The Essenes (so named in The Jewish Wars by the historian Josephus) were one of three sects of Judaism that included the Pharisees and Sadducees in the first century AD. Known for their settlement at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, the sect also established communes across ancient Israel. They lived an ascetic life, abstained from animal sacrifice in religious practices, and performed good works on behalf of the afflicted. One community was encamped outside Jerusalem’s walls near the “Essene Gate” (now sealed) at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. After AD 73, the Essenes vanished from history.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the traditional site of Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where Jesus was crucified and buried. Modern archaeologists and historians agree the church was erected over the ground where Romans crucified seditionists and criminals, and that most probably Jesus was crucified somewhere within the walls of the church in AD 36. However, there is no credible archaeological or historical evidence that Jesus was buried there.
The Dome of the Rock (built in AD 691) is the Islamic shrine that stands atop Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is built over the site of the Second Temple of ancient Israel (destroyed by Rome in AD 70). Together with Al-Aqsa Mosque, also atop Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock marks the third holiest site in Islam. It stands over what is known as the “Foundation Stone.” This stone is sacred to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. Jews believe it to be the place where Abraham nearly slaughtered his son Isaac in a test of faith as commanded by God. Christians revere the stone as a place where Jesus prayed in the time of the Second Temple. Muslims believe the stone to be the place from where Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The Third Temple (to be built in the time of the Messiah) was prophesied in the Book of Ezekiel and has yet to be built. Jews believe the Third Temple will provide a dwelling place for God to return and live among His people again. Messianic Christians believe the building of the Third Temple marks the “end of days,” when Jesus will return to officiate the Final Judgment. Construction of the Third Temple would require the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
The exact year and circumstances of Yeshua ben Yosef’s death are not clearly known. For the sake of this story, the author has drawn on archaeological and historical evidence as presented by Dr. Shimon Gibson in his work The Final Days of Jesus. Also, the author has chosen to denote historical dates as BC and AD instead of BCE and CE.
In the name of the Pure G-d.
These words are written many years after the destruction of Jerusalem, which came on the ninth day of Av, 3830. Know that I am a son of the light who served the teacher of righteousness at Qumran near the Salt Sea. Our settlement stood three parsa’ot in distance from Jericho, which is also now destroyed. The destruction of Qumran came on the twenty-fifth day of Sivan, three years after the fall of Jerusalem. It came at the hands of the Tenth Legion Fretensis of Rome, who marched along the Salt Sea to conquer the Zealots at Masada and so end the Jewish revolt.
This is how it happened.
On the twenty-first day of Sivan, Roman outriders reached the summit of the mountain that separated us from Jericho’s ruins. In doing this they discovered our commune on the plateau below them. The outriders observed us through the afternoon and left before sunset. In those hours they learned we had no fortifications or weapons of any kind. Four days had passed when a great cloud of dust rose from the desert and there was the clamor of boots and drums. Then appeared the vanguard of the Tenth Legion leading more than five thousand soldiers onto the Masada Road. Their helmets and lances caught the dawn and their shields bore the color of blood. By this sign we knew our sacrifice was at hand, as it had been prophesied to us by seven angels of the Pure G-d. And so it was that upon reaching the trail that climbed the plateau to our commune, the main body of the legion continued south while the fifth cohort of infantry and archers broke away to attack Qumran.
• • •
As this prophecy came to pass, and being the youngest of my order, I was instructed by the teacher of righteousness to take refuge in the cavern of solitude, which is set apart from the commune. It was a scriptorium for transcriptions of the holiest scrolls as judged by the teacher. Here, one of the chosen scribes would live alone for many days in proper meditation before writing the holy name of the Pure G-d.
I was young and had yet to be selected for this duty, though I longed to assume it. So it was with sadness that my ascension to the cavern was not as one of the chosen scribes but to bear witness to the annihilation of my order, and then live a life of isolation to the end of my days. Within the cavern were a bed, a table and stool, lamps, and sacred oil to burn for light. There were quills and ink-making tools and sheets of fine vellum. There were food stocks in jars and a cistern outside the cavern’s entrance that gathered rain as it flowed from the mountains.
This duty was commanded of me by the teacher of righteousness so that one of our number might survive and continue to watch for the man of signs and wonders, who would come to reclaim the things entrusted to us by the seven angels of the Pure G-d. For the seven did know this man and guarded his tomb for a period of thirty-four years; from the time of the man’s death until his tomb was abandoned when Jerusalem was destroyed. And upon abandoning the man’s tomb the seven angels appeared to us to reveal the truth of the man’s death, entreating us to aid them in their sacred purpose. Now knowing the cousin of this man, who was called the Baptist, and upon hearing the voices of the seven angels of the Pure G-d, the teacher of righteousness identified them as the forces of light named in the War Scroll of our order. We pledged our souls to them and agreed to watch over the way of the man’s return. We pledged in full knowledge that the forces of darkness, who sought to wipe all memory of the man from the world, would one day destroy us as they had destroyed Jerusalem.
The cavern of solitude was located in the canyon above Qumran and hid from the world by an outcrop of rock at the entrance. There were narrow fissures in the stone allowing me to see down onto the commune and witness the slaughter of my order. All my brethren, including the teacher of righteousness, suffered greatly before giving up their souls to death; but all kept their vow to not reveal any knowledge of the man of signs and wonders, though this knowledge was cruelly demanded of them.
The cohort then raided our stores of food and wine. Becoming drunk they ransacked the scriptorium for plunder. Finding nothing to please them, they took up battering rams and demolished the commune to rubble. But this destruction did not sate them, and they were overcome with savagery. They pounded their chest armor with fists; their curses filled the canyon with wickedness. Some drew swords and hacked apart the bodies of the dead, others built great fires; then was my brethren’s flesh roasted and eaten. This unholy feast lasted into the night until a stupor came over the soldiers and they lay on the ground to sleep. Black clouds concealed the moon and stars that night, and when the fires ended there was no light of any kind; as if all the world had gone into hiding from the evil befallen us. At dawn, and hearing no sound, I went to the entrance of the cavern. There was no sign of the fifth cohort but for the slaughter they had committed.
• • •
I had been commanded by the teacher of righteousness to not leave the cavern for forty days. In obeying his command I did not bury my brethren according to Jewish law. In so doing I watched the remains of my order devoured by the beasts of the desert. Many of my brethren’s bones were carried away, though some remained that I might not be devoured by the beast of loneliness. But I did not touch the bones or bury them; I only watched them turn to dust. This had been commanded of me so I would not be detected by any forces of darkness who might pass; nor those foul spirits who feed on human souls; nor their progeny who were possessed of the same hunger and roamed the world in the forms of men.
In the month of Elul my forty days of hiding had ended. To replenish the cavern’s food stocks I grew grains and vegetables on a nearby plot of irrigated land. This plot was long used by my order and not seen from the desert lowlands or the surrounding mountains. One parsa from this place were colonies of bees that did not abandon their hives, and I tended them for honey. Near Jericho’s ruins, abandoned groves of date palm and pomegranate and olive trees, once belonging to Egypt’s queen, continued to bear fruit, and I harvested them.
I was commanded also to lay aside the white robes of the order and take the appearance of a madman. For there are things to be seen in this desert that will deliver a man into madness if regarded too long and without enlightenment, and such woeful men are common along the Salt Sea. I sealed my robes and sandals in an empty jar to protect them from corruption. I ceased to perform the water purification rituals of my order. In summer I wore only a loincloth and walked the desert in bare feet; in winter I wore coarse animal skins for warmth. My hair and beard became long and matted; my flesh darkened and leathered. In doing all these things I would not be regarded as a son of the light.
I walked the hills and mountains above Qumran to watch over the caves in which were hid the holy scrolls of the Jewish people. Also hid were the scrolls of our order, including the Book of Community Rule and the War Scroll. And in a remote cave, five parsa’ot in distance from Qumran’s ruins, were the things for the man of signs and wonders as entrusted to us by the seven angels of the Pure G-d. This place was named the cavern of secrets by the teacher of righteousness.
Through innumerable seasons I watched people travel across the Jordan Valley, wondering if one of them would reveal himself to me as the man foretold to us. There were merchant caravans from the east, Syrians and Phoenicians from the north, tribes of nomads from the south. Some of these travelers camped within sight of Qumran. They grazed their animals at the mouth of the Jordan River where it flows into the Salt Sea. Some travelers, chasing after their wandering flocks, climbed the trail to the ruins of our commune. Finding Roman coins or arrow points or other things of use, and not knowing the history of the place, most were satisfied and left. Those more curious of the place dared to approach the caves.
