Acquainted With the Night (9781101546000)

BOOK: Acquainted With the Night (9781101546000)
13.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Table of Contents
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley premium edition / December 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Lee West.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
ISBN : 978-1-101-54600-0
Berkley Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Nigel Clifford dragged his trowel through the frozen rubble, coaxing potsherds to the surface. The freezing November wind scraped over the excavation site, tugging at his fedora and chilling his hands. Nigel put on gloves and kept digging. He'd just celebrated his seventy-second birthday, and he was better suited to armchair archaeology than fieldwork, but he loved dirt: its texture, the loamy smell, the way it packed under his nails, and the sour, acidic flavor it left in his mouth. The soil yielded more than history; it was the repository of man's secrets.
He worked until sunset, tagging the pottery bits. As he gathered his tools, darkness seeped out of the ground, twisted through gnarled branches, and plunged the mountain into leaden dusk. A ticklish sensation crept up his neck and he cut his gaze to the ledge above him. A figure melted into the shadows. Pebbles hit the path and skittered into the ravine.
Nigel's heart stuttered. Someone was watching, he was sure of it. Despite the glacial evening air, perspiration slid down his neck. He squinted at the ruins. A whirring noise echoed as bats swarmed out of the cave and skimmed over the excavation pit. Nigel tipped back his fedora and watched them scatter into the bruised sky. He'd never seen large colonies in the Rhodopes, especially in November—why so many? And what had disturbed them?
His chest tightened and pain stitched down his left arm. Damned ruddy angina. He pulled off his gloves, pushed a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue, and hummed “God Save the Queen.” He'd come to Perperikon to clear his mind with clay idols and bronze arrows, but after a fortnight of digging, he'd found nothing but potsherds. A pity he couldn't stay in Bulgaria, but a distressing personal matter awaited him in England.
After the spasm passed, he lifted his backpack, climbed out of the pit, and hurried toward the path. He didn't notice the men until they stepped onto the flat boulders above him and stared down with toothy smiles. In the fading light, the duo resembled an Eastern European version of the Blues Brothers—sunglasses, skinny black ties, sport coats. Years ago, Nigel's niece had loved that old film, but the chaps on the rocks weren't cinema actors. They emanated a stygian stink, of earth and beetles and rot.
Steady, old boy.
The professor tipped his fedora and strode past the boulder, praying this would be the end of it. The men stood motionless until Nigel passed directly beneath their position, and then they moved swiftly. Too swiftly to see. He started to run, but a black haze blurred past him. Dust spiraled into the air as the men thudded onto the path.
Like the bats.
A twinge shot to Nigel's elbow and he grimaced.
“I'm looking for a British archaeologist,” the taller man said, each word drilled with a Balkan accent. The wind shifted, carrying the echo of a howling dog. The barbed notes sharpened, and a second animal moaned in the distance.
“How may I help you?” Nigel's breath stamped the air. His right knee shook violently, and the tip of his boot dented the rubble.
Not to worry, old boy. Not yet.
Though it could get sticky if these chaps were thieves.
The man glided forward, his coat rustling. “Where are you hiding your niece?”
Oh, no. Please, no.
Nigel's vision narrowed to an obsidian dot. “Sorry, I don't have a niece.”
“Yes, you do. Caroline Clifford stole ten pages from
Historia Immortalis.

The man knew her name, knew about the book. What were the odds? Nigel's jaw tightened and he nipped his tongue. If you didn't wish to grow old, if you preferred a short but interesting life, get yourself mixed up with
Historia Immortalis
. Each cursed page attracted death—ironic for a tome that celebrated immortality. Twenty years ago, Caro's parents had died because of it, and she'd barely escaped.
The tall fellow waved two long fingers. “Teo, check his backpack.”
Teo wrenched Nigel's bag from his shoulders. Everything spilled onto the path. Pens, documents, tools, medicine bottles, his tattered copy of Herodotus.
Blood oozed into Nigel's mouth. He swallowed, tasting the iron. Two decades of plotting and planning had just gone tits up, and this was how it would end? He gazed past the men, down the winding path. Could he make it down the mountain? He had to try. His need to protect Caro was stronger than life. Stronger than the threat of his own death.
Teo smashed Nigel's mobile phone against a rock, then lifted a medicine bottle. “Georgi, what is Warfarin? We can sell it, yes?”
“Take it.” Georgi waved his bony hand.
Teo kicked aside a British passport, reached for a tattered leather wallet, and pulled out a photograph. Nigel swallowed again as he gazed up at Caro's much-younger face. She was his heart, this clever slip of a girl. He remembered the day that picture had been taken and how she'd struggled to tame her wiry blond hair into a strict, shining knot.
“No niece?” Teo laughed and held up another snapshot. It had been taken a few months prior in London. Caro had grown into a beauty, all legs and cheekbones, with her mother's gray-blue eyes. The corkscrew curls were still incorrigible and tumbled past her shoulders. She was just like that hair, feisty and resilient, but she was no match for these fiends.
Georgi grabbed the picture and licked it. “Nice,” he said.
“Go after her,” Nigel said, “and you'll get a bite more than you can chew.”
Georgi shoved the photograph into his pocket and pulled out a knife. Teo knocked off Nigel's fedora, then threw him to the ground and pulled off his boots.
Nigel felt a violent tug on his ankle, as if a meat hook had snagged it. White-hot spasms pulsed in his heel, rippled into his calf, and throbbed behind his knee. He arched his back and screamed. Bile spurted through his teeth and splashed onto the rocks. Had they hacked off his leg? His head jerked convulsively as he glanced over his shoulder. Blood jetted from a gash above his heel. Dear God, they'd severed his Achilles tendon.
“He wails like a girl,” Teo said, then threw his weight onto the professor's legs. Georgi dragged the knife over Nigel's other tendon. A stinging burst of pain slammed into his groin. His bladder let go and warmth gushed down his thighs.
Damn them to hell.
To distract himself from the raw ache, he hummed “God Save the Queen.”
“Shut up, old man,” Georgi cried.
Nigel's lips wobbled, then he began to sing as loud as he could. “From every latent foe / From the assassins' blow / God save the Queen!”
And God save Caro, too.
Sour breath hit his face as the men fell on him, one on each side. His voice didn't falter until the men bit his neck. He tried to push them away but his arms wouldn't move. Even his feet went numb. A blessing.
Georgi veered away and spat onto the rocks. “Your blood tastes bitter.”
Teo jerked back and began dry-heaving onto the stones.
BOOK: Acquainted With the Night (9781101546000)
13.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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