The Zalozhniy Quartet

13 years later....
A very final confrontation


13 years later….

Tekno-jumpstyle pounded from all three floors of Club Underworld, out into the cobbled streets of Vinnitsya, Ukraine. The town was small and old, the club was new and dominating.

The bouncers at the entrance door surreptitiously assessed the three men approaching. Mafia and Bratva thugs frequented here and two of the three fitted that profile well. The bouncers judged, and nodded them inside without a word.

A hostess showed the three upstairs to the private booth, reserved in the name “Sergei”

Somerset entered the room first, scanning for threats. He was grey-haired and his face was lined and tanned. The scar down the left side of his face, halfway to his shirt collar, was a visible record of his life of violence.
Unconsciously he tugged his shirt cuffs out from his suit jacket, eyes passing over the coke dust and smears on the metal table, over the padded bench seat and to a glint from the floor.
“Vodka, ice” he ordered at the hostess.
On the floor was a hypodermic syringe. Somerset narrowed his eyes, focusing on the dark liquid in it. Blood? He crushed it under a brogue.

Behind Somerset entered Krupin, a tall, bear-like man in large coat. One half of his face above his beard was scar tissue and his eyes told the same story. He completely blocked the hostess as he passed her.
“To zhe” he told her. Ditto.

Patrick followed in. He still looked youthful, but ten years at a desk or on a sofa had padded him out. Nerves and lack of sunlight left him pale.
“Coke Zero please.” he asked, with a thin smile.

Katya entered as the hostess left. She wore fashionable jeans, fitted top. She looked good, healthy and relaxed carrying a clear drink.

“After our meeting at the church I was not sure you would follow through” she said to Somerset.
“Unfinished business. There are debts still to be accounted. Blood debts.” He studied her reaction. She smiled at him and turned to Patrick and Krupin.
“Good to see you both again.”
Patrick nodded.
Krupin looked hard at her. “Sometime you tell me what happened with Yakovlev in the tunnels”
She held his gaze for a second, “He was a good man.” She turned to Patrick, looking him up and down “Taking it easy in London?”
He bristled, “I go the gym, not as much maybe- I’m fine. You still a b-, witch?”

“Relax, we’ve all changed. Well, maybe not all of us. Somerset.” She grinned. “Shall I tell you everything I know?”
“I doubt that’ll happen, but why don’t you tell me the bits you want me to know.” Somerset said.
Katya nodded, sat down and began.
“Dorjiev has a secret lab in a disused hospital near here where he, we, experiment. There are two ways in, either through the hospital and two security doors, or into the fortress at XXXXX and down the tunnel.”
“You suggesting we go in via the tunnel?” Somerset asked.
“No. The fortress is a Spetsnaz training base, so full of badasses.” She paused. “They test new serums there. Super-soldier badasses.”
Somerset nodded. He’d seen that before. “So get to the lab through the doors then…”
Katya shrugged. “Probably, yes. But a different problem there, Dorjiev has been making Zalozhniy. He’s made a platoon of Spetsnaz Zalozhniy, stored in the lab, and under his command. I have no power over them. There’s a gas chamber down there where he kills them, with Zyklon B.”
Somerset snorted ruefully, you could only kill a Zalozhniy the same way it was originally killed. She shook her head in agreement. “Yes, unstoppable. Who the fuck has Zyklon B still?”
“Well, Dorjiev does. And a handy gas chamber.” Somerset said. “We’ll need to keep one of course, to get the time effects to kill Dorjiev.”
Katya smirked, “You remembered that.”

The Ukrainian night was bitterly cold, heavy clouds waited to drop more snow. They crept down tiled corridors by torchlight, stepping carefully past abandoned equipment and bedding. Somerset watched their breath-clouds fade into the air as they descended stairs to below ground.
From the back Patrick said “There’s a horror game called – “
“Not now.” growled Somerset.

Katya waved them forward, pointing to a doorway on the left of the hall. Beyond, the room was stained and broken like the rest, except for a metal door that filled one wall.
“The lab entrance is through this door,” she said “but there’s a camera facing it on the other side.”
Patrick shrugged, opening his bag. “No problem. Just need to know IP or wired?” he asked, pulling out a ruggedised tablet and folding back the cover.
Katya didn’t realise he was asking her until he looked up, expectantly. “Not a fucking clue.” she shrugged.

