When Dante Alighieri wrote his guided tour of Hell one of the stops was the infernal city of Dis: the home of Pandemonium, all of the demons. Dante’s a great source if you want to figure out whether being an adulterer is better or worse than being an oathbreaker, but he doesn’t have the authority of Gospel. Dante said that the lowest circle of Hell is frozen, for example. Me, I don’t believe it.
Newark, New Jersey, isn’t the City of Dis, but it could play the part on TV without having to spend a lot of time in rehearsals. By day Newark’s crowded and noisy and polluted, full of too many people going places too fast in pursuit of money or power or pleasure. By night it’s all that and dark as well, with danger waiting in the shadows to catch the unwary.
I’d just finished a job in Canada, checking out a report of Black Masses being celebrated, and was on a get-well tour in New York, staying in a midtown Manhattan hotel and waiting for the stitches to come out. Breakfast was Eggs Benedict. When I’m on the Temple’s expense account I don’t spare my coronary arteries.
Yeah, I’m a Knight of Temple. We didn’t go away in the fourteenth century, no matter what Philip the Fair tried to pull. The Order has a mission and we’re carrying it out. To protect holy places, travelers in holy places, and certain relics. Straightforward. You’d think that people would let us just get on with it.
But no. Warrior monks make too good a target, especially when they’ve got a lot of assets and the King of France doesn’t. So it was accusations of witchcraft, sodomy, and sacrilege; confiscation of worldly goods, the thumbscrew and the stake; and time for all good little Templars to find urgent business abroad. But that’s all ancient history — Anno Domini 1307, to be exact — and this story is about now.
I was finishing up my breakfast coffee when a businessman came in — Armani suit, silk tie, leather briefcase — and sat in the chair opposite me, and curled his fingers on the table in one of the recognition patterns. I didn’t really need it. I recognized him as one my poor fellow soldiers among the three-and-thirty, the innermost circle of the Temple. He went by the name of Gabriel Gleason, and I was too polite to raise an eyebrow at the moniker. He had ID saying that’s who he was, just like I have ID that says my name is Peter Crossman. Truth and reality can be such slippery things.
I gave the countersign and signaled the waiter for a cup of coffee for my friend.
“Somebody loves you, Peter,” Gabriel said as soon as the coffee arrived for him and my own cup got topped off.
“How do you mean?”
“You’ve picked up an easy mission. Been reading the papers?”
“Looked at CNN. What’s up?”
“Hear about the UN peacekeeping team that got kidnapped in Jerusalem a couple of weeks back?”
“Landed in our laps?”
“Where else.” He stirred his coffee. He takes it light and sweet. Me, I take my coffee black, the way God and Brazil made it. We were talking in Latin, per usual, which might slow down casual eavesdroppers. “The big boys figure that there’s a connection with some dump across the river in Jersey.”
“Got the briefing book?”
He slid his briefcase a little toward me on the floor. “Yeah, and now you have it. But that isn’t what should make you feel all loved.”
“You’re pulling preceptor duty.”
Lovely. Some Knight hadn’t come home from one of the dark places the Temple sends you to. Or maybe someone had retired, too old for the game. I hoped that it was it. Either way, the ranks were being refilled, and I was the lucky soul who was going to be showing the new guy the lay of the land.
“Non nobis, Domine,” I muttered. The Templar motto. Not for us, Lord, but to Your Name give Glory. It beats “Be Prepared.”
“You got that right,” Gabriel said. He’d finally gotten his coffee to a color he liked and swigged it down. “See you later.”
He left, sans briefcase. I picked it up and went back to my room. I had some reading to do.
One day later I was in Newark with a newbie Knight in tow. We were in a part of town where the streets were lined with century-old buildings. Broken windows and brick walls spray-painted with graffiti in gang colors and stylized alphabets made it clear who owned the territory now.
The sun had gone down in a smog-red haze two hours before, and the temperature was dropping fast. Traffic roared and bellowed along the potholed streets, and the cracking towers of the refineries near the waterfront burned against the night sky like lurid orange torches. It sure as Hell wasn’t the New Jerusalem. Up to us to see if it was connected with the Old one.
The newbie and I been watching one of the local warehouses since well before dawn. We had our blind set up a block away on a permanently unfinished highway overpass, part of a project that ran out of funds ten years ago. The rough concrete was hard and cold, but I was used to that.
“You wondered why you spent all that time on your knees during your novitiate?” I said to my partner for the night. He wasn’t exactly a young man, but still younger than me, a big genial-looking Irish-American gent who currently gloried in the alias of Simon B-for-Barnabas LaRoche. “It’s to prepare you for this nonsense.”
