Read Cradle of Solitude Online

Authors: Alex Archer

Cradle of Solitude (6 page)

8

About the time that Annja was examining the sword, Blaine Michaels, a direct descendant of the man who had fired the shot that had taken Captain Parker's life, received a phone call at home from the same computer technician he'd spoken to earlier that afternoon.

The information he received was more complete this time around, outlining what had happened in the tunnels earlier that morning.

“You're certain that they said the skeleton came from inside the catacombs and not the Metro tunnel itself?”

“Yes, sir.”

Michaels grunted, most decidedly not thrilled with those circumstances.

“And the Creed woman?”

“Because the skeleton was dressed in the uniform of a U.S. soldier, the police contacted the embassy and asked to have a representative present. Apparently the Creed woman was suggested by someone on the ambassador's staff and was brought in to represent their interests.”

He didn't bother to correct the misinformation in his subordinate's report; he had better things to do with his time than explain the difference between the Confederate States and the United States. It was the fact that they had discovered the body at all that had him on edge.

He didn't exactly know why. After all, the body had been down there in the dark for more than a hundred years. There was nothing that could tie his family or the organization as a whole to the crime, if it could even be called a crime at this point, and there was little enough to be done even if they could.

Relax, he told himself.

But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't. After struggling against it for some time, he got up and made his way to his study. Locking the door behind him, he moved over to the safe, knelt in front of it and dialed the combination lock. Opening the door, he reached deep into the back, past the stacks of cash and bearer bonds, and took out his great-grandfather's journal.

The old man had recorded the events of the night in question in considerable detail, just as he'd been taught to do. As the current head of the society, Blaine had done the same thing himself many times, making note of the steps he'd taken and the motivations behind them so that the one who followed in his footsteps—his son, most likely—would understand how those actions fit into the society's long-term plans.

He wasn't troubled by what had happened that day, at least with regard to the actions the society had taken. Anyone who crossed them would meet a similar fate. No, what was troubling were the goals they'd failed to meet—namely, determining where the traitor had hidden the treasure promised to them. His great-grandfather had been unable to force the information from the
traitor before killing him and all of their searches to date had ended with nothing to show for them.

Blaine Michaels had been haunted all his life by his great-grandfather's failure. Those in the society had long memories and there had been considerable opposition to his rise to power as the group's current leader, but he'd been determined to win back the position of power his great-grandfather had forfeited in the face of his failure.

More importantly, he was determined not to let history repeat itself.

And that, he realized, was the source of his unease.

He couldn't seem to shake the feeling that there was something they had missed that night, something that might have provided the clue they needed to figure out just where the treasure had been hidden.

Blaine knew that the original meeting had quickly devolved into an argument, which in turn led to violence. A running gun battle through the catacombs had ended with both men wounded, the traitor mortally so. Time had been of the essence in getting his great-grandfather to safety. Afterward, there was confusion about where, exactly, the traitor's body had been left behind and the searches that followed had been unable to locate it in the hundreds of miles of twisting tunnels beneath the Paris streets. Eventually, his great-grandfather had been forced to step down from the position of leadership and the incident had been swept under the rug as a total failure.

But now, it seemed, there was a chance to correct the errors of the past. If the body held information that might lead them to the missing treasure, then he couldn't afford to pass up the chance to find it.

Decisive action. Yes, that's exactly what the situation needed.

Satisfied he'd come to the right conclusion, he reached for the phone.

 

D
ECIDING TO CALL IT
a night, Annja and Bernard gathered all the notes and photographs they'd produced during the day, transferred them to Bernard's office down the hall and then locked the lab behind them. “Tomorrow morning, then?” Bernard asked.

“Sounds good,” Annja replied. “And give some more thought to getting me in to see the abbot, will you?”

Bernard smiled. “Your persistence is what makes you such a good archaeologist,” he said, and then, before she could object to his playful teasing, he added, “but yes, I will. You have my word.”

Satisfied, she rode the elevator up to the ground floor. The museum had closed for the day and the halls were empty and silent around her. She paused for a moment at the entrance to a hall devoted to Egyptian artifacts, breathing in all the history that surrounded her, and was struck with the odd sense of being at home.

Yeah, and if you don't get out and have a life one of these days, you'll end up a stuffed mummy just like those in there, she thought wryly.

She'd been working straight through since leaving the dojo earlier that morning and only had a few more nights left to enjoy Paris, so it was time to get out and see the sights.

No sooner had she decided to take a break, however, than she found her thoughts returning to the whereabouts of the missing bullet. The gunshot wound had almost certainly killed Captain Parker and it should have been there with his remains. Not having the bul
let irked her; it was like finishing a puzzle only to find out that you're missing one last little piece. It was a tiny detail, she knew, but an important one, and she was just detail-oriented enough to want to put it to rest.

You've spent all day on this, she thought, what's another hour or so?

The spent bullet was probably lying on the floor of the chamber near the wall against which Parker's skeleton had been resting. It shouldn't be all that hard to find.

Go on, take a quick look. If you find it, great, and if not, at least you'll know you gave it a shot, she thought.

Decision made, she caught a cab over to the Metro station they'd used to gain access to the catacombs earlier that day. The trains were still being rerouted around the station due to the construction and so her footsteps echoed off the walls as she descended the steps.

A uniformed police officer was waiting for her at the turnstiles, alerted to her presence by the noise of her footsteps. Obviously bored with the duty he'd been assigned, he told her the station was closed and only looked up at her when she thrust the pass under his nose that she'd been given by Laroche.

“You'll be wanting to go into the tunnels, then?” he asked.

