Samuels did not bother with the hooded cloak this time, but otherwise he performed the preparations for his ritual in exactly the same manner as before. The victim had been bound in the harness straps on the stone table for almost eighteen hours, and although she had been carefully covered with a warm robe, she was thoroughly chilled when Samuels arrived to do his business.
There were two differences, however, between today’s macabre display and his last one. One, he was not transmitting the show to anyone else. And two, he had an actual live observer in the chamber with him.
Boyd Ranney, bound and gagged and sitting in a chair about ten feet away from the table/altar that held the woman captive, was attempting to look away, but a neck brace had been fashioned to prevent him from turning his head. Now he was holding his eyes tightly shut, as Samuels began to prepare for the final acts.
“Mr. Ranney, you are privileged to witness a very powerful life-drama. Please don’t spoil it by attempting to close your eyes. If you persist, I will happily staple your eyelids to your forehead. This is not a threat, Mr. Ranney. If you continue this behavior, I will do that. No more warnings. You are a trained observer. Now observe.”
Ranney had been in this position for many hours now. He had been given water several times, but the tightness of his bindings and the rigidity of his position had long since made him numb all over. It was clear he did not doubt Samuels’ words. He immediately opened his eyes.
With his observer properly motivated, Samuels went through his ritual, baring the woman’s body, showing her the large knife with its spear point blade and highly decorated handle, and then, one by one, making the precisely located stab wounds.
As with the others, the woman’s fear and panic increased until it could increase no more. By wound number seven, she was at such a state of fright that she actually lost consciousness. Samuels, obviously prepared for such a reaction, produced a small vial, quickly broke it, and passed it under her nose. When he was satisfied that she was conscious again, he carefully put the broken vial in his pocket. He then completed the final thrust, directly into her heart.
Boyd Ranney, for all his brash toughness, was unable to hold back the rising gorge in his throat. Had not Samuels removed his gag, he would have choked to death on his own vomit.
“Tsk, tsk, Mr. Ranney. You insisted on being involved in my business, did you not? Please don’t wimp out now. That’s the correct expression, isn’t it? Wimp out? When you forced your way into my shop last night, you were quite full of yourself and your own importance in this world. Had your fill of it, have you?”
Ranney was just barely capable of nodding his head. His convulsing stomach was empty now, but it kept pumping away, sending up bile or nothing at all.
“You know, I made an effort to turn you away, but you were very insistent. So here we are. I decided that you might be quite useful in documenting and reporting what happened here. After all, you have a ready-made venue for your stories, you are trained as an observer and reporter, and you have expressed an interest in my activities. So I imagined that you could become a useful ally. In exchange for your own life, of course. But I think I was mistaken. I know you aren’t entirely trustworthy. I’ve been reading your stories. But I thought, naively I suppose, that I could use your talents at minimal risk to myself.”
Ranney forced himself to speak. His throat, sore from the retching and from the prolonged use of the gag, let out only croaking sounds for several seconds. Finally he was able to form words.
“You can trust me.”
Samuels shook his head. “I doubt that, dear boy. I do doubt that.”
“Just tell me what you want published. I’ll do it.”
“It’s a long, complicated story. In spite of what you might be imagining right now, there is a purpose for this. It is not killing for killing’s sake, although I’m sure you would find that difficult to believe. But no matter. Your usefulness has been called into question, and I must say, my plan to employ you does seem a trifle presumptuous.”
“Then why make me see this murder?” There was hope in Ranney’s voice now, faint to be sure, but hope.
“Ego, I suppose. Even I like to have my work admired occasionally. Job done well, that sort of thing. But I can see that your appreciation was lacking.”
“Why do you kill these women? Are you insane or something?”
Samuels chuckled. “I thought I might have been able to explain it all to you, and then you would appreciate the care I’ve taken, my thoroughness, as it were. But it was not to be.”
“Explain what to me?”