Krupin moved to cover the hall behind them from the doorway, his rifle held casually. Somerset took the other side. The cold was making his knees and shoulder ache. He flexed them. Maybe he’d been too long in the warmth of South America.
Krupin snapped out the magazine of his rifle, checked it and slapped it back in. The sharp sounds echoed off the tiles.
“Loaded with banes?” Somerset asked .
Krupin checked if Katya could overhear him before whispering back “We meet not only Zalozhniy tonight. You know this is true.”

Patrick slapped the cover back on his tablet, sighing.
“No good?” asked Katya.
He gave her a look. “Of course it’s good, it’s looping an empty sequence frame. We can’t be seen.”

Katya inserted a small key in the large door and turned it. Stepping back she drew her pistol out and pulled the door open, keeping it between her and the other side.

Krupin grunted, “It’s clear” and walked into the brightly lit passage. The passage was clean and new, ending in another solid metal door, smooth except for a keypad. A camera above the door stared down, a red LED blinking slowly.

Behind the open door Katya flicked up the hood of her black gilet and covered her mouth with a scarf. Dorjiev would recognise her instantly, but others might hesitate for a fatal second or two.
At the door, her fingers hesitated over the keypad.
“We ready?” she asked.
“We were ready ten years ago.” Somerset said.
No, we weren’t, she thought, and typed in a ten digit number, pressing the keys hard. With a hiss the door swung silently outwards.

Krupin lead them down the metal stairs behind the door into a open area smelling of bleach. Gurneys and cabinets lined the walls and in a corner stood a huddle of medical electronics. Three doors lead out, next to the middle one was a large metal bath.
“It smells of death” Krupin said.

Katya pointed left, “That’s the gas chamber and storage, ahead is the tunnel entrance, and right are the experiment rooms.”
Krupin gave her a look, and she answered his question before he asked, averting her gaze “Not nice ones.”

“Shit,” Patrick whispered, peering into the metal bath “it’s full of blood.”
Somerset frowned questioningly at Katya, but she shook her head. “I don’t know, that’s new.”
“Let’s not disturb it then. Patrick let’s get the Zyklon. Katya, Krupin take a gurney and get us a Zalozhniy” he said.

The gas chamber was poured concrete free-standing room, fronted by a thick steel door, a wooden cupboard fixed against an outside wall. Patrick and Somerset extracted gas masks and pulled the tight rubber over their faces.
Patrick tugged the cupboard door. Locked. He knelt down, fumbling in his bag for lockpicks. After a few seconds, he lifted the bag up, trying to see in through the gas mask visor.
“Damn it” Patrick pushed the mask up, quickly found his lockpicks and seconds later the cupboard door was open. Inside, a fan and pipe arrangement was connected through the wall into the gas chamber. A metal hopper stood vertically, a faded label read ‘GIFTGAS! – Zyklon’ in German.
“Excellent.” he said.

Katya pushed the gurney slowly across the open area, her eyes on the other doors. The wheels squeaked quietly on the floor. Her skin tingled. Dorjiev was close, maybe waiting on the other side of a door. She angled the gurney out and down the corridor to the room where the Zalozhniy were kept.
Krupin waited for her at the storage room door, listening.
“The dead are quiet.” he said, in Russian.
“We haven’t got much time, let’s do this.” Katya said, but didn’t make a move. Krupin opened the storage room door. Floor to ceiling shelves held coffin-sized boxes. He stared intently into the dark trying to see or hear any movement.

At the other end of the gurney, Katya felt something touch her mind. Dorjiev was reaching out, trying to sense her, read her. He was alert, curious.
A hand landed on her shoulder. She jumped.
“Got some ZB” Patrick said, shaking a hopper noisily.
“Mudak” she swore.

Patrick and Krupin levered open a box on a waist-high shelf. Inside lay a dressed and armed Spetsnaz soldier, dead. They lifted it onto the bed of the gurney and all three busied themselves strapping the cold body tight with thick leather belts.
“I’ll deal with the rest” said Patrick nervously, flicking his torch around the other boxes.

Katya pulled the gurney out of the door, “OK, don’t be -” She froze. “Dorjiev. He knows, he’s running. He knows I’ve come for him.”
A wooden creak sounded from one of the boxes, dust floated down in Patrick’s torchlight. A groan sounded.