“Yes, I shouldn't be long.”

“But it's after dark.”

Annja didn't see how that was relevant. She was going underground, where it was always dark. What difference did it make that the sun had gone down?

Rather than get into it with him, though, she simply said, “Yes, it is,” and smiled sweetly at him, hoping her charm would get him to open the gate.

What she really wanted to do was to laugh at his
superstitious attitude, for the things she'd faced since acquiring her sword made the idea of roaming around in the tunnels beneath the Paris city streets seem like child's play, but she knew that doing so would kill any chance she had of getting through the gate.

Thankfully, her official pass seemed to be enough. He gave her a look that clearly said he thought she had a few screws loose upstairs but he didn't say anything as he unlatched the gate and let her in.

She jogged through the station and down to the same platform where Laroche had taken her. Arming herself with a lantern just as they had earlier in the day, she climbed down onto the tracks and set off toward the break in the tunnel that marked the entrance to the catacombs.

More sawhorses had been set out at the site since she'd been there earlier, their blinking orange lights bouncing down the tunnel and letting her know she was getting close. She followed the glow like a trail of bread crumbs until she reached the spot where the workers had broken through into the older passageway inside the catacombs.

She was relieved to see the ladder she'd used earlier was still in place and she quickly descended into the lower tunnel. At the bottom of the ladder she paused, glancing back up the way she had come. For a moment she thought she'd heard something, but the sound didn't repeat itself.

Probably just a rat, she thought, and shuddered.

She brushed it off and continued on her way.

The cemented tunnel had given way at the bottom of the ladder to the smooth limestone of the catacombs themselves. The antechamber where they had found Parker's remains was just ahead and she found herself
hurrying the last few dozen feet to its entrance, eagerness spreading through her veins like a drug. As she entered the room the thousands of skulls stared back at her, eerie in their eternal silence, but her attention was solely focused on what she'd come here to find and she barely noticed.

She moved over to the spot where the skeleton had been found and got down on her hands and knees. Resting the flashlight on the floor so that its beam filtered across the area she intended to search, she began hunting for the missing bullet. When she'd gone over the entire area in one direction, she went back again in the other, crisscrossing her initial efforts so she could be assured that she hadn't missed a spot.

When that failed to turn up what she was looking for, she moved her attention over to the wall against which Captain Parker's remains had rested. Perhaps the shot that had killed him had actually passed through his body completely, even though they hadn't found evidence of an exit wound. It was something that wasn't completely outrageous if it had happened at close range. Perhaps the bullet had embedded itself in the wall instead of falling to the floor when the body decayed.

Searching the wall, however, proved to be much harder than the floor. Comprised as it was of hundreds of human skulls, there were too many nooks and crannies and shadowed surfaces that could be hiding the impact point of the bullet. With just the beam of her flashlight to illuminate the wall's surface, there was no way she was going to find something that small amid all the stacked human bones.

Better to come back in the daytime with a team of grad students and a full bank of lights, she told herself, and decided to really call it quits for the night. The beam
of her flashlight swept across the floor as she turned away and out of the corner of her eye she caught the glint of something reflecting back at her.

She turned in that direction and carefully made her way forward, shining the beam of her flashlight ahead of her, searching for whatever it was. When she reached the wall she slowly spun in a circle, still searching, knowing that whatever it was had to be here somewhere.

It couldn't just get up and walk out on its own.

There!

It was a heavy gold signet ring set with a dark colored stone. It was lying on the floor near the wall directly across from where they had found Parker's remains and it was partially obscured by the collapse of several loose bones, which explained why she and the rest of Bernard's team had missed it.

She kept the flashlight beam trained on it as she walked over, not wanting to lose sight of it, and then bent to pick it up.

She turned as she straightened up, ring in hand, and she caught sight of the dark form standing behind her. He was so close and it was so unexpected that she flinched back in surprise.

The move saved her.

The fist that came hurtling out of the darkness struck her on the edge of the jaw rather than in the center of her throat, where it would have crushed her larynx. Instead, the force of the blow picked her up and flung her backward, tossing her against the carefully piled bones lining the wall behind her. The whole mess came tumbling down around her in a hard rain, bones bouncing off her head and shoulders in an unyielding waterfall that threatened to knock her unconscious.

She knew if that happened it was all over, so she
fought back against the grayness threatening her sight and struggled to extricate herself from the jumbled pile of human bones.

The scrape of a shoe against the stone floor let her know her attacker was moving toward her. She had seconds at best, but the fall had knocked the wind out of her and the blow to the head had her thoughts ringing like a church bell in a steeple, messing with her concentration.

Get up!
her mind screamed at her, but it was like swimming against the current, her body not quite obeying the commands her mind was giving.

In the darkness she sensed rather than saw a dark shape bending over her and the sudden spike of adrenaline that poured into her system wiped away the haze.

Her right hand folded around the hilt of a sword that hadn't been there seconds before as she willed it into existence from the otherwhere. She swung out with a savage yell like that of a falcon on the hunt. The sword slashed, almost with a mind of its own, and she felt it slice through the flesh of the man's arm.

Blood splashed across her face and whoever it was howled in pain and drew back, giving Annja the time and space she needed to scramble to her feet. She kicked away the bones of some forgotten French citizens as she did so, wanting solid ground beneath her already shaky feet for the fight to come.

Ambushing a woman in the dark was one thing but fighting that same woman, now angry and armed with a sword she knew how to use with a finesse born of hours of practice, was something else. Rather than move in and press his advantage, her attacker turned and ran, his footfalls echoing off the stone around them.

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