I hurried through the cliffs by unseen trails and jumped out before all invaders. I threw stones and called to Baal and proclaimed this ground as my divinely given kingdom. I chanted in tongues, rolled my eyes, and spittle formed on my lips. I became a creature of such dread that the invaders feared the curse of desert madness would claim them, too, and they retreated.
• • •
I lost count of the days long ago.
I do not know the number of years I have lived since the destruction of Qumran. In this season of summer I became much weakened. It became difficult for me to walk the trails or gather food. Then did questions come to me. In the war between the forces of light and the darkness, as written in the War Scroll of our order, had the man of signs and wonders been vanquished? Was all hope of his return lost? If so, what had been the purpose of my terrible isolation? Why was I not sacrificed with the members of my order? But these questions were without answer and sorrow weighed heavily on my soul; the last soul belonging to a son of the light.
Then did a tempest come up from the land of the Edomites, and the sky became thick with dust and the sun yellowed as if diseased. I could not see the lowlands or the Salt Sea for the blowing sand. As night fell the winds increased tenfold; then came the wails of the world’s unburied and forgotten dead. Included in their number were the members of my order who had sacrificed their souls to forever death. By these signs I knew forces of darkness were passing the ruins of Qumran in search of the cavern of secrets.
I grew fearful, with only the flame of an oil lamp for consolation. I cried out to the Pure G-d and begged Him to give me succor. But the tempest mocked me for my cries, and the ground shook and the outcrop of rock at the cavern’s entrance fell away. A suffocating dust, foul with putrefaction, rushed in to extinguish the lamp and I was blinded. I heard the screams of the world’s unburied and forgotten dead approach; I felt their tormented souls reach from the dust and claw at my flesh, wanting to drag me down to the woeful place where they were imprisoned by the forces of darkness. And they begged me to save them by revealing the way to the cavern of secrets. So torn between my oath and the pitiful souls about me that I was overcome with despair, I crawled to the entrance of the cavern to throw myself from the cliffs and so end my own torment. I reached the edge of the cliff, rose to my feet, and stepped toward the abyss. Then came the roar of a thousand wings, and the whirlwind so created held me in place, and I beheld a vision.
The tempest vanished and I saw the Pure G-d asleep in an immense void above the earth and nothing moved. He stirred and awoke and saw that He was alone in his place. He breathed and a fire was born into the void. By this light He reached down to the earth and gathered the world’s unburied and forgotten dead. He anointed them with tongues of fire and cast them into the void where they became the stars and spheres of the heavens. Then a great comet rose from the east and it hovered over Qumran’s ruins. And the comet burst into ten thousand stars, and they did form the constellation Kesîl. From them appeared the seven angels of the Pure G-d who had entreated us to aid them in their sacred purpose. They came down bearing a body bound in a linen shroud, and they laid it on the ground. Then the leader of the seven smiled upon me, as he had smiled upon us in the days after Jerusalem was destroyed, and he said:
“They will see the dwelling place of the Pure G-d,
They will see the time of angels,
They will see the coming of the light.”
And the angel drew his sword and cut open the shroud to reveal the face of the man of signs and wonders, and he was of the light. And the angel said:
“By your words will he be raised from the dead,
So that the world will know the light.”
The sun rose above Mount Nebo and I was returned to the world. I knew my years of isolation were not in vain. I knew the man foretold to us would return, but not in the time of men; he would return in the time of angels when the secrets of the heavens are so revealed. And thus, my own sacred purpose was made known to me. I must guide the way of the man’s return from beyond the time of my death. I took a knife and cut my hair and beard. I took water from the cistern and performed the purification rituals of my order for the first time since Qumran was destroyed. I unsealed my robe and sandals and I dressed in them. With joy in my heart I prepared ink and quills and seven scrolls of velum, and after proper meditation and with joy in my heart, I became one of the chosen scribes of Qumran.
• • •
Now my work is finished. I await for my soul to be lifted to the heavens, where I may take my place with the world’s unburied and forgotten dead.
Receive, then, these seven scrolls to know of Qumran and the sons of the light; to know of the seven angels of the Pure G-d who appeared to us in the days after Jerusalem was destroyed; to know of Yeshua ben Yosef and the crucifixion of the man of signs and wonders; to know how through him the world may be saved. In knowing these things you will find the path to the cavern of secrets, and there you will claim the things left to him. For you, beloved reader, are that man; and now is the time of your return.
Did Marc Rochat have a soul?”
The girl’s voice echoed through the dark of the nave.
. . . have a soul . . . a soul . . . a soul . . .
Harper didn’t answer at first. He was too busy staring at the girl’s face. He knew it was a genetic trait; all the half-breeds were the same. Same almond-shaped eyes, same emerald-colored irises. But just now, seeing those eyes watching him from under the brim of a black floppy hat, Harper flashed Marc Rochat as if he had risen from the grave . . . Bloody hell. Harper blinked, told himself it wasn’t the lad resurrected; told himself it was the new one.
He checked back over his shoulder.
Krinkle, the rock-and-roll roadie in denim overalls and steel-toed boots, was on the altar square, leaning over Astruc’s unconscious form and checking for a pulse. Sensing he was being watched, he looked up.
“I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, well, I’m kind of busy with Brother Astruc at the moment. Stick with rules and regs. You’ll be fine,” Krinkle said, nudging Astruc into alignment with a heading of due east.
Harper turned to the girl, his mind sorting rules and regs on revealing info about human souls . . . Sod it.
“Yes, mademoiselle, the lad had a soul. So do you, so do all the half—”
His voice was lost in the drone of the execution bell tumbling from the belfry and rolling through the nave. Clémence was the bell’s name, and she was tolling in threes and sixes. They’re dying, the children are dying. Harper watched the girl with the lantern hanging from her right hand, half hidden in the folds of her black cloak. Her eyes appearing to follow the waves of mournful bell sound now rounding the ambulatory, then looking at Harper.
“Where is it?” she said.
. . . where is it, where is it, where is it . . .
“Where is his soul?”
. . . his soul, his soul, his soul . . .
Harper ran through his timeline, trying to see the lad from the cathedral job again. The girl pronounced his name not ten seconds ago and the lad’s face had flashed through his eyes. But the microchip embedded in Harper’s brain kicked in one second later and presto: gone. No name, no face; just a silhouette on a timeline.
“I don’t know where his soul is, mademoiselle. I wish I did, but I don’t.”
“Just the way it is, I’m afraid.”
The girl furrowed her brow. Harper scanned her eyes. The human half of her brain was releasing electrochemical signals in the form of memories at a speed of one five-hundredth of a second, but the part of her bred by Harper’s kind was flashing a timeline even faster. The expression on her face read she was slipping from nowtimes.
“Mademoiselle, look at me.”
She tried, but her eyes lost focus.
Harper clocked she’d gone back ten minutes in time, to where Harper shot his way into the cathedral. Then Harper and Krinkle hauling a battered Astruc up the center aisle and dropping him on the crossing square like a bag of lead, hearing their voices calling for Monsieur Gabriel the messenger, but Gabriel was gone. Then seeing their fierce and road-worn faces in the shaft of light pouring through the cathedral rose high in the south transept wall, knowing they were men of violence. But watching the one in the mackintosh, the one with bloodied bandages wrapped around the palms of his hands; watching him brush his brown hair from his face. Is he the one? Seeing his emerald-colored eyes, seeing he was younger than the other two men; but the lines around those eyes made him older somehow. Then listening to the sound of his voice coaxing her from the shadows:
“Be not afraid, I know who you are. I’ve seen you from my balcony, in the old city on Rue Vuillermet. I see you when you call the hour to the north.”
“You haven’t come to kill me?”
. . . to kill me, kill me, kill me . . .
“No, I’m here to protect you.”
Harper watched the girl blink herself back to nowtimes, but it was too fast. Her human memories caught up with her timeline; the jolt shook her hard.
“It’s all right, mademoiselle, stay with me,” he said.
But she was suddenly unsure of the man who coaxed her from the shadows.
“Hann sagði að þú vildi vera einn. Það er það sem hann sagði.”
She was speaking Icelandic. It took Harper half a second to upload the language. He said you would be the one. That’s what he said.
“Monsieur Gabriel, you mean. He told you I’d come, yeah? It’s all right, I know him. All of us know him.”
She shook her head no. She edged back to the dark of the nave. Watching her reach the steps of the altar square, Harper realized the girl was damn good at hiding in shadows. Three steps down, tuck the lantern in her cloak, and she’d disappear for good. Something was off, Harper thought; this couldn’t be the setup. The girl was far too fragile to be left like this. Like leaving a child with an acetylene torch. He raised the palm of his right hand, intersected her eyeline.