Samuels shrugged. “Perhaps a little information would help you. Just a little. These were not randomly chosen victims. They were quite special. And the ritual killing was not for pleasure. It was the only way to save them. Part of them, anyway.”
In spite of the long hours of being constrained, and the terrible effect the murder had had on his stomach, Ranney was intrigued.
“You had to stab her eight times to be sure she would be saved? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.”
“Your sarcasm is returning. Feeling better?”
“I feel like shit. How about untying me. I promise I’ll behave.”
“Not very likely, I’m afraid. As I suspected, you can’t appreciate my act without a full background. Suffice it to say that this isn’t about cruelty, or depravity, or even ritual murder. It’s about cleaning up a long-standing genetic error and recovering assets. And that’s all you get. I hope it helps.”
Ranney watched silently as Samuels went behind his chair. He seemed convinced he was being untied, right up until he felt his neck brace being removed and Samuels’ powerful arms surrounding his neck and head.
That was the last sensation he ever had.
Ceil had spent a long afternoon cleaning and oiling her arsenal. Not that it had been neglected. In the nearly twenty years since her retirement from active service, she had never allowed the various weapons to gather any rust. Most of the weapons she used at least once a year, and she was religious about proper maintenance. Like a well trained GI, she could field strip any one of the handguns in a matter of seconds and reassemble each in less than half a minute. Once, on a bet with Carl, she had stripped and reassembled two randomly chosen nine millimeters in less than two minutes, total, blind folded.
Now she took the opportunity to think through the past few days’ activities as her hands performed the disassembly, cleaning and reassembly tasks. She did not hurry, rather allowing her mind to wander freely while her hands worked expertly.
The whole business of extrasensory perception bothered her, as it always had. She had been a clever and effective agent, and had trained herself to notice things other people never would. This was a learned skill, however, one that required endless practice and strict focus. Never once had she ever “seen” or “previewed” an event before it happened. Never once had she benefited from a sixth sense. She was good at her craft, but at no time had she been able to count on extra powers to pull her butt out of a tight spot. She was smart, she was focused, she was even ruthless, but she was not gifted in any supernatural way.
Somewhere deep in her psyche, she had always resented Silvia’s gifts. She loved Silvia, would die for Silvia if it came to that, but it never seemed quite fair to her that she worked her buns off to stay on top of her game, and Silvia just had to tune in to her extra sense to see things Ceil never would see.
She could appreciate Carl’s brilliance, even if she couldn’t understand how his mind could work like that. In spite of years of focused special training in codes and ciphers, she was a total zero when it came to discerning the incredibly subtle and devious patterns that Carl found so intriguing, and so easy to crack.
So now, along comes a total stranger who runs a second-hand shop, and he is able to communicate without words, not only with Silvia (no surprise), but with her own niece Jennifer! And again, she was the only trained and field experienced person among them, and as usual, her ESP was non-existent.
Something was very wrong with this picture. She was the trained spook (OK, had been a trained spook), and they were getting all the messages. Jennifer and Silvia were flighty, sensitive women who wouldn’t survive half a day in her old world, yet they had the special gifts.
She caught herself at this point. Both Jennifer and Silvia were in the hospital at this very moment. Jennifer’s brush with death had been almost painless, and she didn’t remember any of it, yet she bore the eight knife pricks on her chest. Silvia’s encounters were far more punishing. It would seem that Silvia’s very gift was being used against her. The evil Samuels was apparently able to use his own gifts to interfere with her breathing and, perhaps, her heart function.
Maybe being normal wasn’t such a curse after all. Ceil shook her head and focused on completing her maintenance tasks quickly. She had never been one for deep analysis. For her, action had always been a cure for situations. She would willingly leave the deep thinking and psychic crap to others. Carl and Silvia were welcome to their gifts. Jennifer, if she indeed had gifts, was another matter. In her heart, she hoped Jennifer’s special talents were minimal. If the past few days were any measure of their usefulness, she’d be better off without them.