“Go!” shouted Patrick pulling his gas mask up over his face. Katya and Krupin banged the gurney down the corridor to the gas chamber, ramming it inside. Somerset slammed the door, and clunked down the locking bar as an angry roar came from the chamber.

Patrick popped the top of the hopper and scattered pellets around the storage room. More sounds came from the boxes, and the squeak of a nail being forced out.
“Oh shit…oh crap…”
The last few pellets were about to fall out, he slammed the lid down trapping a couple that rattled. He bolted out, shutting and barring the wooden door.

“He’s running! For the tunnel!” Katya shouted and sprinted for the open area, pulling her Glock.
Somerset and Krupin ran after her, unslinging rifles. Patrick fumbled his gas mask off, thumps and inarticulate howls echoed behind him.

Somerset caught up with Katya as she stood in the middle of the open area, turning, concentrating.
“The tunnel, he’s going for the tunnel. Fuck.” she cried out, pointing at the middle door.
He followed her finger, out of the bath of blood had risen a small humanoid shape, it was letting itself down over the edge. Another appeared out of the blood behind it, and another. And another.
Katya weaved trying to get past them through the door, but more appeared blocking the doorway, their short arms grasping at her.

“Somerset!” Krupin called from the rear. Somerset spun, caught the bottle of anti-coagulant mid-air and continued round, pitching it hard against the metal bath. It exploded glass and liquid showering Katya, the bath and the humanoids. They shrieked, their blood bodies melting and dissolving.
Katya slipped and scrambled back, cursing, brushing the liquid off her, then jumped the blood and disappeared through the door. The two remaining humanoids slunk back into the blood.

She banged through open doors, down the corridor to the tunnel steps. Dorjiev was getting away. If he escaped he would finish what he’d started on Yasha and use his control of her. Her plan was in motion and she needed to survive both parts of it.

Somerset chased her, shouldering open still swinging doors, rifle ready. Things were out of control, this pell-mell flight felt it was leading into a trap. He didn’t, and couldn’t, trust Katya. But if this mission went as she promised, maybe he could. It probably wouldn’t. But, maybe.

Krupin glared at the bath of blood then at Patrick
“You want to stay here and guard?”
Screams of rage and dying grew louder from the storage room and gas chamber, then splintering wood.
“Not on your nelly” Patrick replied wide-eyed and began to run.
“My what?” Krupin asked.

The entrance to the tunnel was down a metal stairway, Katya took them three at a time, barely controlled. Somerset paused at the top, he could hear a train slowly rolling. He crashed down to the bottom of the stairs.
The stairs opened onto a long bare platform, next to train tracks. 80 feet ahead a train accelerated towards the dark tunnel opening. Katya stood there, staring.
“He’s got away…” she said, her pistol lowering.
Patrick and Krupin clanged down off the stairs, out of breath.
Somerset turned, “Stop that train” he ordered them.
Krupin raised his AK, aiming at the train, Patrick scanned the walls and pointed at an electrical junction box.
“No, that! Shoot that!” he shouted. Krupin opened full auto on it, metal and sparks flew and a terrible grinding sound came from the train as automatic brakes clamped.
Katya laughed and took off down the platform towards the train.
The gunshots were still echoing when a metal object bounced down the stairs. Krupin yanked Patrick away, Somerset stepped forward and booted the grenade onto the tracks.
The detonation was deafening, echoing back and forth off the concrete walls. Old dust filled the air for several seconds. Katya stumbled then recovered her footing.

“We got this Somerset, help her” Krupin shouted, pulling out a thick black disk. A squeeze and the motion sensor on the landmine activated. With a flick of his thick wrist he spun it along the ground towards the stairs.

Somerset pounded along the platform, wiping dust from his eyes. Katya was much closer to the slowing train. A front train door opened and he saw Dorjiev for the first time, the old man glared at them, then swung down and onto the tracks heading for the tunnel entrance. Katya cried out, “Dorjiev!”

Patrick started getting up, but his leg went and he sank back against the wall.
“You hurt?” Krupin asked.
Patrick shook his head tiredly.

A click echoed, Krupin turned to see a heavily scarred man already at the bottom of the stairs, his bulky SMG pointed at them. Krupin raised his rifle, but the SMG chattered immediately. Bullets punched Krupin’s body armour, knocking him down. They tore the concrete wall above Patrick, showering him with fragments.
“Zalozhniy!” Patrick shouted to Krupin

On his back, Krupin nodded and fired a three-round burst between his feet at the scarred man. His shots hit the SMG, buckling metal and twisting the weapon out of the man’s’ grasp. He grabbed for it, but missed and it fell. Anger flared in his eyes, he reached inside his combat jacket.