LaRoche just nodded, barely perceptible in the dark. So far, he’d been doing pretty well. He’d been in the right place at the right time for our meeting, he’d known the sign and countersign, and he had the air of quiet competence that you’d expect of a Knight — overlaid in his case with a certain amount of understandable new-guy nervousness about screwing up in front of the man who was supposed to be evaluating him.
The sign on top of the warehouse read Best Long-Term Storage — Bonded. The lights under the right-hand end of the sign had all burned out. I wondered if I ought to take some kind of meaning from that, and decided not. Half the lights in this part of Newark were either burnt out or broken. All the same, somebody thought highly enough of whatever was inside Best Long-Term Storage to pay security guards to watch the building.
I braced my non-reflective binoculars on the upper edge of the guard rail and counted seconds. One of the guards rounded the corner of the warehouse, right on schedule.
“What do you make of that guy?” I asked. Simon had his binoculars up too.
“He patrols the area at the front of the building once every twelve minutes. He came on duty six hours ago, and he has probably has two more hours to go.”
“What makes you say that?” The grey tarp that covered us crinkled in the wind.
“The guy he relieved did an eight-hour shift. So he should be getting bored and careless around now if he’s ever going to, and we have twelve minutes to get in.”
“Is that enough time?”
“We don’t have a lot of choice, do we?”
The guard paced out of sight. Simon had given the right answer — we didn’t have a choice, and it was time to get moving.
I gave him the nod, and he tossed rappelling lines over the side of the bridge in preparation for a fast trip to ground level. He was counting under his breath. I could hear him over our IR link, throat mike to earplug. There shouldn’t be guards out this far, not if the intelligence reports in the briefing book were right.
I certainly hoped that they were right. That team of UN peacekeepers had gone missing about three weeks ago now, and so far none of the usual suspects had spoken up to take credit. Whoever had done the job hadn’t left any traces, either. Several different agencies, civil and military both, had turned the entire region inside out and shaken it, with no obvious results. The UN was reduced to following up leads so faint as to be almost laughable — things like unusually high-level security on a run-down Newark storage warehouse — and calling for help from nongovernmental agencies.
Including the Temple. Especially the Temple.
There’s the Outer Temple that most people know about. When the Knights of the Outer Temple run into something beyond their depth, they pass the word up the line. The word filters up. If a level can’t cope it filters higher. Eventually if on one else can handle the problem it hits the Inner Temple and there’s nowhere else to go. There are three and thirty of us in the Inner Temple, all of us warriors and priests equally, all of us with special skills and training granted to us by the World, the Flesh, and sometimes the Devil. Not even the rest of the Knights Templar know about us; we take our orders directly from the Masters in Chatillon. Two days before, Simon B. LaRoche hadn’t known there was an Inner Temple either. If he failed tonight, I’d haul his ass out of the fire and he’d spend the rest of his days in a monastery under a serious vow of silence.
Floodlights high up on the warehouse walls cast the bright yellow-white light of sodium vapor, making the contrasting shadows into pools of inky black. I followed Simon as he moved from one patch of darkness to the next as quietly as my rubber-soled shoes could take me. A skittering noise came off to my left. I hoped it was a rat.
The last open stretch of bright light was coming up. If the timing worked — if we could make it across to the loading door directly opposite, if Simon could disable the alarm, if the door didn’t have any extraordinary locks on it — then we’d be out of sight inside before the guard rounded the corner. By my count, there’d be a whole five seconds of grace.
I went through that last patch of light like lust through a teenaged heart. Then we were in the arch of the warehouse doorway, with Simon fumbling for the control panel. The system was a standard Cybex 194 model, nothing exotic — which was good, because the count was running down. The front plate unscrewed, and Simon took a pair of wires and ran them down the electrical contacts to bridge the central alarm.
Then it was time to work on the heavy lock that held down the rolling door. This job made a good training scenario, and the intel was right on the money so far. I wondered if maybe Simon hadn’t been a loft-and-safe man before he joined the Franciscans, then joined the Temple, then got the tap on his shoulder to tell him that more exotic things awaited. A long, strange journey for a Grey Friar. I guess it is for all of us.
The count was getting close now. The lock snapped, and I heard the tap-tap-tap of the guard’s footsteps rounding the corner.
I froze. So did Simon. People see motion a long time before they see shapes. We were wearing black. The guard was in the light of those vapor lamps. His night vision would be shot. I hoped.
The footsteps approached and I stopped breathing. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Simon had his hand on his holster, though he hadn’t yet hauled iron.
The guard passed without looking in our direction. I let my breath out in a soft whisper and drank in the smog-tinged midnight air. Simon remained motionless until the guard should have made it all the way around the corner, then pushed the door up. He took it eighteen inches and rolled underneath. I followed. The door came down again, the lock snapped shut, and we were in.