“Tecum sum semper.”
The girl slowed, then stopped.
“Hvað viljið þér mér herra?” What do you want from me, monsieur?
Harper read her eyes again. Still here and not here at the same time. And the sound of her voice . . . familiar, waiting for him to find her.
“Tell me your name, mademoiselle,” Harper said.
The girl waited a long moment, then her voice was whisper-like.
“Ella Mínervudóttir. I’m the new guet de Lausanne.”
He worked her surname for lines of causality. Mínervudóttir: Nordic matronymic of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and crafts. A poet named Virgil called her the goddess of a thousand works. Nothing connected. He ran his timeline, landed on a briefing he received about her after the cathedral job. Got it.
“You’re from Iceland. From Reykjavík, I think.”
“From Selfoss, monsieur. It’s in the south. It’s very small and there are horses there. They’re small, too.”
“Horses. Small ones.”
He could hold her for only three minutes before the free will of her human side would break the spell. He grabbed at something else he had heard: eighteen, vegetarian, shy . . . then he flashed one of Minerva’s thousand works: goddess of music.
“I was told you play classical guitar in the belfry. You play near the oldest bell, the one that calls the hour. What’s her name?”
“Marie-Madeleine. But she’s not the oldest bell, monsieur. The oldest bell is Couvre-feu, the smallest one. Marie is the biggest bell. That’s why she calls the hour.”
“Marie-Madeleine, right. I’ve met her. She is big. And loud. They told me you play guitar to keep her company while she’s resting. So she won’t be sad, they said.”
The girl smiled a little. She was pretty, Harper thought. Light brown hair hanging from under her hat, just touching her shoulders, framing the eyes of a half-breed.
“Marie likes the cello better, monsieur. She says the music is rounder, so I play cello now.”
The girl made a circle with her left hand. “Eins og svo.” Like this.
“Rounder, right. That’s good. That it sounds rounder, I mean.”
“Would you like to come to the belfry, monsieur? You can listen to me play for Marie-Madeleine.”
A shuffling sound reminded Harper that he and the girl weren’t alone on the altar square. He looked back, saw Krinkle pressing his big hands along Astruc’s sides and stomach.
“Sure,” he said, turning back to the girl.
“Sure. But just now I want you to listen to the sound of my voice, all right?”
“Ég er að hlusta.” I’m listening.
“The soul of the one you named, the lad who called the hour from the belfry before you. His soul was comforted at the time of his death and born into a new life. But I don’t know where it is. That’s just the way it works.”
She accepted his words without question this time. Ella’s eyes slid to Krinkle and Astruc. She watched the roadie press down hard on the priest’s chest . . . A painful groan echoed through the nave.
“Why are you hurting him?” she said.
Krinkle realized the girl was talking to him. He stood, looked at her, no idea what it was she was talking about.
“What now?” the roadie said, looking at Harper.
Harper nodded to le guet.
“She wants to know why you’re hurting him.”
Krinkle adjusted the shoulder straps of his denim overalls.
“I’m not. I’m helping him.”
The girl looked at Astruc’s battered form on the floor, then to Krinkle. Her face was expressionless.
“The way Monsieur Gabriel is trying to help the dying ones at Mon Repos?”
Krinkle pulled at his beard.
“Um, what makes you ask that particular question, mademoiselle?”
The girl’s face remained expressionless.
“Because you’re doing it wrong. That’s not the way to do it. He told me how to do it. He told me to show you how to do it.”
Krinkle glanced at Harper.
“Now would be a good time to say something, brother.”
Krinkle shook his head, stepped directly in front of the girl, raised the palm of his hand to her eyes.
“Dulcis et alta quies placidæque simillima morti.”
The girl became still, staring off into the big nowhere. Harper watched her breathing slow down, settling at one breath per minute and taking her heartbeat with it. He looked at Krinkle.
“Half-breeds can go into hibernation mode like us?”
Krinkle pulled a penlight from the pouch of his overalls and switched it on. He checked the girl’s pupils with a lapis-colored beam.
“No, but they can be put in hibernation mode by us. Just need to change pitch accents on two syllables in the incantation. And have clearance from management, which I do and you don’t.”
“Rather cold, isn’t it?” Harper said.
“A bit like training a pet. Sit, stay, roll over.”
Krinkle switched off the light, turned to Harper.
“You needed her to stay put so you waved your hand and said the magic words. What’s the difference?”
“I was talking to her soul. She could choose to accept my voice or not.”
“And if she didn’t?”
“I’d find another way to sort the manner of her thinking.”
Krinkle shrugged. “Yeah, well, I suppose that sounds like a plan to a guy with issues.”
“You. In the head,” Krinkle said, nodding to le guet, “with them. And your issues are getting in the way of our orders.”
Harper gave it two seconds.
“Maybe you need to run our orders by me again.”
Krinkle counted down with his fingers. “One: Break into a French jail, snatch one defrocked priest who’s wanted for murder and thinks his only begotten son is the savior of paradise. Two: Put said priest on my excellent tour bus and get him juiced with potions. Three: Deliver him to Lausanne Cathedral by a certain time to be awakened by Monsieur Gabriel because, guess what, the defrocked priest is one of our kind.”
Clémence, the execution bell, sounded from the belfry in threes and sixes again. Harper checked his watch, waited for Clémence to wail. Second hand still not moving. A certain time?
“We’re locked in on the negative side of a bloody time warp. There’s no way of knowing what time it is in the cathedral, or anywhere else, for that matter.”
Krinkle shrugged. “Sure there is, considering we nearly crashed and burned because the enemy knew we were coming and tried to blow us to hell on approach. Not to mention the slaughter of innocents going down two miles from this cathedral and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. I’d say that makes it five minutes past fucked-up o’clock, here and every place else in the world. Hold that thought.”
The roadie turned, walked to Astruc, got down on one knee. He checked the priest’s pulse at the carotid artery.
“Bummer,” Krinkle said.
He lit up Astruc’s eyes with the penlight. Harper saw the ragged scar running down Astruc’s cheek now illuminated by the lapis-colored beam.
“Double bummer,” Krinkle said.
He anchored the penlight between his teeth, removed an injector jet from the pouch of his overalls. He unbuttoned Astruc’s overcoat, tore open the priest’s shirt, and felt along his chest. He set the injector jet between the third and fifth costal cartilages of the priest’s rib cage, right of the sternum, right over the heart . . . Click. Astruc’s body shook as the needle hit his heart and the potions rushed in. The priest snapped to consciousness, knocked the injector jet from Krinkle’s hands, knocked away the penlight, and grabbed at Krinkle’s throat.
“No! We must all die for our sins!”
Krinkle countered with a left cross and Astruc hit the floor stones with that same bag-of-lead sound.
“Not if I can help it, brother,” Krinkle said.
He picked up the penlight, gave the priest’s eyes a quick check. He switched off the light and dropped it in his overalls. He got up and walked toward Harper, scooping up the injector jet along the way.
“Now, where were we? Oh yeah. I’d be happy to keep juicing Brother Astruc while you and le guet discuss the nature of reincarnated human souls, but no way is a local, half-breed or not, supposed to hear that soul stuff from our kind. Not now, not ever. Besides, we got trouble. Brother Astruc is crashing in his form.”
Harper looked at the priest.
“Organs shutting down, heart rate at two-five-zero, you could call it dying.”
“I got some flash traffic from management while you were breaking Brother Astruc from jail. He may have tweaked his homemade juice to trigger a suicide response if his blood came into contact with awakening potion.”
Harper looked at the injector jet in the roadie’s hand. There were traces of a purple and luminous liquid in the glass tube.
“And you gave it to him anyway?”
“Hey, if management tells me to hit him with the shiny stuff when he goes south, I do it. Point is, he’s dying and le guet knew it was going to happen.”
“I’m not following you.”
“You don’t need to follow me, you just need to park this in your cerebral cortex: Astruc is one of us. The moment his heart stops, he’s supposed to have one hundred eighty seconds before lights-out. But as you say, we’re stuck on the negative side of a time warp.”
“He’ll have zero seconds.”
Harper rubbed the back of his neck with a bandaged hand.
“Right. Seeing as you know what’s going on and I don’t, maybe you’d best talk to the girl. Find out what she knows.”
“Nope. The cathedral is your patch. Le guet is off-limits to me.”
“You just put her in hibernation mode.”
“To keep you from spilling about human souls.”
“This is bloody daft.”
“No, this is friggin’ paradise. Listen, brother, le guet knew Astruc was dying because Gabriel revealed himself to her and primed her. You know how it is with Gabriel, he comes and goes. Sometimes he goes for years and we don’t see him.”