Patrick lobs remaining ZB. Krupin shoots his SMG out of his hands – he looks pissed off. Freaks out, fumbles for grenade.

Dorjiev ran past the front of the train. For an old man he’s moves fast, Somerset thought. Katya was close behind Dorjiev, passing the final window of the first carriage. Something moved in the train headlights, further down the tunnel Somerset noticed. Someone, or something, was coming down the tunnel towards them.
The situation was still out of control. Katya hadn’t noticed the second figure, Dorjiev was heading to an area on the tunnel wall and whoever was coming down the tunnel was getting closer and closer.
Instinct took over, Somerset fired from the hip while running over the rough tunnel floor. An impossible shot hit Dorjiev in the back of the head. He tumbled to the ground, rolled and started to get up again.

I need a fucking dying Zalozhniy right now, Somerset thought.
Beyond Dorjiev and Katya the figure coming down the tunnel moved into the train headlights. Somerset recognised him. Joe Lisky, the former head of the Lisky Bratva. Now a servant of Dorjiev.

Krupin sprang to his feet and opened full auto. His spirits sank as the bullets hammered home on the scarred man, but he didn’t die. Patrick was right. Zalozhniy. Around his neck were a line of stitches.
“Gas!” Patrick shouted over the deafening rifle fire. He lobbed the Zyklon metal hopper, past Krupin, and limped back and away, pulling out his mask again. The hopper landed past the bottom of the stairs, sliding on the floor, scattering pellets.

Dorjiev was up and moving again despite the head shot when Katya caught him. She slammed into his back, her combat knife flashing down into his thigh, cutting tendons and muscle.
“You die! My Yasha!” she screamed.
She yanked the bloody knife out, swinging back for a second stab. Joe Lisky punched her hard in the face, she rocked back on her heels. Dorjiev shrugged her off, struggling to his feet.

Get out the way Katya! thought Somerset. The three people were a tangle, too confused. He wanted to shoot Dorjiev, he didn’t care about Joe, but Katya… He felt a cool wave as he imagined hitting her. He couldn’t risk it.

“Katya, drop!” he shouted, she made no sign she heard.
“Shit”, he knelt, rifleman position, drawing a bead on Dorjiev trying to get a clear shot past Katya. She was in the way. His finger squeezed the trigger slightly, on the edge of pulling.

A blast wave rolled over him, the afterimage filled his vision and dust coated his mouth. He could see nothing for a second, all sounds were muffled. He checked quickly over his shoulder. Krupin and Patrick were flat on the floor twenty feet behind him, covered in dust and smoke, a grenade hole in the platform near them. The scarred man at the stairs, walked forward, pulling a pistol, eyes boring into their prone forms.

Not got time to deal with that. He turned back to his rifle squinting down the sights.

Katya blocked his view. She had her back to Dorjiev now, looking straight at Somerset.

His heart slowed. Breath caught. Finger tightened.

She dropped out of his line of sight.

Dorjiev. He slid the crosshairs to the centre of Dorjiev’s forehead.

He could see beads of sweat on Dorjiev’s skin.

He could count his hairs.

Somersets finger squeezed harder.

The gun kicked.

He heard a report as if it was a long way away.

Dorjiev’s head jerked, blood sprayed out and he crumpled, hitting the tunnel wall.

Further back along the platform, Krupin raised his head. The scarred man took another step towards them. Krupin heard, finally, the ping of the motion sensor activating. The scarred man and the stairs disappeared in an explosion of flame and dust as the mine detonated.

After long seconds, the clouds cleared. He stood there still, swaying. Half his face was missing, an arm hung from a few ragged tendons, still holding a pistol. Slowly he fell forward, hitting the platform face first, dead.

Joe Lisky swung again at Katya, hitting her shoulder as she stood up. She staggered sideways but stumbled forward towards Dorjiev’s body, ignoring Joe.

Somerset fired again, over Katya, hitting Joe in the face. From kneeling he sprang into a run towards them.