And that left Steven. She had managed to push the image of his broken body to the back of her mind for the afternoon. She wondered, briefly, if a cleanup team from her old employer would be willing to pick him up and relocate him. Probably. If Carl did the asking, and they could create an acceptable rationale, they might be willing to help. Otherwise, she and Carl would have a serious disposal problem on their hands. Difficult, but not impossible. An accidental fall, staged at a suitable location, would be best. The problem was that the corpse was aging rapidly, and an autopsy would show that the damage from a fall would postdate death.
Not to worry. If the cleanup team was available to them, it would work out. Those people were magicians, in a macabre sort of way.
Disposal was an inconvenience, at worst. The real issue was why Samuels had left him here in the first place. And that presented a host of other questions. Why kill Steven? He’d made it seem like a favor to her, getting rid of a nuisance to her and Jennifer. And how did Samuels crack her secret room so easily? That was spooky.
The bastard was playing with her. He’d informed the police about the body, probably just to see if she could deal with it without getting arrested.
Her arsenal was functional once again, and she was remounting all the weapons onto their places on the wall when the phone rang.
“Ceil, I need you at the hospital now. Silvia is dying.”
Ceil’s heart almost stopped. “Slow down, Carl. I’ll be there in twenty minutes. How’d this happen?”
“Same thing as this morning. First her breathing, then as she struggled for air, her heart just stopped. They have the crash cart in there now.”
Ceil felt a coldness over her whole body. “And Jennifer?”
“She’s OK. Must be Samuels. The on-call medics can’t find any internal causes for Silvia. Come now, Ceil.”
“I’m on the way. Don’t let her die!” She hung up and reached for the H and K nine-millimeter she had just cleaned. She grabbed three full clips from the table and dropped all of the items into her handbag. Then she raced for the door.
Ceil entered Sylvia’s crowded room and tried to make her way through to her bedside. She was stopped by a large male nurse, who wasted no time letting her know she wasn’t supposed to be here.
“You can’t be in here. Go to the visitor’s lounge down the hall. Someone will contact you.”
Ceil could see Carl standing in the far corner of the room. “I’m a relative. I’m staying. I’ll stay out of the way.” She tried to squeeze past the scruffy looking man, who promptly grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her off her feet. He was in the process of moving her toward the door when she reached into his armpit and found a grip.
He immediately turned pale and dropped her, but she held onto the nerve ends on his left side.
He was about to drop to his knees, all sense of time and place gone, when she released him, smiling. “I’ll just wait over in that corner, with that gray haired man there. Thank you for your help, young man.”
When she moved past him this time, he did nothing to try to stop her. For several seconds, he seemed not to know where he was. When he did recover, Ceil was out of his line of sight, and he didn’t seem to care. Fortunately he was only a crash cart orderly, and had no real function once he had delivered the heavily loaded cart to the attending physicians.
“Is she responding?” Ceil had to grip Carl’s hand hard to get his attention. “Is she responding, Carl?”
Carl seemed distant, pre-occupied, but he made the effort to bring himself out of it.
“Her vital signs come back, then she stops breathing again. She’s alive, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the doctors. She seems to have normal vital signs one minute, then no signs the next. They’ve given her enough drugs and shocks to revive an elephant. Too much, if I’m any judge, but they don’t have a clue about what’s happening to her. When her pulse and breathing return, they’re completely normal. Then they just stop, without warning. Then they come back.”
Ceil’s eyes narrowed. “Samuels. He’s doing this to her. He’s showing us that he can completely control us. Or her, anyway. How can we shut him out?”
Carl shook his head. “Can’t. We don’t know if it’s electromagnetic, or mind control, or what. He seems to be able to switch her central nervous system on and off like a lamp. Never heard or read about anything like this. Voodoo. He has a Silvia doll and he can do whatever he wants to her. I take it you haven’t been able to find him yet.”
Ceil sighed. “Nope, but I’d better do it fast, or we’re all going to die.”
