The Keystone by A.M. Dean – Extract

The Keystone

PROLOGUE

AD 374 – Egypt The Egyptian Desert

Tarasios of Luxor stared into the face of the taller man’s fierce, cold eyes. The sharpened edge of the engraved pugio pressed against his throat was already drawing blood, and the pressure of the blade on his larynx choked his breath. No matter what came next, he knew that this encounter ended with the blade being given a sharp jolt by the powerful man, cutting through his throat and sending him out of this life. That much was a certainty. His earthly journey was already over.

But there was still hope for good, even great good. He would be free, and his liberation would be the cause’s surety.

The taller man, who held a military bearing and whose well-worn garments bore imperial insignia, grabbed at Tara­sios’s hair with his free hand.

‘Your companions have left you, little man. Your pathetic followers have fl ed like desert rats into the sand.’ He spat the words with a cruel venom.

‘They know what persecution means,’ Tarasios answered back, forcing a defiance into his tone in the face of his certain death. ‘They know what you and your men will do to them if they’re caught.’

The officer smiled, satisfied. ‘Good. At least their fear is justified. Perhaps there’s some knowledge in these “Knowers” after all.’ He peered deep into his victim’s eyes. He expected to see terror there. Hopelessness. Panic. Instead he saw only resolve, and his fury rose in response.

‘Tell me where they’ve gone,’ he demanded, forcing back Tarasios’s head and pressing the blade’s sharp edge further into his protruding neck. Blood began to seep across the metal surface. ‘Tell me where your friends have run to, and I will spare your worthless life.’

The knife still in his throat, a confident smile curled the edges of Tarasios’s mouth. ‘My life, as you call it, is already saved. I am free.’ Defiant against the pain, he forced his fore­head down and stared directly into the persecutor’s eyes.

‘I will tell you no more. Do what you must.’

The soldier waited only a moment longer. The man would give him nothing – nothing but delays, distraction and heret­ical talk. Nothing worth putting off the inevitable for, not any longer.

With a powerful, swift motion, he wrenched the knife sharply to the right, severing tendons, vocal cords and arteries in a single motion.

Tarasios’s eyes bulged, but he did not remove them from his attacker’s face. As the blood poured from his throat, he watched the world fade to black in peace. He was already free.

*****

Twenty minutes later, a nineteen-year-old compatriot, near­ing the point of exhaustion, continued his fevered run. The sun was already beginning to set over the distant dunes, but Eunomius knew the dusk gave him little advantage. The persecutions of his people were government sanctioned and the officers had at their disposal horses, weapons and highly trained soldiers. They would be close behind. He only prayed that Tarasios had been able to delay them long enough to give him the time he needed.

The key had to be hidden before they found him. That was all that mattered. The ignorant soldiers only wanted his brethren, all those who had followed Tarasios and his truths. In their pathetic desire to eradicate the Empire of unwanted beliefs, they had no idea what was really at stake. Today, Euno­mius would use that ignorance to his advantage. As long as he could hide the key, he would accept whatever they chose to do with his body.

His lungs burning from exertion, at last he came upon the spot the group had chosen two kalends past, before the per­secutions had fragmented them so desperately. Eunomius slowed to a jog. Before him was the ideal hiding place, one that would ensure the key’s safety for years – even generations. For as long as was necessary.

Catching his breath, Eunomius navigated by memory rather than the illusion of his eyes, and clambered to the entrance, stepping into the darkness of the cave. Navigating his way through the blackness by feeling along the wall with his fin­gers, at last he arrived at the cleft in the rock that he knew was there. Kneeling, he reached beneath his cloak and removed the small jar containing the object. After pressing it to his forehead in devotion, he pushed as far into the cleft as his arm would allow and deposited his charge.

Drawing back, he brought all movement to a halt. Outside, he could hear the sounds of men approaching. They had found him. In a matter of moments, his body would be theirs.