Simon pulled a can of compressed air out of the left-hand cargo pocket of his trousers and sprayed a burst into the dark. The cold gas expanded into a cloud of mist, and in the mist I saw a tracery of laser beams, the next set of alarms.
Aside from the lines, the darkness on every side of us was complete. It felt like we were walking in a cave, or in a world of infinite night — nothing but darkness stretching out forever, no walls, no ceiling, the floor invisible even as it pressed against my feet, nothing left of reality except thin traces of laser light in a puff of vapor.
I stepped over one of the glittering red lines and ducked under the next as Simon squirted off another puff of compressed air. As long as we were going through traps, we were heading in the right direction.
We kept going until the feel of the air around me changed. A strange breeze blew on my face, and I knew that we had come out of the passageway into a large room. The sounds were different here — no echoes of our breathing, or of the quiet scrape and shuffle of our feet.
The room felt empty. I pulled out a set of thermal imaging viewers from my right-leg cargo pocket and fitted them over my eyes. With an infrared flashlight in my left, I did a slow scan. I put on the headphones from my belt-mounted scanner, checking for proximity alarms, motion detectors, and the sort of electrical activity that says a silent alarm has been tripped and the cavalry is on the way.
“All quiet?” Simon’s voice sounded in my ear. Our comms were infrared, tiny LEDs that pulsed outside of the visible spectrum. Line of sight only, not detectable by most scanners. If someone had IR, they would have already seen the flashlight and our own body heat. One of the things that can’t be helped.
“All quiet,” I told him.
The warehouse, at least on this floor, was filled with crates and barrels that had shipping labels on them from all over the world. Most of the stuff, though, came from the former Soviet Union by way of the Levant.
I didn’t need to look at my notes to know the location of the target. A good thing, since we weren’t carrying notes — or anything else that could identify us, right down to the laundry marks in our clothes, the manufacturer’s logo on our thermal goggles, and the serial numbers on our pistols. All ripped out, scraped away, or filed off; as far as exterior matters went, we were sanitized.
We’d taken care of interior matters, too, confessing our sins that morning, him to me and me to him. Simon and I weren’t likely to encounter dangerous levels of resistance on a basic sneak-and-peek expedition, but you never can tell. That particular one of Philip the Fair’s old accusations was true: the Knights of the Temple make confession to one another and give one another absolution. Want to make something of it? It saves on explanations to outsiders, and we’re all priests anyway.
Simon nodded to the right, where a stairwell went up to the next floor. Under thermal imaging, the pressure pad on the second step appeared as an ominous dark patch. He pointed, then stepped over it. I followed his lead, thinking as I did so that this was impressive even for a place like Newark. Whatever they were holding in here sure was important to someone.
We kept on going up the stairs, and I kept an eye peeled for security devices along the way. In spite of all the pressure pads and laser alarms, the warehouse didn’t have any human guards on the inside. That meant the people who used this place were relying on technology — or on something else.
The stairs ended in a closed door leading off from a small landing. I paused and checked the doorway. There’s security you can buy from firms that list themselves in the Yellow Pages, and then there’s older, darker stuff — not at all the kind of wards and bonds that would show up on a radio frequency scanner.
This time I didn’t notice anything obvious, unless you counted a feeling that something was wrong. I trusted that feeling and put a hand on Simon’s shoulder to stop him. Then I whispered to the door, “In the name of Christ, sleep.”
The wrongness eased. We stepped through the door. The top floor of the warehouse was empty except for one crate, metal, with speed clips holding down the top.
Simon walked over to it. I followed, taking my time, watching to see how he did. So far, nothing was cheeping in my headset.
The crate was unmarked except for a shipping number stenciled on one side and the words “OUTREMER IMPORTS” embossed on the lid. I took a mental note of the number as Simon continued his walk-around. The top was sealed with an ordinary truck seal. In the left patch pocket of my black BDUs, by way of Gabriel’s briefcase, I had a dupe of the seal with the same serial number. So far the intel had all been good.
Simon motioned me over, then popped the seal and loosened the clips. The noise seemed unbearably loud in the darkness. He swung the lid up.
The smell rolled out of the crate like a solid mass. It was . . . nasty. A week-old battlefield. Rainforest mud. Death himself in a tattered cloak.
Simon gagged — I didn’t blame him — but he stayed put, and after that first involuntary reaction he didn’t flinch. I turned my head away long enough to catch a breath of relatively unpolluted air, then swung my light into the carton.