Carl turned and looked at her. “He’s beyond our skills, Ceil. If he can do this to Silvia, maybe he can do it to us too. You get near him and he might be able to stop your heart too.”
Ceil again shook her head. “He’d have done it by now if he could. Silvia is a one-in-a-million empath. That’s why he’s able to do this to her. I’m about as empathic as a slug. He’ll have to deal with me in some other way.”
Ceil shrugged. “Don’t care. If he can do this to me, he will. If he can’t I’ll put enough bullets into him that he won’t hurt any of us anymore.”
Silvia had been breathing normally for several minutes now, and the STAT team was beginning to pack up their gear.
“I’m going to see Jennifer. She was surprisingly upbeat when I left her. If that detective didn’t drive her crazy, maybe I can probe her a little about how Samuels got into her place and killed Bob. She might know more about what happened than she realizes. You coming?”
“No. Better I stay here with Silvia. Just in case Samuels isn’t finished with her.”
“Right. I’ll come by your place tonight. Where’s your bodyguard?”
“Babysitter. Down the hall. You want me to go with you to Samuels’ place?”
“Not this time. He probably won’t be there anyway.”
She walked past the crash cart orderly, who gave her the strangest look but did not speak to her.
Jennifer’s room was on the same floor, off another corridor. Ceil slipped silently into the room, her eyes moving quickly from her sleeping niece to the monitor on the wall. All signs appeared to be normal, the pulse rate a comforting sixty-five beats per minute, blood pressure well within normal range.
Without warning, the monitor sounded an alarm, and the trace that indicated heart beat flat lined.
Ceil left Bellevue just after four p.m., just as the late October sun was ducking behind Manhattan’s skyline. She passed the taxi line without a second thought. The walk and the crisp air would help her clear her head.
She inventoried her emotions quickly, and was mildly pleased to find that she no longer regarded Jennifer as a precious object to be jealously protected. That was good. It was a step in the direction of rationality, rather than the cloying sentimentality that had been her companion since this mess with Samuels began.
In spite of Jennifer’s (and Silvia’s) current trauma, Ceil felt her old professionalism returning. Or maybe it was because of what was happening to them. She had done her utmost to protect them, and they were still under attack. So be it. They were both showing normal signs now, or were when she left the hospital, and that had nothing to do with her efforts. Fix what you can, and ignore all else. That had been her mantra during her productive years.
She was aware of how far she had slipped in recent years. She had become something of a caricature of her former self. The stimulation of a demanding job and a continuous element of danger had made her…..relevant. That was it. She mattered then. When that job ended, she had filled her life with banal and superficial activities. Making money had been amusing, and keeping herself somewhat competent had offered moments of relief, but for the most part, she had….decayed. She knew it was true. She had suddenly become irrelevant, and instead of finding a new way to matter, she had decayed. Her outrageous clothes and her New York hair and makeup had been diversions, nothing more. Silliness to fill the days while she waited…..for what?
For something like this. Her fantasy had been that her employers would call her back. They would come up against a situation that needed her special skills, and they would be forced to ask her to return. To pick up where she’d left off, ferreting out the other side’s agents and messing up their plans.
Of course, the other side had done the same as her side—retired all the old war-horses. It was a different game now—she knew that. Her blunt force style was no longer in demand. Now it was about trade, not tradecraft. The USSR’s sudden demise had put an end to colonialism, and indirectly to the kind of spy work that went along with it. Today’s explosive situations were about countries of color, and a blonde-haired blue-eyed female with an uncontrollable trigger finger was of little use there.
She had been perfect for her era. She had lived for nearly fifteen years on a high wire with no net. She had survived, even excelled. And when it was over, it was over forever. And life became—unimportant.
So now there was Samuels, and suddenly she was needed again. She was fifty-six years old, she was still a formidable warrior, and she had a real enemy again.
By the time she reached her apartment building, she was smiling. Silvia and Jennifer were not the targets here—they were just the opening salvos, the pawns, in a new war, and come what may, including her own death if it came to that, she was glad to be back in the trenches! Glad—she was surely more than that. She was—excited!