Though the darkness was complete, Eunomius closed his eyes, raising his hands to shoulder level, and uttered a familiar prayer as a feeling of peace swept over him. His initiation had taken place only two years ago, when the world had seemed a calmer, more tolerant place. He had never suspected that the ultimate liberation would be delayed in this way, nor that he would be given such a critical role in preserving it for pos­terity. But these were the ways of the fleeting world and this fallen, wretched life. He was honoured to fight for a higher cause.

His prayer finished and his duty complete, Eunomius opened his eyes and stood. Filled with resolve, he backtracked to the entrance of the cave. After the darkness of its depths, even the hazy brightness of dusk was blinding. He took a moment to absorb the fleeting rays before climbing down, away from its entrance, and taking his final position at a dark opening in the nearby stone, before which the men would find him.

Their arrival came swiftly. The sounds Eunomius had heard were replaced by the vision of approaching soldiers as he stood his ground on the diminutive ledge. The group assembled below him, and from the edge of his vision Euno­mius tracked the motion of two who climbed up the stone, striving for positions on either side of his post.

It was perfect. He was ready for his freedom.

Gazing into the clutch of men, he met the stare of a taller soldier whose garments marked him out as their leader. Con­centrating intently on the man, Eunomius took a deep breath and shouted with full force the only word that mattered.

‘LIBERATION!’

Even as the shout echoed off the stone hillside into the desert sands, a sword appeared at his right, glistened a moment in the evening sun, and with a swift flicker severed his head from his body and his life from the wantonness of the physical world.

The Modern Day – eight months ago

In the dark, solitary room, Albinus sat shaking, his whole body a mass of profound agitation. He could turn on the lights – in the windowless room they would not betray him – but the darkness felt safer. He held the cordless phone tight against his cheek, its rounded edge pressed firmly into his jawbone, the dialling tone droning in his ear. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face, dripping off the tip of his nose and making the phone slippery in his hands.

What have I done? What am I doing?

He was terrified, but there seemed no other choice. What was being planned was too terrible, its consequences unfath­omable. His conscience would never let him live with the guilt if he did not make contact with someone who could stop this before it began.

Liberation was not meant to be purchased at such a cost.

In the darkness, he unfolded the scrap of paper on which he had scribbled the number for the FBI’s public line, refreshing his memory with the green illumination of the phone’s keypad. A moment later, his fingers nervously pressed into the digits.

The phone rang once. Twice. By the third and fourth rings his pulse began to increase. Someone’s got to answer. A feeling in his gut told him he would not have another chance to make his call.

After the sixth ring, the line connected. Albinus’s breath stopped.

‘You have reached the FBI automated reporting service . . .’

His heart sank. An automated line. This was not what he had anticipated. Maybe it should have been, he suddenly real­ized; but second-guessing himself was too easy a trap for despair.

He could not abandon his only hope.

When the message was complete and a long tone signalled him to start, Albinus sputtered his anxious words into the phone. He had prepared himself for a conversation, not a one-way summary.

‘I’m, I’m . . . my name isn’t important. I have information . . . on an attack. Chicago. Something terrible . . . from the Church of Truth . . .’ He gasped, his breath seeming to fail him, words insufficient for the magnitude of his message. ‘A terrible set of events is coming. You have to stop it.’

Th e leadership assembled in an air of urgency. The Great Leader was seated, his closest aides gathered around him, to deal with the defection that threatened to put decades of preparation at risk. The date that loomed only months away had been fixed as their target, symbolic and infused with too much meaning to be abandoned, and movements all across the globe were now advancing.

‘It’s Albinus,’ one of the brothers offered, hesitantly. He pushed the name out of tight lips, his Italian accent struggling with its strange, foreign shape.

‘He’s always been weak-willed,’ added another, his Spanish inflection contrasting with the Italian’s, ‘but we never thought he would go this far.’ His broad shoulders alternated between a frustrated droop and an angry, flexed tension.

‘How far, precisely?’ The Great Leader kept his tone firm. He did not need the others’ anger overtaking their focus.

