Driving in the City
June 15, 8:17 a.m.
The passenger in the limousine rolled up his window as the tall American agent stepped out of the Starbox. The limousine idled one hundred feet down the side street, mostly hidden by a sidewalk stand selling dried lentils and wheat flour. The American agent looked up and down the street and then turned away and headed in the direction of the hotel district.
The passenger slid open the glass door between the front and rear seats. “Sefu, follow him. We need the name of his hotel but for God’s sake don’t let him see us.”
“Sir,” grunted the driver. Sefu was an Egyptian Christian who had worked for many years in this man’s service. He was not in the habit of letting anyone spot him when he tailed them, though he was circumspect enough not to say so. He put the car in drive and eased into traffic three cars back from the one closest to the American.
In the rear seat, Charles LaRoque, a French businessman and one of the world’s leading brokers of fine Persian rugs, pushed the button to close the soundproof glass partition. He cut a look at the rearview mirror to assure himself that the driver was not watching him, then he fished a small compact mirror out of his pocket. He opened it to reveal that both top and bottom held small mirrors. LaRoque studied his face in one mirror and then the other, back and forth for several moments, tilting the compact and changing his expression over and over again. A strange little laugh burbled from his chest.
“Delicious, delicious, delicious,” he said to the alternating images. There was so much to see there, so many faces. His father and his grandfather. The trickster and the priest. The Red Knights with their red mouths. The King of Thorns. It was all so very delicious.
“Oh yes it is,” LaRoque said, and laughed again.
A soft musical tone filled the car. Not the ringtone of his regular cell but the much more elaborate encrypted device given to him by a friend of his father’s.
“I’ll talk to you later,” LaRoque said to his mirror and shoved it back into his pocket, then closed his eyes and composed himself before he reached for the cell phone. When he opened his eyes he felt composed and ready to play his role.
“Yes?” he said into the phone, his tone serious and sober. Even so, LaRoque almost giggled and caught himself. He took a breath and forced himself to live his role. On this call, and in this matter, he was no longer Charles LaRoque. He was the Scriptor of the Ordo Ruber, the Sacred Red Order. The Scriptor did not giggle. The Scriptor was stern, decisive. That was how the old priest wanted him to play it.
“Was it Ledger?” asked Hugo Vox. “Was he there?”
“Yes,” confirmed LaRoque. “Just as you said.”
Vox laughed. He had a bass voice and a rumbling grizzly laugh. “What happened? What’d they talk about?”
“How would I know?” said LaRoque in a waspish voice. “I was outside in the bloody car, wasn’t I?”
“Charlie,” replied Vox with false patience, “don’t fuck with me. You heard every goddamn thing they said and we both know it.”
LaRoque cut a guilty look at the headphones lying next to him on the car seat. He debated lying to Vox. There was no strategic benefit to it, but lying was fun. But, he sighed instead and grunted. “I listened.”
“It wasn’t what we thought,” said LaRoque. “It had nothing to do with the Red Order or the Holy Agreement. Well, at least not much. Rasouli mentioned the Book and the Codex at the end, but he didn’t tell Ledger what they were.”
“Hunh. That’s interesting as shit,” said Vox sourly. “What did they talk about?”
“Some nonsense about bombs.”
“What kind of bombs?”
There was a heavy silence at the other end of the line. “Really.” Vox said it more like a statement than a question. “Tell me exactly what they said.”
As well as he could, LaRoque repeated the conversation between Jalil Rasouli and Captain Joe Ledger. Vox did not interrupt, and when LaRoque was done there was another ponderous silence.
“It’s not our concern,” LaRoque said into the silence.
“Yeah,” said Vox, “I think it fucking well is.”
“I don’t care about that sort of thing. All I care about is whether Rasouli signs the Holy Agreement so we can get back to business.”
“Seriously?” asked Vox. “I mean, holy shit, Charlie, I knew that you were no rocket scientist, kid, but I didn’t think you were actually challenged. Rasouli is bending you over a barrel and dropping his shorts.”
“You said that he gave a flash drive to Ledger. How do you know that it doesn’t have the whole damn story of the Agreement on it? It could have the name of every Scriptor and Murshid, every action taken by the Red Order and the Tariqa for the last eight hundred years. You gave Rasouli that information.”
“Not all of it,” LaRoque said defensively, and despite what he’d said to Vox he was beginning to think the uncouth American traitor might be correct.
“Enough of it, damn it. Enough to have you stood against a wall and shot. Christ, Charlie, if this gets out old ladies and nuns will want to cut your balls off, let alone the Americans and NATO. You should never have-”
“Stop lecturing me, Hugo. I don’t appreciate it and-”
“What would you prefer I do? Leave you to the wolves? Your father and grandfather were friends of mine. I made promises to them that I’d always be there for you, no matter what.”
“You mean, ‘no matter what silly insane Charles did’?”
“If the shoe fits, kid.”
LaRoque looked out the window, trying to catch his reflection in the smoked glass. He needed to see one of his other faces. One of the stronger ones. Or, maybe the face of the old priest. As the car rounded a corner to follow Ledger, LaRoque thought he caught a glimpse of the wizened features of the priest. Just a flash and then it was gone.
