain of sand and stone stretched in all directions. He'd heard Alfred Hermann speak of the southern Sinai. Supposedly the holiest desert on the planet. A harbinger of civilization. The link between Africa and Asia. But battle-scarred. The most besieged territory in the world. Syrians, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Turks, the French, the English, Egyptians, and the Israelis had all invaded. He'd listened many times as Hermann rambled on about the region's importance. Now he was about to experience it firsthand.
He was maybe a thousand feet from the ground. Pam Malone floated below him, Malone above. The quiet rang in his ears-a stark contrast with the plane's unabated noise. He remembered the silence from other times he'd jumped. Engine roar fading to a deep nothing. Only the wind could disturb the tranquility, but none stirred today.
A quarter mile east the barren landscape gave way to bleak granite mounds, each with no character, just a heedless jumble of peaks and crags. Was the Library of Alexandria out there? Certainly all signs pointed to that being the case.
He continued to float downward.
Near the base of one of the jagged mounds, maybe a quarter mile away, he spotted the squat of a building. He adjusted the steering lines, angling his trajectory closer to where Pam Malone was about to land. A clear stretch of desert floor. No boulders. Good.
He glanced up and saw Malone follow his lead.
That one might prove more difficult to kill than he'd first thought. But at least he was armed. He'd kept the gun from the monastery, as had Malone, along with spare magazines. When he'd awoken in the church, after being knocked unconscious, his gun was still there. Which he'd found curious.
What had been the point of that attack?
At least he was ready.
MALONE YANKED THE LINES AND DIRECTED HIS DESCENT. THE jumpmaster at the air base in Lisbon had told him that the new chutes were different, and he was right. Slow, smooth ride. They hadn't been wild about Pam-a novice who wasn't even going to know she was jumping until it was too late-but since the command to cooperate had come straight from the Pentagon, no one argued.
"Damn you, Cotton," he heard Pam scream. "Damn you to hell."
He glanced below.
She was five hundred feet from the ground.
"Just let your legs buckle when you hit," he called out. "You're doing fine. The chute will do the work."
"Screw you," she yelled back.
"We used to do that. Didn't work out. Get ready."
He watched as she hit and skidded into the earth, the chute collapsing behind her. He saw McCollum release his rigger sack, which unraveled before him, then find the ground, staying on his feet.
Malone tightened his steering lines and slowed his descent to nearly a stall. He released his rigger sack and felt his boots scrape the sand.
He, too, finished standing up.
Been awhile since he'd last jumped, but he was glad to know that he could still do it. He released his harness and wiggled free of the straps.
McCollum was doing the same.
Pam still lay on the ground. He walked over, knowing what was coming.
She sprang to her feet. "You sorry son of a bitch. You threw me out of that damn plane." She was trying to lunge for him but she hadn't released her harness, the billowing chute acting like an anchor, restricting her movements.
He stayed just out of reach.
"Are you out of your mind?" she yelled. "You never said a frickin' word about jumping out of a plane."
"How did you think we were going to get here?" he calmly asked.
"Ever heard of landing?"
"This is Egyptian territory. Bad enough we had to jump in daylight. But even I thought a night jump cruel."
Rage filled her blue eyes, an intensity he'd actually never seen before.
"We had to get here so the Israelis didn't know. Landing would have been impossible. I'm hoping they're still following that watch of yours, which leads nowhere."
"You're a moron, Cotton. An absolute frickin' moron. You threw me out of that plane."
"I did, didn't I."
She started to fumble with her harness, trying to release her body from the chute's hold.
"Pam, are you going to calm down?"
She continued to search for the release clamp, then stopped.
"We had to get here," he said. "That transport was perfect. We just jumped out along the way; nobody's the wiser. This is pretty barren territory, less than three people per square mile. It's doubtful we were seen. Like I said before. You always wanted to know what I did. Okay. Here it is."
"You should have left me in Portugal."
"Not a good idea. The Israelis might consider you a loose end. You're better off disappearing with us."
"No. You don't trust me. So I'm better off here where you can watch me."
"That thought did occur to me, too."
She was silent for a moment, as if comprehension was dawning. "All right, Cotton," she said in a surprisingly calm tone. "You've made your point. We're here. In one piece. Now could you get me out of this thing?"
He stepped close and unsnapped the harness.
She raised her arms and allowed the pack to hit the ground. Then she popped her right knee into his crotch.
Electrifying pain soared through his spine and found his brain. His legs trembled and he crumpled to the ground.
The breath left him.
Been awhile since he'd been racked.
He folded himself into the fetal position and waited for the misery to subside.
"Hope that was good for you, too," she said, walking away.
HERMANN ENTERED HIS LIBRARY AND SHUT THE DOOR. HE hadn't slept well, but there was little he could do until Thorvaldsen made a mistake. When that happened he'd be ready. Sabre might be gone, but Hermann still employed a cadre of men who would do precisely what he wanted. His chief of the guard, an Italian, had made it clear on more than one occasion that he'd like Sabre's position. Never had he seriously considered the request, but with the Talons of the Eagle away, he was in need of assistance, so he'd told the man to stand by.