‘He’s gone to the FBI.’ The man who answered stood directly opposite him, his arms firmly folded across his chest. If he felt any emotion at all, his features did not show it. ‘We’ve had it confirmed from the inside. He left a tip this morning. Used our name. Mentioned an attack. They’re going to be on watch.’

The words provoked a deeper tension, broken only by the Italian who spoke the obvious implication, his eyes more afraid than upset. ‘Our shield of secrecy is broken. This “veil of ano­nymity” as you called it – it’s gone. Andato.’

The Great Leader absorbed the words, the slight pulsing of flesh at his cheeks the only evidence of the grinding of his teeth beneath. The compelling vigour of his features – the intense eyes, inset beneath a brow whose gentle lines bespoke wisdom and experience, with cheekbones shaped enough to suggest power without being so angular as to seem vicious – now seemed hidden behind a sheen of concentration.

Finally, he peered up at his men.

‘Albinus must be stopped. Tonight. Co-opt the Arab if you need him. We can’t have this man telling the authorities any more than he already has.’ He turned directly to the Italian, whose frustration visibly transformed into a resolve to match the Great Leader’s own.

‘Don’t be gentle. Show him just what happens to defectors from a righteous cause.’

The slender man’s face switched to pleasure. He knew the order gave him carte blanche over just how much pain and suffering could precede Albinus’s execution. He rose, together with three of the others, each nodding reverently and turning for the exit.

The sterner man opposite the Leader stood firm.

‘And our plan?’ he asked. ‘The cause itself?’

The Great Leader looked long into his eyes. The customary intensity of his own was now back in full force.

‘Another approach will have to be devised,’ he answered. His confidence was not shaken.

‘Silence is no longer our ally. It’s time to make other friends.’

Part One

the present sunday, july 1st

CHAPTER 1

Hays Mews, London

In the early morning silence, the creaking floorboard tore into Andrew Wess’s consciousness like a siren. At first his groggy head took it as the last traces of whatever dream he had just escaped, the strange creak of boards and shuffling of papers the leftovers of scenes his mind had concocted in sleep. Glancing at the large clock opposite the armchair in which he’d passed the night, he registered the early hour. It was far too early to be up.

Then he heard the noises again: a repeat of a creaking floorboard, the sound of drawers being opened and papers shuffled. Andrew’s back stiffened. The sounds that had roused him from sleep had not come from his dreams. These were distinct and real, and his taut skin immediately went cold.

‘Wake up,’ he whispered to the woman asleep on the sofa next to his chair. Their impromptu sleep on the sitting-room furniture had come after a late evening of conversation that had been more engaging than either had anticipated. After a lifetime of tête-à-têtes, they could still keep each other totally enthralled for hours on end.

The woman’s head rested against one of the settee’s padded arms, her sleep deep.

‘Emily, wake up,’ Andrew repeated, stepping lightly towards her position, his voice still hushed. ‘Someone’s in the house.’

In the darkness, the two men found navigation of the semi-detached townhouse a challenge. Each carried a pen light, but they had surveilled the area thoroughly and were aware that residents in the elegant neighbourhood were prone to report unusual activities to the police, so they kept their use to a minimum.

‘This way, it looks like her office,’ one man whispered to the other. With a nod of his head he indicated a doorway to the right, behind which lay the makeshift office of Dr Emily Wess’s London home. They had already located and searched a similar room which served as her husband’s study, but had found nothing. This, however, was the room with real poten­tial. It was her work they were interested in, or rather, her possessions. She had acquired only two days ago the object of which they now intended to relieve her, and she had taken possession of it without having the faintest idea what it really was. They, however, knew its real value, and their leader had charged them to reclaim the one object that would enable them to undertake the greatest work in their history.