It was enough, though. It steadied him.
He drew a breath and let it out audibly. “Very well, Hugo. What do you advise?”
“Good,” Vox said, and LaRoque wondered if the American had also seen the priest. Could Vox do that, he wondered. Did the priest appear to everyone? Or to a chosen few? Or just to him?
“Let’s go on the assumption that Rasouli gave Ledger information that could hurt the Order,” said Vox. “Start there ’cause that gives us a game plan for safety.”
“What plan is that?”
“A very simple one because we need to do two things and they can both be done at the same time,” said Vox. “We have to get the flash drive back and we have to kill Joe Ledger.”
Vox paused. “To start, yeah. Then we have to decide what to do about-”
Suddenly Vox’s words disintegrated into a terrible fit of wet coughs. Vicious coughs that broke from deep in his chest. The coughing fit lasted nearly a full minute before winding down to gasps. When he could finally speak, Vox cursed.
“Good lord, Hugo, are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, shit,” Vox wheezed. “These chemo treatments are kicking my ass.”
The Scriptor took a moment to make sure that his voice was filled with concern, even if his mouth was trembling with a smile. “Are you in much pain?”
“I’m sorry.” He almost said, “Oh, goody.”
“Yeah, well. Life’s a bitch and then you’re dead for a long time.” Vox cleared his throat. “Look, the bottom line is that you have to get that flash drive back and you have to do it right fucking now.”
“Why the hurry? I looked him up in our database and he appears to have been competent, yes, but not-”
“Don’t be an idiot. You only have his army and police records. I’ll send you his DMS file. It makes interesting reading.”
“You’re saying he’s a threat?”
“I’m saying that he’s Mr. Church’s pet psychopath. Don’t underestimate him. Ledger’s a weird cat, but he’s sharp and he is fucking relentless. He’s also got some freaky mojo.”
“Luck. Son of a bitch is either lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it, but he always seems to be in the thick of things. Should have been dead a dozen times, but even though bodies stack up around him the cocksucker keeps finding a way through to the other side.”
“An angel in his pocket?” mused LaRoque. He looked down in surprise to find that his hand held the little compact mirror even though he had no memory of removing it from his pocket. He watched as his manicured thumbnail popped it open.
“You need to send a knight after him,” said Vox, and LaRoque almost dropped the compact.
“What? No. You have whole teams of Sabbatarians in Tehran-”
“Forget those fruitcakes. Ledger would have them for lunch.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“I’m not. Ledger and his team dismantled my Kingsmen last year, and no one’s ever done that before. And I have it on good authority that Ledger beat Rafael Santoro one-on-one.”
That made the Scriptor pause. Santoro was the chief assassin of the Seven Kings, a man whose utter ruthlessness was only equaled by his nearly matchless skills as a combatant. Santoro was one of the very few ordinary men who might stand a chance against a knight. Not a full-blooded knight, of course, but one of the trainees.
“Ledger killed Santoro?”
“I… don’t know,” admitted Vox. “All I know is that they fought and then Santoro was gone, off the radar. And it’s not the first time Ledger’s beaten the odds. Don’t risk a Sabbatarian team. You have the Red Knights. Use one of them.”
The Scriptor looked at the two aspects of his face in the mirror, angling the compact one way and then the other, back and forth as the silence grew. The bottom mirror showed his own weak mouth, the top showed his indecisive eyes.
“Charlie-?” prompted Vox.
LaRoque flipped the mirrors forward and back, over and over again until the top image changed. From one heartbeat to the next the image changed from his own reflection to the face of the priest. Wrinkled skin, a slash of a cruel mouth, and eyes that were a strange swirl of colors-leprous brown and ophidian green.
Do it, whispered the voice in his mind. The voice of the priest.
LaRoque took a steadying breath. “Very well, Hugo, I’ll do it. I hope you appreciate the great faith I’m showing by trusting you.”
A snort of laughter came down the line. “You’re showing great intelligence by trusting me.”
“Others might disagree, considering what happened to your organization.”
“Nothing happened that I didn’t want to happen,” Vox said with a little edge to his voice. “I used Ledger and Church to turn a losing situation into a winning one.”
“Am I in jail? Am I dead? Fuck no. Did I stroll away with a hundred billion dollars in numbered accounts? You bet your left nut I did. Am I still raking in about a couple of mil a week from that shit? You can bet your right nut on that one. So, yeah, I put the DMS to work for me and they don’t even know it.”
“Not even Church?”
“Maybe Church,” Vox conceded after some thought, “but he can’t do jack shit about it. He can’t want to kill me more than he already does. So, call me when Ledger’s dead.”
For several moments LaRoque held the phone to his ear with his right hand and stared at the face of the priest in the compact mirror he held in his left.
Then it was gone. LaRoque blinked. The mirror now held only his own reflection.
“You made the right choice,” said the priest.
The Scriptor slowly raised his eyes and stared at the wizened figure who now sat across from him in the back of the limousine. The priest had eyes the color of toad flesh, and his skin was as sallow and thin as old parchment. When he smiled, his teeth were white and wet.
Charles LaRoque smiled back.
“Thank you, Father Nicodemus,” he said.