He was going to try diplomacy first. That always was preferable. Perhaps he could reason with Thorvaldsen once the Dane saw that demonstrating to the world the Old Testament had been manipulated could be an effective political tool-if managed properly. Many times throughout history, chaos and confusion had been translated into profit. Anything that jostled the Middle East affected oil prices. Knowing that was coming would be invaluable. Controlling its extent, unimaginable. Order members stood to reap enormous profits.
And their newfound ally in the White House would benefit, too.
But to accomplish all this he needed Sabre.
What was he doing in the Sinai?
And with Cotton Malone.
Both seemed to him good signs. Sabre's plan had been to entice Malone to go after the Alexandria Link. After that, success depended on Malone. Either they would learn what they could and then eliminate Malone, or partner up and see where he led. Apparently, Sabre had chosen the latter.
For several years he'd thought about what would happen once he was gone, as he knew that Margarete would be the ruin of the family. Even worse, she was oblivious to her incompetence. He'd tried to teach her, but every effort failed. Truth be known, he liked the fact that Thorvaldsen had taken her. Maybe he could be rid of the problem? But he doubted it. The Dane was not a murderer, no matter how much bravado he liked to portray.
He'd actually come to like Sabre. The man showed promise. He listened well and acted swiftly, but never haphazardly. He'd often thought Sabre might make an excellent successor. No more Hermanns were left. And he must ensure that the fortune endured.
But why had Sabre not checked in?
Was something more happening?
He flushed his doubts away and concentrated on the immediate concern. The Assembly would meet again later. He'd tantalized the members yesterday with the plan. Today he'd drive the point home.
He stepped over to a folio built into the lower portion of a bookcase. Inside, he kept the map he'd commissioned three years ago. The same scholar he'd retained to confirm Haddad's theory about the Old Testament had also mapped his findings. He'd been told how site after biblical site fit perfectly with the geography of Asir.
But he'd wanted to see for himself.
Comparing scriptural landmarks to Hebrew place-names, both in the Old Testament and on the ground, his expert had located biblical places such as Gilgal, Zidon, al-Lith, Dan, Hebron, Beersheba, and the City of David.
He removed the map.
Its image was already loaded on the computer in the meeting hall. The members would soon see what he'd long admired.
Even the question of Jerusalem's twenty-six gates, identified in Chronicles, Kings, Zechariah, and Nehemiah, had been solved. A walled city would have had no more than four gates, one leading in each direction. So twenty-six was questionable from the start. But the Hebrew word used throughout the Old Testament for "gate" was shaar. That word, like so many, possessed a double meaning, one of which was "passage or mountain col." Interestingly, there were twenty-six identified openings through the mountain escarpment that separated the identified Jerusalem territory from Judah. He recalled his own amazement when that reality had been explained. The King's Gate, Prison Gate, Fountain Gate, Valley Gate, and all the others so descriptively labeled in the Old Testament could be linked with near-perfect accuracy-through their proximity to still-existing villages-to mountain passes through the Jordan escarpment located in Asir.
Nothing even remotely close existed in Palestine.
The proof seemed incontrovertible.
The events of the Old Testament had not occurred in Palestine. Instead they'd all happened hundreds of miles to the south in Arabia. And Jerome and Augustine knew that, yet deliberately allowed the errors of the Septuagint not only to remain, but in fact to flourish, further altering the Old Testament so the passages would seem an indisputable prophecy for the Gospels of their New Testament. The Jews were not to enjoy a monopoly on God's Word. For their new religion to thrive, the Christians needed a connection, too.
So they manufactured one.
Simply finding a Hebrew Bible from before the time of Christ could prove decisive, but a copy of Strabo's Histories could likewise answer many questions. If the library still existed, he could only hope that one or both would have been preserved.
He stepped over to the glass case that he'd shown the vice president last night. The American had been unimpressed, but who cared? America's new president would see the havoc they would wreak. Still, he hoped Thorvaldsen would be more impressed seeing them. He reached beneath and pressed the release button. He swung the case open and thought, for a moment, that his eyes were deceiving him.
The letters and translations were gone. How? Not the vice president. Hermann had watched his motorcade leave the estate. No one else knew of the hiding place.
Only one possible explanation.
Anger sent him darting to his desk. He lifted the phone and called for his chief of the guard. Then he opened a desk drawer and removed his gun.
Margarete be damned.
MALONE'S LEGS REMAINED WOBBLY, AND HIS CROTCH ACHED. Pam had said little since their encounter, and McCollum had wisely stayed out of the fight. But Malone couldn't complain. He'd asked for it and she'd delivered.
He stared in every direction at the desolate serenity. The sun had risen quickly, and the air was heating like an oven. He'd retrieved the GPS unit from his pack and determined that the precise coordinates-28º 41.41N, 33º 38.44E-lay less than a mile away.
"Okay, McCollum. What now?"
The other man slipped a piece of paper from his pocket and read out loud: "Then, like the shepherds of the painter Poussin, puzzled by the enigma, you will be flooded with the light of inspiration. Reassemble the fourteen stones, then work with square and compass to find the path. At noon, sense the presence of the red light, see the endless coil of the serpent red with anger. But heed the letters. Danger threatens one who arrives with great speed. If your course remains true, the route will be sure.