Now it was somewhere here, in the dark of her home office, waiting to find its way into their hands. Ideally, they would have come when the house was empty, rather than at night when its occupants were asleep so close by; but the chances of her leaving the object unattended were slight, and they did not know how long she intended to keep it in her possession before transferring it to its new owners. No, a nighttime oper­ation was what the situation demanded. She would wake in the morning to find the item gone, never knowing just what it was she had truly lost.

Emily’s eyes sprang open and without further demurral she sat upright to face Andrew, crouched on the floor in front of her. Before she could speak, he reached up and held a finger over her mouth, ordering quiet. ‘Shh,’ he mouthed. Cupping his hand to his ear as an instruction, they both listened. The sounds coming from Emily’s office down the corridor were soft, but clear – sound travelled through the old house’s paper-thin walls as if they weren’t there.

Someone was rifling through her desk.

Andrew rose slightly and sat himself on the sofa next to Emily, grabbing her shoulders and turning her squarely towards him.

‘I’m going to see who it is,’ he said boldly. He scanned the room, assessing his options, as Emily leaned in and whispered into his ear.

‘Don’t even think about it. We don’t know who it is. They could be dangerous.’

She reached across the sofa and grabbed the cordless phone from the end table.

‘There’s a bolt on the sliding door at the end of the cor­ridor, just there.’ She motioned towards the entrance to the front room, keeping her voice as soft as she could. ‘Go slide it closed, quiet as you can, and lock it. I’m going to head to the closet and phone the police.’ The walk-in storage closet nestled between the front room and kitchen was enormous, almost an additional room secreted into the wall, and so over­full of linens, clothes and supplies that it would do a decent job of muffling her voice.

Andrew’s heart was thumping painfully, unaccustomed to switching so rapidly from sleep to stress. He looked to Emily, caught her familiar eyes – he had known them for so long, seen them in so many settings.

He gave her a firm squeeze on the arm, relinquishing the sentiment to the needs of the moment, and pulled her towards the edge of the sofa. Emily nodded, rose on bare feet and tip­toed into the closet, slowly pulling the door closed behind her.

Though Andrew Wess was terrified, a nighttime break-in something he had never experienced, the protective instinct was stronger. He and Emily had matched wits since their child­hood, had played and sparred and fought as equals. But when­ever she had been in danger or in pain, Andrew had always been her protector. He was the one who bandaged the scraped knee, who fended off the neighbouring bullies and then taught her to do the same.

The sounds continued, and the childhood memories fled. Convinced that Emily was well hidden, his motivation changed. Locking them in and hoping for the best wasn’t in his nature, and ridding the house of the intruders became Andrew’s priority. He scanned the room, looking for anything he might wield as a weapon. The sconces on the fireplace were too small to intimidate, much less pose any real threat if intim­idation didn’t work. The corner lamp was too unwieldy and cumbersome.

Then, in the room’s far corner, the perfect resource. God bless you, Em. Though he had never tried the game in his life, Emily’s love for golf suddenly became one of her greatest vir­tues: her well-stocked bag of clubs was perched in a corner nook. He had teased her so many times about her love for the sport. When he’d got the intruders out of the house, he’d have to be sure to offer a good apology for that.

Andrew stepped lightly across the floor and extracted a suitably heavy driver from the bag, then made his way quietly into the central corridor. With each step, the sound of muffled voices and shuffling papers grew louder, and closer.

CHAPTER 2

Hays Mews, London

In the midst of Emily Wess’s office, one of the men suddenly froze. His hands were still tucked midway through a large pile of folders and documents, and for an instant he questioned whether this was real. The doubt didn’t last. He knew what he held in his hands: success.

Simon had always been a practical man, but in moments like this he could not help the fact that emotion demanded an equal share of his attention. All his labour and service in support of their cause were aimed at a spiritual end, after all, and Simon had always had a spiritual side. In this moment, nothing could diminish the significance of what they were here to claim. It was the greatest work he had ever undertaken, and it would mark out his life’s finest achievement.