We hadn’t found the UN peacekeeper team after all — although they’d been my first thought when the smell hit. Instead, the crate was mostly empty, leaving only about five inches unaccounted for in the bottom. And there, growing in a bed of some dark substance that I suspected wasn’t dirt, were long, pale stalks — translucent shafts about five inches tall, like the stems of unholy mushrooms. They swayed gently in the new air pouring into the packing case.
Simon pulled out an infra-red camera and snapped a few shots, then put the camera back into his pouch. “Think the lab boys will want a sample?”
“We came all this way,” I said. “Might as well.”
The crate and its contents looked more like something the Agriculture Department would want to deal with, rather than an order of warrior-priests, but curiosity, when it isn’t busy killing cats, can be a survival skill. I got out an impermeable sample bag with a positive lock closure, then pulled my dagger to cut one of the sickly white stems. For an instant, as I held the dagger point-down above the open crate, the blade and grip and quillons formed a cross.
The fungi recoiled.
The blade, I told myself, it’s the blade they’re afraid of, not the shape . . . even while I knew it wasn’t true.
“Christ!” Simon’s voice sounded in my ear, and I knew he wasn’t swearing.
Mushrooms that feared the sign of Our Lord’s Passion. Not a job for the Department of Agriculture after all.
I held my breath and reached down into the crate to grab one of the stalks with my gloved hand. I pulled it up, taking a bit of the soil beneath it. The stalk was fragile; it broke, and the broken end began to bleed — a heavy, pulsing red flow. The other stalks moved away, as if they were the surface of a pond and I’d just dropped in a rock.
At the same moment, my earphones gave a squawk. Someone, somewhere, was aware that the warehouse’s security had been breached, and now they were yelling for help.
I thrust the fungus sample into the plastic bag and handed it over to Simon. Let the new guy carry the swag. Together we pulled the lid of the crate closed and resealed it, all with deliberate haste. No point in making what we’d just done too obvious. No point in retreating the way we’d come, either — the guard would be waiting.
So it was the roof for us. We’d worked out all the alternate retreat paths in advance, during the hours on watch that day, and that one was the handiest.
Up, then, and out . . . on the parapet closest to our old hiding place on the abandoned overpass, I used quick-drying cement to attach a loop of nylon. It would leave proof that someone had been there, but I didn’t much care. The owners of the warehouse already knew that, or they soon would, and their analysis of the line and the cement would lead them in several complex and unprofitable directions.
Simon readied a whisper-mode rocket he’d worn strapped across his back. The rocket took a messenger line across to an abandoned building on the far side of the lights and buried its barbed head in the tarpaper roof. Whisper-mode is quiet but it’s not silent, and someone who knew what to listen for could detect the rocket in flight — but detecting a rocket and doing something about it are two different things. Then Simon attached the messenger line to my nylon loop with a slippery hitch that would release when the tension slacked, and hooked a pulley over the line. He launched himself into the darkness. I was right behind him.
There’s a reason why those things are called zip lines. We were across the street in seconds, without a lot of danger unless someone happened to look up. Even then, we were dressed in black and the people on the ground would be light-dazzled. No big risk. My earphones, though, were getting fuller and fuller of noise, telling me that the minutes weren’t many before we had to be long gone.
Once over on the far roof, I pulled the spiked rocket out from where it had buried itself in the tarpaper and reeled in the zip line. Then we went down the fire escape on the far side. I didn’t lower the ladder; it was probably rusted shut, and would have squealed horribly in any case. Instead, we jumped from two stories up. That isn’t too far for someone with parachute training who knows how to land. What Simon’s training had been, I don’t know. He hung by his hands, dropped, and rolled.
From there it was just a matter of retracing our steps. We went up the rappelling lines hand-over-hand, and made sure our spy nest was sanitized — an easy job, since we hadn’t left any obvious clues, and any fiber evidence would lead to sets of clothes that would shortly cease to exist.
The vehicle we’d stashed wasn’t far off. It wasn’t ours, never had been, and never would be again. Within minutes we were away and blending into the traffic on the Interstate.
The yammering in my earphones grew fainter and died. We’d made a clean escape.
“So,” Simon asked, as the lights of the Goethals bridge appeared before us. “How did I do?”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be just as glad when we turn this thing over, though. Write up your report and let me look at it before you turn it in.”
“Where do you think the UN guys are?”
“If they weren’t ground into mulch for fungus food, they could be anywhere.”
“So the mission’s a failure?”
“Any mission you walk away from is a success,” I told him. “Sometimes the results aren’t what you expected, is all. We’ll let the Masters figure it out.”
“Do you think the fungus is intelligent?”
“I’m not a hundred percent sure that it’s even fungus. Now start writing. I don’t want to miss our rendezvous.”
He shut up, but I didn’t stop thinking. The mushroom stalks had seen a cross and acted — scared. That’s never a good sign.
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