“What’s your point?”
“This girl wasn’t hiding in the nave, she was waiting for you. She’s been mission-activated by Gabriel.”
Harper looked at the girl. Mission-activated.
“No, she’s just a kid.”
“Open your head, brother. She’s been primed with intel we need to save Astruc, and you need to pry it from her before it’s too late.”
Harper tried to imagine it.
“I don’t see it. It can’t be.”
“I tell you I don’t see it!”
“And I’m telling you bullshit! You’re choosing not to see it because of what happened during the cathedral job! And you need to get over it, pronto!”
Krinkle’s voice echoed through the nave and flashes of time ripped through Harper’s eyes. Three years back to the brain-injured lad who imagined Lausanne Cathedral was a hiding place for lost angels. Ended up with the lad falling through the sky, dying on the esplanade, never knowing he’d been mission-activated, never knowing he was a half-breed conceived by Harper’s own kind. Christ, what was his name?
“All I see is a broken body on the ground, no face. There’s never a face unless someone pronounces his name.”
Krinkle paced in a slow circle, pulling at his beard, resetting his ponytail, mumbling to himself. He stopped, looked at Harper.
“Names. Okay, we’re getting somewhere. Focus on this one: Le guet’s given name is Ella.”
Like flipping a switch.
Ella: a name of unknown origin. Norman, Germanic, Greek meanings: complete, other, stranger, fairy maiden. Primary meaning in ancient Hebrew: goddess; secondary meaning: torch, sacred light. Harper lowered his eyes to the lantern in the girl’s hand. He saw the delicate flame on the wick of a stunted candle. He raised his eyes to Krinkle.
“You knew all this before we got to Lausanne?”
“What I knew before we got here has nothing to do with where we are now.”
“Meaning we don’t know what’s happening outside Lausanne Cathedral, only that some seriously bad shit has gone down. You know rules and regs in this kind of situation: Proceed as if we’re the only ones left.”
Harper looked at le guet.
“You forgot her. Or doesn’t being half our kind qualify her as a member of the club?”
Krinkle turned away, stepped to the girl, checked her eyes again.
“She’s also half human. That means we’re forbidden to interfere with the time of her death if that’s what’s coming down. With her or without her, we’ve got no choice but to survive.”
Harper looked at the girl.
Just a kid.
“We are not them, they are not us.”
“Amen,” Krinkle said.
Harper felt a jab of pain in the palms of his hands. He saw fresh blood seeping through the bandages.
“Hey,” Krinkle called.
Harper looked at him.
“If I could choose to interfere with the time of her death, I would. If I could’ve done the same damn thing for the Cathars at Montségur eight hundred years ago, I would’ve. It’s nothing personal, it’s the gig. Been that way for two and a half million years. But if it makes you feel any better, imagine my crew outside the cathedral right now. They’re armed to the teeth and they’ll protect le guet to the death, with or without us.”
Harper saw them on his timeline. Five rock-and-rollers dressed in black leather; one young woman working as guitar tuner and sometimes chauffeur of Krinkle’s magic bus.
“Your crew is a post-rock band from bloody Finland.”
“And they do killer encores as required.”
Harper rested his bandaged hands in the pockets of his mackintosh, listened to Clémence rumble through the nave once more. Flashes of the last seventy-two hours ripped through his eyes. Strange lights in the sky, stranger things on the ground. A sextant from a time before the locals knew the world was round. And there was a five-thousand-year-old mathematical proof of infinity engraved in the sextant’s arc. That was just Paris. In Montségur, in the shadow of the Pyrenees, where the Cathars made their last stand—where it all went bad for Harper, Krinkle, and Astruc eight hundred years ago—there was a shed full of somber angels cast in scrap iron and a biscuit tin containing one-third of a clay drinking cup and one bloodied carpenter nail. Two thousand years old, from Jerusalem; so said the sculptor of the somber angels. Mad lines of causality, their courses plotted thousands of years ago, now intersecting and delivering the message that some of the legends and myths of men were being ground down to a point of singularity, ready to blow the lid of the truth about angels hiding in the forms of men in a place called paradise.
“Christ, I need a smoke,” Harper said.
“Yeah, a hit of radiance would do a body good right now. But later. Let’s finish this.”
Harper looked at the girl.
“Remind me how ‘this’ works.”
“Easy,” Krinkle said. “I’ll back le guet’s memory up to just before you spilled on the reincarnation of human souls. When she comes around, pronounce her given name, let her see the light in your eyes. The synaptic contacts of her entorhinal cortex will fire simultaneously and delete her declarative memory from that point on. She’ll have no choice but to follow you back to nowtimes.”
“Easy, you say.”
The roadie walked to the girl, passed the palm of his right hand before her eyes. She blinked.
She tried to comprehend the world in front of her. She was facing a steel door, buckled and ajar, seven inches thick. Like she was inside a bank vault. Her arm was raised, her hand held a gun; it was pointing at the steel door. Beyond the gun barrel was a wisp of smoke, and the room smelled of cordite.
She looked down, saw she was sitting on a narrow camp bed. Her left arm curved as if holding something no longer there. Before she could think what it might have been, a voice ripped through her brain: Weapons check. In quick moves she retracted the gun’s breech, saw a hollow-point in the firing chamber: Loaded. She ejected the magazine, checked it: Empty. She shoved the magazine to the grip, aimed at the door again: Fire ready, one round good to go. Question: Where the hell did I learn to do that? No idea was the answer. She eased her finger from the trigger and rested the weapon on the bed. She saw a green plastic bracelet attached to her right wrist. She raised it to her eyes: no name, no markings, no clasp.
She looked up, saw a bank of fluorescent lights in the ceiling. She looked around, saw the pale green concrete walls of a large square room. She looked right, saw the kitchenette built into a recessed section of the wall: sink, stove, microwave, huge fridge-freezer. Close by was a small wooden table and chairs next to the sink. Nearby shelves held glasses and plates, aluminum pots and pans stacked atop a big iron skillet. There were tall clear jars filled with tea bags and curious-looking smaller jars. She got up and walked to the shelves. She read the handwritten labels on the jars of tea: Morning Light to welcome the day. Midday Buzz for harmony and balance. There was a tea for afternoons, labeled Violette’s Garden, that did something, and one called Night Clouds that did something else. And there were dozens of smaller jars stacked atop one another with labels written in the same script as the teas: Molly’s Tofu Stew, Molly’s Veggie Mix, Molly’s Yummy Homemade Alphabet Spaghetti.
She pulled open the one drawer under the countertop: kitchen utensils, forks and knives, different-sized spoons. She closed the drawer, opened the fridge. It was loaded with bottles of UHT milk and Molly’s Finest Apple Juice. The freezer was loaded, too: bags of frozen vegetables and complete meals in plastic tubs. Each tub was labeled with the contents and instructions on how to prepare them in the same handwritten script as the other stuff: Ten minutes in the microwave and chow down!
She looked at the table and chairs again. No; one adult chair, one child’s high chair. She looked at the buckled steel door again. It wasn’t a bank vault; it was a bomb shelter with enough food to keep one adult and one child alive for months.
“Where the hell am I?”
She closed the freezer, closed the fridge, saw a baby cot in the corner. She walked to it. The cot was made up with a clean sheet and blanket. There were folded pajamas lying on the blanket next to a stuffed bear. A repeating pattern of a sheep with a wide grin on his face was printed onto the pajamas; the stuffed bear was smiling, too.
She walked to the nearby wardrobe; floor-to-ceiling, three doors. She opened the first door: sweaters and blouses, shoes, socks, T-shirts, lingerie. She pulled one of the brassieres to her chest; it fit. So did all the clothes behind door number two, from the look of them.
“This is weird.”
Behind the third door: children’s toys on the lower shelf; three upper shelves with kids’ clothes. Overalls, sweaters, shirts and trousers, socks and shoes. All the clothes were the same size as the pajamas; lots of blue, no pink.
“Blue means boy. So where’s he?”
She looked under the dining table and chairs, the baby cot, the camp bed she’d been sitting on. No little boy anywhere, but half hidden under the bed was a black canvas bag. She walked over, reached under the bed, and pulled out the bag. It was open. It contained silver tubes, divided into six sections according to the colors of their plastic caps. Red, blue, yellow, green, white, purple. She removed a white-capped tube. Four inches long, half an inch in diameter. No label, but there was a button on the side. She pressed it . . . Click. A short needle poked through the cap and a jet of valerian-smelling liquid drained onto the concrete floor. She looked at the bag again. Inside was an information chart with a diagram of circles; some interconnecting, some connected by lines. Within each circle were lists of physical or emotional symptoms corresponding to a particular colored cap, or combinations of colors. Below the diagram were required dosages. She saw another silver tube on the bed with a small blue cap next to it; the needle had been released. She picked it up. It smelled of lavender. She checked the diagram, followed the colors and interconnecting circles and lines to the words:
For severe shock or emotional trauma. Do not exceed one dose per 72-hour period. MAY BE FATAL.