‘I’ve found it.’ The words came out as a whisper. Despite his sense of success, he was not a man who would allow his awe to overcome his attention to circumstances. The woman and her husband were almost certainly asleep in the house, and speech needed to be kept to a minimum.

As the second man turned towards him, Simon drew the padded folder out from the larger stack in a drawer of the artisan desk. A moment later, it lay open and they both peered down at its precious contents.

A single, ancient sheet of browned paper, wrinkled with age.

‘You’re sure?’ The second man studied the page, puzzled by the antiquated lettering that covered its surface. He was nat­urally mistrustful, a characteristic that had served him well more than once in his difficult life; and at the moment his innate disbelief seemed justified. ‘It doesn’t look like a map.’

The first man scrutinized the document to its smallest detail. His partner was right: it didn’t look like a map. But the script was familiar, matching the penmanship in the Book – the ancient journal that had been their unerring guide for as long as he could remember – perfectly.

‘I’m positive.’

The other man still wasn’t convinced. ‘I don’t understand how that’s supposed to get Arthur to the keystone.’ If they returned to their leader without the authentic map, the reper­cussions would be severe.

Simon looked up at him, his face suddenly bitter. He wanted to smack him for his inexcusable irreverence, but at the moment he was more concerned about the noise even a whis­pered rebuke would generate. They had spoken enough. He shot his partner an angry look.

The man stopped protesting. He was used to being rebuked so Simon’s glare didn’t upset him. Besides, there was some­thing different about his partner. The fierce man, whom he had never seen quake, however dire the circumstances, was physically shaking with excitement. His eyes almost sparkled, even in the darkness.

Andrew Wess shifted a few steps further down the corridor, finally pausing beside the door to Emily’s study. Inside, the sounds of drawers being shuffled through had been supplanted by whispers and the scuffling of feet, then more recently by stillness.

As he approached, Andrew’s fear began to give way to anger. He’d heard of the rise in burglaries in London, and could pic­ture a pair of teenage thugs just inside the small room, drunk or drugged and acting on the assumption that whatever they wanted in life they could simply steal. Never mind the damage, or the fear they might instil in others. The thought infuriated him. Back home in Ohio, they still took hooligans out behind the proverbial woodshed for a good Midwestern, small-town ‘discussion’ with the local community. He didn’t know what they did with them in London, but he was absolutely not going to let them run free through their lives.

As he stood just outside the door, his fury drove him to impulse. Taking a breath and marshalling his courage, he spun to his left and thrust himself into the door frame. It was a mistake, but one he didn’t have the experience or maturity to appreciate.

‘What the hell are you doing in our house!’ he thundered, raising the club high in his left hand, its titanium-plated, wooden head almost scraping the ceiling.

The fact that the intruders were not drunken teens regis­tered in less than a second. Andrew’s surprise at the sight of the two physically towering men standing over the desk was superseded by the shock of two rapid gunshots that broke the nighttime silence, even before the last word had thundered off his tongue. The man closest to him had drawn his pistol with remarkable speed and fired without hesitation.

Andrew Wess dropped to the floor, his heart perforated by the bullets and his life already gone.

‘Fuck!’ The gunman stepped forward and nudged his pistol against Andrew’s lifeless body. The two wounds glistened like rosettes on his T-shirt, a black pool of blood already appearing beneath him.

‘Dammit. He’s going to be pissed.’ The gunman didn’t mind his partner’s constant insults, but the Great Leader’s were harder to bear.

A moment later his face registered another, more imme­diate cause for concern as the sound of the gunshots continued to reverberate in the air.

‘Come on, time to go. We can’t get caught here.’ They hadn’t intended to be discovered, and certainly not for this operation to generate casualties. But circumstances were what they were, and had to be accommodated.

The other man nodded, and enclosing the precious page back in the folder, tucked it securely under his arm. Stepping over the lifeless body of Andrew Wess, the two sprinted down the stairs to the rear door and disappeared into the labyrin­thine streets of Shepherd Market and greater Westminster.