She took the stairs up to her floor two at a time, her senses alert, her breathing barely elevated. She instantly saw the small package on the floor outside her door and, almost without her knowing it, her weapon was in her hand. She moved forward carefully, but there was no one else in the corridor.
The package had her name on it, in Samuels’ fancy script. It occurred to her that the package might be booby trapped, but she rejected that almost at once. Samuels was many things, but he wasn’t a man who needed to blow up his enemies remotely. She knew instinctively that when he killed, he needed to be looking in his victim’s eyes. Up close.
Still, her training made her conduct a quick search of the apartment, including the hidden chamber. Nothing was out of place.
She placed the neatly taped box on her kitchen counter. It was about one foot on a side, a cube, with no apparent marking other than her name in script. Without further thought, she cut the tapes that bound it.
On the top, there was a note. She recognized the florid handwriting immediately. Samuels.
It occurred to me that you would enjoy these trinkets. The first three have been in my possession since each was used by its original owner. If you think back, you will remember your dream about these things. The fourth is a special treat for you. If you (with your friend Carl’s help) can open the box, you will be rewarded with information that will astound you.
We are closer to our destiny than you might imagine, Ceil. Don’t be impatient. It will come soon enough.
Ceil removed the first item from the box. It was a simple sliver of wood, about six inches long by an inch on each side. It had been gouged out of a larger piece, and no effort had been made to smooth or finish it. It was wrapped in a very old, coarsely woven swatch of fabric, and it included a piece of paper with Samuels’ handwriting on it.
“Cypress. From the cross on Golgotha. Removed shortly before Christ was moved to the tomb. The fabric is from Christ’s robe.”
Ceil’s mouth dropped open. She considered the piece of wood briefly, then put it aside. The Company’s lab could date it to within ten years of the time if had been cut. It looked old, for sure, but not two thousand years old. Easy to verify.
The second item was a simple gold cross. It was not in good condition at all. It had clearly been in a fire, and no effort had been made to repair or restore it.
The note with this one read:
“Joan d’Arcy wore this when she was burned at the stake, May 30, 1431. It was removed from the ashes immediately after. Note the inscription.”
Ceil was momentarily lost in thought. What was Samuels doing here? Were these things real? If so, they were literally priceless. Any collector would pay a king’s ransom for any one of them.
She shook her head. Easy enough to verify, with her resources. The Company’s resources, anyway. She looked briefly at the cross again. She could make out only a word or two of the inscription, but she knew that the rest of it would come up under proper lab inspection. She could wait.
The third item surprised her. Not that the first two hadn’t, of course. This one was a brass maritime instrument, clearly very old, yet it appeared to be in working condition. She searched her mind for the name of the piece, but drew a blank. The note read:
“Chris. Columbus used this on his first voyage to the New World. In spite of its crude appearance, it guided him across 2600 miles of uncharted ocean. Note the maker’s marks inside the framework.”
Ceil stared at it, open disbelief on her face. “Yeah, right. If you believe that, I have a bridge you might be interested in. Carl can put the lie to this one. His collection of reference works on early navigation devices is one of the best in the world. Chris Columbus my ass.”
She put the Astrolabe (the word came to her suddenly, unbidden) aside and looked into the box. Now there was only one item left, and she removed it carefully. It was a simple metal block, about two inches on a side. It had slightly rounded corners, and the metal, which was quite heavy, was a soft dove gray color. To her surprise, it was warm to the touch.
The note said:
“Open me if you can, and all will be revealed. You may proceed without fear. My owner was Longinus, not Pandora.”
Not what the hell was this all about? She recognized the reference to Pandora, and knew it was meant to reassure her that no evils lurked inside. But who the hell was Longinus? And how was she supposed to open it? Try as she might, she could not see a seam or a crack where the block could be opened. It appeared to be solid metal.
“Carl, I need some help here. Devon Samuels may not be as easy to defeat as I have thought.”