“What the fuck?”
She checked under the bed again, saw an open book on the floor. She pulled it out, thumbed through it. It was a child’s storybook about a giant caterpillar named Pompidou flying through a star-studded sky, circling the moon, and then over the Boiling Seas of Doom. On the caterpillar’s back rode a band of silly-looking men. They wore paper pirate hats and waved wooden swords and shouted into voice balloons:
“Up, up, and away!”
“To the ice castle!”
“And don’t forget to save the princess!”
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. Must save the princess!”
She closed the book and read the cover:
Une histoire drôle de—
“Wait a sec.”
She reopened the book to the silly-looking pirates, read their dialogue again.
“It’s French. I think in English but I can read French. I must be dreaming.”
She tossed the book and silver tubes onto the bed—clink, clink. The sound bounced around the room, and she followed it till it stopped at a set of bifold doors on the wall opposite the kitchenette. She walked the twelve steps it took to get there, pulled open the doors. A small bathroom: toilet, shower, sink with mirrored cabinet above, a double-door closet to the right. Shelves next to the shower held soaps and creams, adult and baby shampoos, boxes of tampons, towels and washcloths. She stepped into the bathroom, opened the right side of the closet. There was a combo washer-dryer and cleaning products, a broom and a mop. The left side held stacks of clean cloth diapers wrapped in plastic. Neat, she thought. And she remembered the neatly written labels on the jars in the kitchenette; jars of Molly’s this and that. She wondered if her own name was Molly because, thinking about it, she couldn’t remember what her own name was.
She reached over, opened the mirrored cabinet above the sink. One electric toothbrush for an adult, one kid’s toothbrush with blue bunnies on the handle. Toothpastes, disposable razors, dental floss, a child’s thermometer, Band-Aids, and aspirin. She stepped closer, rose to her tiptoes, and checked the top shelf for a prescription bottle or anything with a name on it. Nothing. She closed the cabinet, saw a woman in the mirror staring back at her.
“Is your name Molly? Is that my name, too?”
No answer. But the more she stared at the woman in the mirror, the more no way seemed the answer. Molly was a neat freak; the woman in the mirror was a tramp. Messy blond hair, ashen face covered in dirt and sweat, looking out at the world with a vacant gaze. She touched the glass to make sure the image was a reflection and the woman in the mirror did the same thing. She saw the woman was wrapped in a black blanket. She stepped back from the mirror, held out her arms, and the woman in the mirror matched her moves again. It wasn’t a blanket, it was a black wool cloak over a green sweater and blue jeans. All the clothes were filthy with dirt and twigs and pine needles. She focused on the sweater, saw a dark blotch of something damp. And there was similar spotting down the legs of the jeans. Blood?
“What happened to you? By the way, who the fuck are you?”
Not receiving answers from the reflection, she opened the sink’s spigot. It gurgled and spat a few drops. There was an electric switch on the wall with a label: WATER PUMP. She flipped it and water began to stream from the spout. She leaned down, splashed a few handfuls on her face. She felt something trickle from the back of her neck and down her cheek, then drip into the sink. She watched a trickle of blood circle the basin before going down the drain. She wet a washcloth, pressed it to the back of her neck. A sharp pain raced up her neck and into her skull.
She held the washcloth to the mirror, the woman on the other side of the looking glass doing the same damn thing. There was a nickel-sized spot of fresh blood on the cloth, like she’d been jabbed with . . .
“. . . a needle.”
She dropped the washcloth in the sink, hurried to the camp bed, and checked the black canvas bag. Twenty compartments up, twenty across made two hundred tubes; one ninety-eight still in the bag, plus two on the bed made them all accounted for. Had to be the stuff for severe shock she’d found when she came around. She reached behind her head, found the sore spot again. Wondered if she’d jabbed herself, or if someone else had. She looked back to the bathroom. The woman in the mirror was still watching her from the other side of the bifold doors.
“Anytime you want to pitch in with a hint, feel free.”
The woman in the mirror didn’t offer one.
“Big fucking help you are.”
She quickly read through the symptoms on the lid of the canvas bag, searching for something reading, Can’t remember a thing? Try this. Nothing. She sat on the bed, looked at the steel door. She stared at the gap in the buckled metal, saw a light beyond the door; then came a metallic, iron-like smell. She rose from the bed and walked to the door, more curious than afraid. Crimps in the metal were razor-sharp and the gap was narrow. Air flowed into the room and the metallic smell was stronger here. She turned sideways, leaned through, and saw a blood-spattered stairwell with a woman’s body over the bottom steps. Face hammered to pulp, throat slashed, hair soaked in blood. The dead woman’s right thigh was wrapped in a bloodied pressure bandage. It had come undone, and a thick shard of glass was buried deep in the woman’s leg. Blood had ceased to flow, but it was fresh. Looking over the body again, she realized the clothes in the closet would fit the woman’s body, too. She wondered if the dead woman was Molly, and if this was her place and the missing little boy was her child.
“So what am I doing in here and why are you out there? Where’s your kid?”
Her eyes followed a trail of blood up the steps. At the top of the stairwell, two men lay slumped together, half invisible. It was the clothes they wore; uniforms of some kind, imprinted with a strange camouflage pattern that made them almost disappear. If not for the red blood seeping through the fabric, she would not have seen their bodies.
Her voice echoed up the stairwell and the sound startled her. She eased back into the vault, wrapped her arms across her chest. An odd feeling washed over her; more the lack of any feeling at all. No fear, no panic inside a blood-splattered dream. Had to be a fucked-up dream. And the voice in her head reminded her how, in really fucked-up dreams, there’s no choice but to ride it out till you reach the really scary stuff; then you wake up screaming. She turned to the bathroom, saw the woman in the mirror.
“That’s your voice in my head, isn’t it? I am dreaming all this, aren’t I? Is that why I’m not afraid? Or is it because I haven’t come to the really scary stuff yet? Or it was that stress-be-gone shit in the silver tube I got jabbed with? Because anything can happen in a fucked-up dream, can’t it? Just have to ride it out.”
Water overflowed the sink and poured onto the concrete floor. She rushed into the bathroom, pulled the washcloth from the sink, watched the water drain. She squeezed the cloth, watched blood drip from it. She slammed closed the spigot and faced the woman in the mirror, knowing she was looking at her own reflection, except for the eyes. The woman’s gaze was more than vacant; it was soulless.
“It wasn’t any stress-be-gone shit, was it? You got jabbed with some steal-your-soul shit, didn’t you? That’s why you’re looking at me like that. You have no fear because you have no soul.”
“Who are you? What are you doing down here? What happened to those people out there?”
She turned and walked to the baby cot.
She picked up the perfectly folded pajamas. She lifted them to her face, smelled them. There was the mingled scent of soap and powdered skin, and smelling it, she remembered coming to minutes before. Right arm with a gun pointing toward the steel door, left arm curved as if holding something to her breast. She looked at the woman in the mirror.
“The little boy was in my arms, wasn’t he? I was holding him, wasn’t I? Did somebody take him? Did he wander off, or is everything about him part of this fucked-up dream, like you and the needles and all of it?”
“Say something, damn it!”
“Fine. I’ll figure it out myself.”
She walked to the camp bed, laid the pajamas next to the children’s book. Next to the book were the silver tubes with popped needles; next to the tubes was the gun. Her eyes moved slowly over the objects, trying to figure which of them made the most sense. Francophone pirates waving wooden swords while riding a giant flying caterpillar; the little boy’s pajamas with the grinning sheep on them; the Glock 19 with one 9x19 parabellum round left in the firing chamber.
“The gun wins.”
She picked it up, stuffed it in the belt of her blue jeans, and looked at the woman in the mirror.
“If I’m not back in an hour, send in the marines, bitch.”
“He told me you would come. He said I could trust you.”
Harper scanned the girl’s eyes. She was back with him, ready to spill whatever message she had from Monsieur Gabriel.
“That’s good, mademoiselle. Did he tell you what else I would do?”
The girl lifted the lantern, turned a latch, and opened the small glass door.
She pronounced the word in slow cadence, evenly spaced, pitch accents all in a row. That meant it sounded like a command. Funny that, Harper thought.