*****

From the back of the walk-in storage closet, Dr Emily Wess let the tears stream down her cheeks as she waited for the men to depart. Their words had come through the thin walls softly but clearly, and burned their way into her mind with clarity and permanence. Even through her emotional agony, she knew she must cling to them.

She did not recognize the intruders’ voices, she did not know what they wanted or what they had found. The words that they had uttered made no sense and she did not know what delusions had led them into her home.

She only knew that two gunshots had been followed by the noise of a body falling, and there had been no sound from Andrew since.

CHAPTER 3

Córdoba, Spain

The Disciple said, “Why do we not rest at once?”

The Lord said, “When you lay down these burdens!”

In the middle of the circle a ceremonial oil lamp flickered a wavering light. The outdated mode of lighting was intentional, the gentle flame it produced an important part of the ritual. The bodies surrounding it swayed in rhythmic motion, each clad in an identical velvet robe of a dark crimson, almost black. A low, bass tone was sustained by some of the partici­pants, while the others joined in the words of the familiar incantation, drawn from their copy of the Book.

The Disciple said, “How does the small join itself to the great?”

The Lord replied, “When you abandon the works which cannot follow you, then you will rest.”

The ancient words, uttered in reverent monotone by the prac­tised tongues of their devotees, resonated through the dimly lit space. Only through careful focus could the initiate see the symbols chalk-drawn onto the floor, surrounding the lamp. Two snakes, entwined in a loop – the oldest of their images, the ouroboros, employed since the beginning. It was also the most familiar, worn by each member in the form of a silver ring on their left ring finger, where others put wedding bands. On the floor it was surrounded by celestial spheres, arranged in careful hierarchy. A sun, cresting a tree. All ancient images, faithfully recreated, representing the journey towards illumi­nation into which he was about to be joined.

This man sat, cross-legged like all the others, but stripped bare except for a pair of white shorts. Only when the Initia­tion Incantation was complete would he be clothed in the robe of the Knowers and drawn into a greater truth than any he had yet experienced. Only then would he discover the self beyond himself, the spirit beyond body.

The Traitor cried, “How is the spirit apparent?”

The Lord replied, “How is the sword apparent?”

As the sacred words continued, a messenger in lay clothes appeared at the fringe of the circle. Hesitantly, he made his way around its edge until he came to the hooded figure of its local Leader, seated in the incantation ring with the rest of the members. It was all but unheard of to interrupt an incan­tation, especially an initiation, but the circumstances at hand were not ordinary. The Spanish Leader would want to know. Even if it meant a momentary distraction.

Crouching down, the messenger leaned in close to the hooded figure’s ear. ‘Mi señor,’ he whispered during a momentary lull in the chanting. In the circumstances formal titles were required. The seated figure inclined his head towards him.

‘Master,’ the messenger reported, ‘the manuscript has been obtained. Our brothers are on their way to the Great Leader as we speak.’

Beneath his heavy hood, the regional Leader allowed him­self a contented lift of his eyebrows. This was the news he had been waiting to hear.

‘Very well. The time has come to put our plan into action,’ he said softly. He lifted his right hand, calmly placing his open palm on the courier’s chest. The ancient, intimate gesture was reserved for significant moments of parting, and this moment qualified.

‘Contact the brethren abroad, tell them it’s time to begin the exodus.’ Then, recognizing that the event commanded a more formal remark, he sat firmly upright and spoke with reverence.

‘It is time for them to come into the light.’

Having received his charge, the messenger inclined his head and stepped away from the sacred scene.

Exhaling a long, satisfied breath, the Leader turned his atten­tion back to the matter of the moment. The Initiation Incan­tation was at its climax, and he joined his words to those of his brethren as they united a new life to their midst.

The Disciple asked, “How is the light apparent?”

And the Master replied, “Only when you are bathed in it forever.”

 


Excerpted from The Keystone by A.M. Dean. Copyright © 2013 by A.M. Dean.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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