"That's all there is to the quest," McCollum concluded.
Malone rolled the cryptic words through his mind.
Pam plopped to the ground and drank some water. "That arbor in England had a Poussin image. What was it? A tomb of some sort with writing on it? Apparently Thomas Bainbridge left a few clues, too."
He was already thinking the same thing.
"You see that building on the way down?" Malone asked McCollum. "West, maybe a quarter mile. It's where the coordinates point."
"Seems the path is clear."
He shouldered his rucksack. Pam stood. He asked her, "You done proving points?"
She shrugged. "Throw me out of another airplane and see what happens."
"You two always like this?" McCollum asked.
He started walking. "Only when we're together."
Malone approached the building he'd seen from the air. Not much to it. Low, squatty, with a tattered tile roof, its foundations crumbling as if being reclaimed by the earth. The exterior walls stood equal in height and length, broken only by two windows, devoid of anything, about ten feet up. The front door was a decaying slab of thick cedar, hanging askew from black iron hinges.
He kicked it open.
Only a lizard greeted them as it sought refuge across the dirt floor.
He turned. Pam was motioning to another outcropping. He stepped toward it, each footfall crunching the parched sand.
"Looks like the tomb in that carving at Bainbridge Hall," she said.
Good point. And he studied the four-block-high rectangle with a rounded stone top. He examined the sides for carvings, particularly the lettering Et in arcadia ego. Nothing there. Which wasn't surprising, because the desert would have long ago erased any vestiges.
"We're at the right coordinates and this thing does look like the same tomb from the arbor."
He recalled the hero's quest. Then, like the shepherds of the painter Poussin, puzzled by the enigma, you will be flooded with the light of inspiration.
He leaned against the tattered stones.
"What now, Malone?" McCollum asked.
Hillocks rose to their north, steadily climbing into barren mountains where black crags cleaved deep paths. The sky burned with a growing glow as the sun crept higher toward midday.
He rolled more of the quest over in his mind.
Reassemble the fourteen stones, then work with square and compass to find the path. At noon, sense the presence of the red light, see the endless coil of the serpent red with anger.
Everything at Belem had been fairly obvious-a mixture of history and technology, which seemed the Guardians' trademark. After all, the idea was for the invitee to succeed. This part was a challenge.
But not impossible.
He surveyed the dilapidated building and makeshift tomb.
Then he saw them and counted.
SABRE WONDERED IF HE SHOULD SIMPLY KILL THEM BOTH NOW. Was he close enough to figure the rest out himself? Malone had brought him this far and, exactly as he'd hoped, tapped into his resources to get them from England to Portugal to here.
But he told himself to be patient.
He would never have deciphered the quest himself, much less this quickly. By now the Blue Chair was surely looking for him. The Assembly was in session, so he hoped that would provide a diversion until tomorrow. But he knew how much Hermann wanted to know if this trail seemed promising. He also knew what else the old man was planning and how critical his participation would be over the next week. Three emissaries had been used to negotiate with bin Laden. He'd visit all three, killing two but preserving one.
That person and the library would be his bargaining chips.
But all that assumed there was something here to find.
If not, he'd kill Malone and his ex-wife and hope he could lie his way out of trouble.
MALONE STARED AT ONE SIDE OF THE DILAPIDATED BUILDING. Ten feet up loomed one of the bare openings. He walked around to the other side and spied the other portal at a similar height.
He came back to where McCollum and Pam stood and said, "I think I've figured it out. The building's square, as are those two openings."
"Use square and compass," Pam said.
He pointed. "Those two openings are the key."
"What do you mean?" McCollum said. "Going to be kind of tough to get up there."
"Not really. Look around." Boulders and rocks littered the sand. "Notice anything about the rocks?"
Pam stepped over to one and squatted down. He watched as she caressed the sides. "Square. About a foot even all around?"
"I'd say that's right. Remember the clue. Reassemble the fourteen stones, then work with square and compass to find the path. There are fourteen of those things scattered about."
Pam stood. "Obviously, this quest has a physical part. Not just anyone could reassemble these stones. I assume they'll provide the boost up to the window?"
He dropped his pack.
So did McCollum, who said, "One way to find out."
Twenty minutes were needed to gather the fourteen square stones and assemble them into a flat-topped pyramid, six on the bottom, then five, capped by three. If needed, one of the three could be stacked on the remaining two for more height, but Malone estimated the pile was more than tall enough.
He stepped up and balanced himself atop.
McCollum and Pam made sure the tower remained stable.
He gazed through the square opening in the crumbling wall. Through the opposite square, twenty feet away, he spotted mountains half a mile in the distance. At noon, sense the presence of the red light, see the end less coil of the serpent red with anger.
The shrinking building with the battered roof had been deliberately oriented east to west.
This wasn't a dwelling. No. Like the rose window in Belem, also oriented east to west, it was a compass.
Work with square and compass to find the path.
He checked his watch.
In an hour, he'd do just that.