He stepped close to the lantern, leaned forward, and exhaled slowly. The fire in the lantern flickered, almost dying. Then the wick ignited and a brilliant light sparked and glowed. Le guet closed the glass door, latched the lantern shut. Krinkle stepped next to Harper, both their eyes locked on the flame.
“Whoa. Management said it might be here, but holy mother backbeat,” Krinkle said.
“What would be here?”
“The first fire of creation.”
“They seem to tell you a lot more than they tell me.”
“Swell. What else did they tell you about the fire being here?”
“Big bang, big show if it goes live.”
Another switch tripped in Harper’s brain and he raced back on his timeline to the cathedral job. Quick scenes flashed through his eyes: he and the lad finding the fire in a cavern under the cathedral, transferring it to the lad’s lantern, carrying it to the nave. Fast forward: the nave flooded with devourers, the fire going out. Harper breathes into it to keep it alive. And they were not alone. There was a woman with them, a woman with blond hair, and he could almost see her face . . . Harper’s timeline cut to hash for a second, then came back. Now he was holding the lantern and the cathedral was awash with radiant light . . . Hash. Harper blinked himself to nowtimes. The new one was standing before him with a lantern in her hand. A flame at the tip of the wick pulsing, now, like something ready to explode.
Harper reached for the lantern, but the girl pulled it back. She hid it in the folds of her cloak. The crossing square fell dark.
“Ekki,” she whispered.
“I must hold the lantern and say the words. You cannot carry the weight alone anymore, monsieur. You have fallen two times. The third time will be the last. You must wait.”
“That’s what he said.”
Harper stared at her.
“Are you quite sure that’s what he told you, mademoiselle?”
“He said if you asked that question I was to tell you, ‘I’m very sure.’”
. . . i’m very sure, i’m very sure, i’m very sure . . .
Harper listened to the words echo through the nave. The cadence, the tone, the determined delivery. He looked deeper into her eyes. Krinkle called to him.
“Hey, brother, snap out of it.”
Harper turned to the roadie. “Something’s not right, she’s not making any sense.”
“Would you cut it with the ‘Something’s not right’ stuff? She’s doing what Gabriel told her to do. And we need to get a move on. Brother Astruc is getting worse.”
Harper glanced at the priest, saw the white froth at the corner of his mouth. Harper stepped closer to the girl, reached for the lantern again.
“Ekki. Get out of my way,” she said.
She raised the lantern and the light drilled into Harper’s eyes.
“He says he’s very sure you need to get out of my way.”
She passed between them, walked to Astruc, and circumambulated his form three times, clockwise, in ever-widening circles, always holding the lantern toward the priest. She stopped, faced him. The girl was a half a yard from Astruc’s boots, standing on an imaginary line that ran through Astruc and toward the apse. Just then Astruc’s body seized up and Krinkle rushed to him.
“Oh shit, here we go.”
He knelt at Astruc’s side, pulled the penlight, hit the priest with the lapis-colored beam. The priest’s face was turning purple; he gasped for breath. Krinkle grabbed Astruc’s head, arced it back to clear the airway.
“He’s going down fast,” Krinkle said.
Harper hurried to the girl, stood in front of her.
“Ella, listen to the sound of my voice. Give me the lantern.”
“Ekki. You’re too weak to do it.”
“I have to hold the lantern and say the words, not you. That’s what he says.”
Harper scanned her eyes again. No wonder she wasn’t making sense. She’d been heavily juiced. With what, Harper didn’t know, but it was kicking in and rushing through her blood.
“Mademoiselle, listen to me. I need to hold the lantern. That’s how it works. Trust me and give me the lantern.”
The girl spoke without looking at him.
“If you try to do it, the fire will die and so will everyone in the world. That’s what he says.”
Harper listened to her voice: That’s what he says. The girl was speaking in the present tense.
“Ella, who is talking to you?”
“Him. He’s out there, in the shadows. He’s telling me what to do.”
Harper scanned the nave.
“There’s no one out there, Ella.”
A death rattle gurgled through the nave. Harper checked over his shoulder, watched Astruc gasp and claw at his throat for breath. The roadie tilted the priest’s head back, trying to clear his airway.
“Do not do this, brother. Do not do this,” the roadie said.
Harper turned back to the girl. “For Christ’s sake, Ella, no one is here. No one is talking to you but me.”
The girl lowered her forehead to focus on the flame; her breath quickened.
“Not you talking . . . Marc Rochat.”
Harper flashed the lad falling through the sky.
“What did you say?”
“He says you need to get your friend out of the way. He says, ‘I’m very sure the fire will hurt him.’”
Same inflection, same tone; it was the lad’s voice. Bloody hell. Clémence tolled through the nave, louder still. They’re dying, the children are all dying. Harper spun around, saw the roadie gathering Astruc in his arms.
“Get away from him!”
“We cannot lose him!”
Harper flew across the altar square, slammed into Krinkle, and knocked him away from Astruc. They rolled over the floor stones, slamming into the wooden benches at the edge of the crossing square. The roadie broke free, reached for Astruc; Harper pulled him back.
Then the lad’s voice again:
“C’est le guet! Il a sonné l’heure! Il a sonné l’heure!”
Powerful, resonant, hitting a perfect third tone above Clémence; harmonizing, humming, rolling through the nave. A stream of radiant light shot from the lantern high into the lantern tower where it pulsed in time to the sound, then it broke into thousands of glittering shards, tumbling down and disappearing as they touched Astruc’s form. Lausanne Cathedral shuddered a little, as if all the world had come to a gentle stop.
Harper looked at the lantern.
Only a delicate fire at the tip of the wick now, and a new bell sound rumbled through the nave; a deep-throated, comforting sound. It tolled seven times. Marie-Madeleine, Harper thought; the biggest bell, not the oldest one. Fading light passed through stained glass windows along the south aisle and caught bits of limestone falling from the lantern tower. The limestone bits sparkled in reds, blues, greens. Harper checked the angle of light passing through the face of God at the center of the cathedral rose set high in the south transept wall. The protected zone around the cathedral had rejoined real time. Evening it was, 19:00 hours. Harper sat up, leaned into the benches.
“Sicut erat in principio,” he said.
“In principio erat Verbum,” Krinkle answered, pulling himself from the floor to join Harper. He laughed a little.
“I have to say, brother, on a scale of one to ten on the exothermic reaction meter, I’d give that a billion. Was it like that the last time?”
“The first fire. Was it like that the last time it went live?”
Harper thought about it. “From what they allow me to see on my timeline, sort of.”
Krinkle looked up into the lantern tower, watched as limestone bits fell.
“You know, I’m not too sure how much more of that this place can take,” he said.
Harper brushed dust from the shoulders of his mac. “Not much, would be my guess.”
They sat in meditative silence a few minutes, taking in the scene. It looked normal except for the young girl in the black floppy hat and long black cloak, holding a lantern over the form of a defrocked priest.
“Do I need to check on Brother Astruc?” Krinkle said. “I mean he’s alive and all, isn’t he?”
Harper looked at his wristwatch; the second hand was ticking now. He looked at the priest. Resting comfortably in hibernation mode; one breath, one heartbeat per minute.
“I’d say all’s well for now,” Harper said. “What are our orders from here?”
“Hold till relieved.”
Harper shifted his eyes to the girl. Her breathing had calmed and she relaxed except for her right arm. It was trembling from the weight of the lantern she still held toward Astruc. Harper got to his feet.
“Wait here a minute, would you? I need to talk to her in private.”
“The nature of reincarnated souls, one soul in particular.”
Krinkle got up from the floor stones, parked his butt on the bench. He reached into the pouch of his overalls, pulled a pack of gold-filtered smokes. He lit up and the radiance hit him fast.
“No problem. I’ll just wait here and pretend to forget what you just said.”
“You do that.”
Harper walked to the girl. She didn’t look at him.
“Could you take the lantern, monsieur? I’m very tired.”
He scanned her eyes. The juice had dissipated and the girl was released from whatever spell it was that had had her. Harper took the lantern from her, stood it on the floor stones next to Astruc. He looked around the crossing square, pointed to the wooden benches opposite Krinkle.
“Why don’t we sit down, mademoiselle?”
“Já, þakka þér.” Yes, thank you.
“And maybe we could talk a bit.”
“I’m very tired, monsieur.”
“Sure. Come with me, we’ll sit over there.”
He led her to the benches and she sat. Harper sat at the far end of the same bench. She watched him with heavy, exhausted eyes, studying the distance between them. She got up, walked closer to him, sat down next to him.
“What did you want to talk about, monsieur?”
“It’s about the lad. The one who called the hour before you. A little earlier, you said . . .”
Her heavy eyes closed and she fell toward him. Her head landed on his chest. Harper sat very still.
The new one was sound asleep.
She squeezed through the gap and eased her way into the stairwell. She reached for the handrail, braced herself, and straddled the dead woman. There was a Glock 35 on the next step; the retracted slide said the gun was empty.
She stepped over the body and saw an iPhone in the woman’s left hand. She leaned down, pulled away the phone, and pressed the power switch. The screen asked for a nine-digit code. Icons at the top of the screen read plenty of battery, but no signal. She slid the phone into the pocket of her cloak and looked at the body again. She saw a gold ring on the dead woman’s left hand. The woman was married; had to be the missing boy’s mother. She felt the woman’s trousers and coat pockets: empty.
“Doesn’t make sense. Why was I inside the vault with your kid?”
She counted her way up the steps, listening for signs of anyone ahead. At step seventeen she reached the two men in camouflage. Matching Brügger & Thomet submachine guns strapped around their shoulders; both breeches open, both weapons spent. The Glock 35s in their hands were spent, too. She patted down the men. No wallets or IDs, but they had phones hooked to their belts. She reached over and tested each one. Both asked for a nine-digit code; plenty of battery, no signal. She looked at the men’s faces. Unlike the dead woman, they were still identifiable, but she did not know them.
She looked at the woman at the bottom of the stairs. The body down there was dressed in civilian clothes; the bodies up here wore matching camouflage. But all three had carried Glock 35s and cell phones locked with nine-digit codes. All on the same side, she thought. She pulled her own gun from her belt, set her index finger along the trigger guard. She remembered that’s the way it was done; then she remembered her own gun was a Glock 35.
“We were all on the same side. But who the hell were ‘we’?”
She leaned around the corner of the stairwell and saw a long hallway where the fluorescent lamps sputtered on and off like strobe lights. The passage was more tunnel than hall: one and a half feet wide, six feet high. There were brass casings and discarded ammo magazines scattered over the floor. She listened for a voice or a moan. There was nothing but the buzz of the fluorescent lamps.
“Nice and slow, whoever the fuck you are, girl.”
She stepped up between the men’s bodies and into the tunnel. She walked slowly over the brass casings, trying not to slip, trying not to make a sound. Her eyes adjusted to the erratic bursts of light and she began to see things. Walls pockmarked with bullet scars and slash marks and wild patterns of blood spatter. Closer: bone chips and brain matter embedded in the walls. The signs read there’d been a hellish firefight here resulting in multiple head shots. She didn’t bother to question how she knew such a thing. She filed it away with knowing how to handle a gun and reading French.
“Got to go with it till we get to the really scary stuff and wake up screaming. That’s the rule of fucked-up dreams, n’est-ce pas? Wait a sec.”
She looked back through the flickering light, saw the two dead men at the top of the stairwell. They had been butchered like the woman outside the steel door, but none of the three had taken a bullet wound or head shot. Meaning our side had the guns and the other guys had . . . knives? And there was the blood. The bodies she had seen bled out red and their blood had a metallic smell. The blood on the walls was darker, more viscous, and it reeked. She looked at the blood on her sweater and jeans. Same color, same texture, same foul smell as the blood on the walls. She added it up: She’d been in the middle of the firefight before ending up in the concrete room, one bullet in her Glock. That meant she’d unloaded fourteen rounds into . . . men with knives?
“Weirder and weirder.”
As she thought about it, the idea of talking to herself was fairly weird, too; especially after thinking about it some more and not being able to remember her own name.
She crept to the end of the tunnel, her Glock pointing the way ahead. She looked around the corner. The passage continued ten yards, then cut left. Same scene: dark blood, bone, and brain matter on the walls; brass casings and ammo mags on the floor. She followed on to where the tunnel split into two. This way was clean, that way was a charnel house. She took the clean hall but hit a dead end thirty yards on. She doubled back to take the bloodied hall. She made the same mistake at another intersection and realized she was in a maze of tunnels and the only way out was to follow Charnel House Road. She backtracked, made three more turns, and came to another bloodied stairwell. She raised her Glock to eye level and aimed upstairs. Quiet. She climbed, counted thirty-nine steps to the doorway. She jumped around the corner, panned left to right with her one-bullet gun.
She was taking aim at a large, windowless room of wrecked laptops on desks and banks of video monitors on a wall. The room had been sprayed with the same explosive pattern of black blood, bone, and white matter as the tunnels. The ceiling lights were not working here, but dull gray light filled the room through an opening where a steel door had been pried open. Not as thick as the door to the room at the bottom of the stairs, but just as solid.
“So there’s outside. All we have to do is walk outside, see the really scary stuff, and wake up.”
She stepped into the room, saw three clocks on the walls. No numbers on the faces; just black marks for the minutes and hours on white faces, black arms for hours and minutes, long red second hands. The clocks looked familiar, but she had no idea why. The left clock was labeled PST and marked the time at 1:29. On the clock in the middle, labeled GMT, it was 9:29; on the clock on the right, labeled CET, 10:29. Time zones, she thought. Pacific, Greenwich Mean Time, Central European. Question:
“Which fucking time zone am I dreaming in? Or is it all three?”
She noticed the clocks weren’t running, and the second hands of all three were straight up. She looked at the bank of wall monitors. Only the big monitor in the center was still on, and it crackled and buzzed as a jumble of numbers, symbols, and letters flickered onscreen. She stepped into the middle of the room. Tucked in an alcove opposite the monitors was a desk. It took her a second to make out the body slumped across it. It was the body of a man, wearing the same camouflage as the dead men at the top of the stairwell. She kept her Glock aimed at the open door as she eased across the room. She rounded the desk, pulled away the body. It tumbled to the floor, landed on its back. He’d been sliced open, and his guts dripped onto the floor.
She knelt next to him, patted his pockets: nothing, and the cell phone clip on his belt was empty. She looked at his face again, saw the moist red slash across his throat. She touched the dead man’s forehead. He wasn’t warm, but he wasn’t cold. Come to think of it, the rest of the dead were the same temperature. She thought about her dream so far. It consisted mainly of her seeing and touching dead people. She wondered if this might be a good time to scream her head off and get back to reality. But again, she realized she was unafraid.
“Nothing but a dream.”
She looked around the floor for the man’s cell phone, then atop the desk. No phone, but there were radios and speakers, rows of small monitors with distinct labels: Sitting Room, Kitchen, Hallways, Bedroom One, Bedroom Two, Back Garden, Front Garden. There were more, but the labels were splashed with red blood and a thickening pool had formed on the desktop. Probably where the ones with the knives killed him, she thought. There was a headset with an attached microphone hanging off the desk. It was connected to a panel labeled Comms HQ. She picked it up.
“Hello? Is anybody out there?”
The line was dead.
She dropped the headset. It landed next to a wireless computer keyboard. She stared at it. It was clean but for eight keys; letters and numbers plus the shift key. Each of those keys bore the same bloodied fingerprint.
She looked at the main monitor on the wall. The screen sputtered with one line of data: 1 @ 3 U c G n. Seven characters: three keys using the shift key, four without it. She looked at the dead man on the floor, remembered she found him slumped over the desk. She leaned down to check his hands. His hands and fingers were bloodied but for the index fingers. Both were smudged as having touched something. It’s him, she thought; he typed the characters before he died. She looked down at the dead man, trying to remember if in any of her really fucked-up dreams the dead could speak.
“Can you tell me what it means? Is it a password?” she asked him.
The man stayed dead.
She stood up, looked back through the tunnel, then ahead. So far there’d been four bodies; four bodies from her side from the look of it. And though there were clear signs that dozens of attackers took head shots at point-blank range, not one of their bodies was anywhere to be found. Perhaps all of the attackers were gone. She turned to the open steel door leading outside.
“Only one way to find out.”
She took a slow breath, raised the Glock, stepped ahead. Halfway across the control room she smelled fire smoke, and the fumes grew heavier with each step. She stopped short of the exit, saw a screened porch beyond the steel door. The screen door was swinging slightly in waves of heat. Beyond the porch was a long yard; at the end of the yard a two-story house was in flames.
“Keep moving, it’s only a dream.”
Stepping through the doorway and onto the porch, the burning house was revealed in wide shot. Its roof had collapsed, and broken pipes spewed water over blackened timbers and licks of flame. All the windows had burst, and she saw the fire inside the house. Her eyes were transfixed, as if gazing into a churning furnace of white-hot flame. If anyone was in there, they were dead. Next to the house was a driveway where two vehicles had caught fire in the radiating heat. Burning tires cast off oily smoke that blocked any hint of safe passage; not that there was anywhere to go. As best she could see, wherever this place was, it was surrounded by a forest of tall evergreen trees. Nearby branches were singed by hungry flames, but the trees did not catch fire. She watched the smoke. It rose in a black spiral and formed a mushroom cloud above the forest, but the cloud did not drift away. And like the fire in the house, the cloud seemed to churn. No, it wasn’t churning; it was pulsing, as if breathing. She looked at the swinging screen door.
“Jesus, this is . . .”
Something caught her eye. On the underside of the mushroom cloud hovering above the trees. Shreds of black mist broke away from the cloud and sank into the forest.
“. . . so fucked-up.”
She eased through the screen door, keeping her Glock ahead of her. She stopped at the top of the porch steps, saw slaughtered bodies scattered over a smoke-filled yard. She counted twenty-six all wearing the same strange camouflage as the men outside the bunker. Some of them had Brügger & Thomet machine guns slung over their shoulders or Glocks in their hands; others lay empty-handed next to discarded weapons. She stepped down into the yard. Her eyes locked on the tree line, watching for anyone watching her. She could see only a few feet into the forest, where the trees and underbrush became a darkening web.
The smoke was thick and she coughed and covered her face with the collar of her cloak. She counted ten steps to the first body. It lay on its back, and she eased it over with her foot. She didn’t know him. She tucked her Glock into her belt, dropped to one knee, touched the man’s forehead. Same as the man in the control room—not warm, not cold. She didn’t bother searching his pockets or checking his cell phone, but she went through his ammo magazine pouches looking for bullets. Not one bullet left. She zigzagged her way up the long yard, stopping at each of the bodies to conduct the same examination. In the center of the yard, three men were squeezed together back-to-back as if they had been surrounded, firing outward till they ran out of ammo, then they were sliced to death.
“Who did this to you?”
She reached fourteen bodies near the tree line and peered into the forest as far as she could see, but there were no more bodies. She looked back at the burning house, then to the building from where she’d come into the yard. Wood planks had been ripped from the exterior to expose concrete walls underneath. The few planks still attached to the building bore slashes and gouges from ground level to the roof. She imagined a swarm of hungry beasts clawing their way into the building. First through the wood planks, then solid concrete.
“And why not? No weirder than anything else in this place.”
She lowered her gaze to the bodies on the ground. Some of their faces were identifiable, most were disfigured. She sensed the men were European, then wondered why she did. She remembered reading and understanding French in the child’s book she’d found in the concrete room, and the three broken clocks in the control room marking three different time zones. The one on the right marked CET. Perhaps I’m in Europe; perhaps this is France. She did a slow three-sixty of the scene. Wherever the dream was taking her, it was leading her through a wasteland. Confusing, she thought, adding that it might help if she could remember who she was besides some subconscious representation of herself wandering an imaginary wasteland without a trace of fear. And she remembered the woman in the mirror down in the concrete room; the bitch with no soul who wouldn’t offer a clue as to where this place was or what had happened.
“So it goes.”
She remembered the cell phone she’d collected back outside the vault.
She found it in her cloak, touched the control button. It lit up, asking for the nine-digit code; plenty of battery, no signal still. She held it up, turned in a circle. Not a blip for a signal. She returned the phone to her cloak.
“Just have to figure it out yourself, whoever the fuck you are.”
She retraced her zigzag steps, looking at the way the fourteen men had fallen near the tree line.
The bodies were evenly spaced in two close-set lines, like the point of an arrow. There was a trail of dark blood coming from the forest, cutting through the men. The trail led to two more men, then six in a row, then the three in the middle of the yard with their backs to one another. Then, finally, to the man who lay a few steps from the porch.
She turned back to the men at the point closest to the tree line. Her imagination kicked in again. They were first to take on the swarm as it charged from the forest. They were overrun and the swarm rushed ahead, killing every defender in its path. The swarm clawed at the outbuilding until it broke in. They killed the man in the control room who died typing a sequence of letters, numbers, and symbols. The swarm then rushed into the tunnels, where two men and one woman in civilian clothes made a last stand at the stairwell outside the concrete room where she was alone with one bullet in a gun. Down to me?
No, she remembered the signs of a little boy in the room; a little boy who was missing. She looked at the dead scattered through the smoke-filled yard. Why would there be all these dead and not the little boy? She looked at the burning house, wondered if maybe he’d been trapped inside. Or perhaps he never was, she thought. Perhaps he was missing from the scene because he was a dream within a dream, guiding her through the wasteland of wherever the hell she was.
“So where are you guiding me now, little boy?” she mumbled.
Her eyes searched the forest.
“Are you out there, or are you only in my head?”
There was a growl behind her, and she turned quickly around as a stairwell within the house collapsed into the flames. Heat rushed through the yard and washed over her.
She backed up into the trees, crouched down, and covered her face with her cloak. She waited for the heat to pass. She stood and looked around the forest. There really was no way out of here, not that she could see. She turned back and walked toward the yard. Her boots caught a fallen branch—crack.
A cry sounded from the forest. She looked back.
“Is somebody there?”
She stepped forward, pushing low-hanging branches from her face. The cry came from the left now, then from the right.
“Is it you, little boy? Where are you?”
She followed it deeper into the wood.
“Come on, help me out here. I’m doing the best I can. Where are you hiding?”
She saw shreds of black mist slither over the ground as if leaking from the underbrush. She retreated a few steps, then turned and hurried into the middle of the yard. She stopped, looked back. The mist emerged from the tree line and spread over the yard. Over the scattered bodies, over her boots. It rose to midcalf before stopping. She moved one foot, then the other; the mist rippled.
She began to walk slowly, like moving through a shallow pool of dark, thickening goo. She stepped up to the porch and the goo dripped from her shoes. She turned, faced the yard. Pulsing smoke, churning fire, a pool of whatever the fuck it was.
“No little boy out there, that’s for damn sure.”
A radiating pulse of heat circled the yard and whipped up the smoke and soot. She gagged, backed into the control room, choked and coughed. She wiped her mouth and nose on the back of her hands. She looked at them, saw streaks of mucus on the skin. She wanted to vomit.
“Dream or no dream, I need to wash this shit off, right now.”
She headed to the stairwell and back to the concrete room. The one working monitor on the wall flickered and sparked with the same data as before.
1 @ 3 U c G n
Seven characters typed by a dying man as life drained from his body. The last deliberate act of his life. Perhaps it wasn’t a password; perhaps it was a message, she thought. A warning that they were being overrun and needed help . . . But nobody came.
She wiped her hands on her cloak, walked to the desk, and stared at the keyboard. Seven character keys plus the shift key were bloodied; the rest of the keys were clean, including the return key. She looked at the dead man on the floor.
“You didn’t live long enough to press the return key to send the message, did you?”
She looked outside, saw the shreds of black mist over the dead. Then came the oddest sensation so far in the dream. Whoever you are, girl, you have so seen this shit before. She looked at the dead man again.
“This is what I’m supposed to do, isn’t it? This is how I get out of the dream, isn’t it? I press the key, then I wake up in a bed with fluffy pillows, isn’t it?”
She turned back and leaned over the keyboard.
“Here goes nothing.”
She pressed the return key and a high-pitched tone screamed through the control room.
She tumbled back, tripped over the dead man, fell into the wall and down to the floor. The tone rose in pitch and sliced through the room. She locked her eyes on the broken clocks, trying to steady herself. Just then, the clocks advanced by one minute, and the second hands of all three clocks moved ahead in perfect marching order. The screaming tone climbed higher. She covered her ears with her hands.
“God, it hurts!”
The data on the screen began to shift left to right, right to left, the characters passing through one another and rearranging itself, holding a moment as if searching for meaning and shifting again till it locked in place.
@ n G 3 1 U c
One by one the characters flipped into uppercase letters: @ to A, n to N, and as each letter appeared, the screaming tone rose another painful pitch until it pierced her hands and ears and seeped into her brain.
The last character flipped from c to S, and a word flashed in her eyes.
A N G E L U S
A N G E L U S
A N G E L U S
“For fuck sake, make it stop!”
The north transept doors flew open and real time rushed in. Silhouettes lingered against the fading evening light, unable to enter the cathedral till time equalized throughout the cathedral. Harper checked his watch, figuring the volume of the nave meant equalization would take ninety seconds. But nine ticks later the silhouettes crossed the threshold, and touching the stone floor of Lausanne Cathedral, they took human form.
Krinkle glanced at Harper. “Some entrance,” the roadie said.
More like an apparition, Harper thought.
“It is at that,” he said.