Katya was wildly sawing at Dorjiev’s neck, his blood coating her hands and knife, splattering across her face. She grabbed a handful of Dorjiev’s hair as Somerset got to her and lifted his head free, scraps of bloody flesh dangling. Tears streaked her face, she wiped the back of her knife hand across her mouth, leaving a thick smear of blood.
“Dead” she said.
“Yes, he is.” Somerset replied.

Krupin and Patrick staggered up, grey from the dust, Patrick looking askance at Katya.
“Soldiers ahead and behind” Krupin said grimly to Somerset.

Somerset knelt quickly, examining Joe Lisky’s body. Next to his new cranial hole was an older bullet hole, crudely sewn shut. A Zalozhniy. Dead.

“Cool, there’s a secret passage here.” Patrick called out, from the tunnel wall. Where Dorjiev had been heading, the wall had moved back, revealing an unlit parallel passage beyond.

Somerset studied the pitch black hole, hearing alarms and the approaching crunch of boots.

“Let’s go. Whatever’s down there is probably better than what’s here” he said. Krupin and Patrick quickly moved inside, guns held ready.

Somerset turned to Katya, who hadn’t moved. “Come on. Drop that.”
Her eyes slowly focused on him. She dropped the head and walked unsteadily towards the hole. He watched her as she unconsciously raised a hand to her mouth and took a long lick of Dorjiev’s blood, swallowing.
What did they do to you? he thought. Or what did you do to you?

The passage was wide, solid and wound its way underground for hundreds of yards. It changed into a brick-lined tunnel. Smaller passages and room complexes opened up on either side. Soon there were no other sounds than their footsteps and breathing.

“Katya, are you ok?” Somerset asked as they walked. She had been quiet, subdued.
“I’m fine.” she said, not looking at him.
He sighed, trying to find better words. “The team can fix things. It’s not too late.”
“All the things I needed fixed have been fixed now.” she spoke sharply. He could see her lips pressed tight.
So much for the subtle approach. He mulled several ways of asking, but couldn’t decide, so he just said it. “Did Dorjiev kill Yasha?”
She stopped and stared at him.
“Oh that.” She took a deep breath, “Sort of. Yasha got ill, really ill. Dorjiev had him and threatened, he threatened to…”, she started walking again, “…you know.”
“To make him into a zalozhniy?” Somerset asked shocked.
“Into my zalozhniy.” she said, not looking at him.

Ahead on point, Krupin whistled in surprise, and stopped. He flicked his torch beam around waiting for the others to catch up.
“What’s up?” Patrick asked him.
Krupin shone his torch on a large, tiled swastika on the wall next to him. “This is Wehrwolf bunker.” he said.

Brick tunnel, concrete tunnel, hundreds of yards of it, a virtual maze.
Long journey through old base. At padlocked gate. Moonlight beyond. Blast off padlock, out into trees and surface ruins. Pool. Snow/winter.

Bright moonlight lit the tunnel with a ghostly light, reflecting off pristine, fresh snow. A cold wind drifted flakes through the bars of a rusted iron grate across the exit. Sparse trees and undergrowth lay in front of the entrance as far as they could see. The only movement was foliage in the wind.
There had been no sounds of pursuit from the underground. Outside even the sound of the wind was muffled by the trees and snow. The world was at peace.

Patrick grinned happily. He gave the padlock on the grate a yank and it broke off in his hand, rusted through.
“Let’s get out of here” he said.

Relax – have we actually escaped?

S, Kr, & P’s weapons fly out of their hands.
Maria Orsic’s voice – well done K, now just the final part of your initiation.
K goes for gun, S faster, grabs her, pulls her close, kisses her, she’s surprised, then S bowie knife into K heart, but awkward angle and she’s surprisingly strong.
K fires Glock PB into his heart. He’s hurt.

P calls in helicopter. Maria – So looking forward to seeing you die like your father Somerset.
P and Kr slump asleep.

S pulls gun & shoots K – chunks out of her stomach, spine, but she’s still going. K grabs him, picks S up and slams him onto the ground. S kicks K knee, cracks, then follows up with kick to K head, she falls dead.
S pulls his knife out , takes a moment to close her eyelids. Regret?
Maria appears, lifts S up without touching him, slamming him hard into the ground. Kr wakes up and autofires, P grabs K’s gun.
M slams S down again, he taunts her with how many of her kind he’s already killed, and she HTH.
Kr fires again at her. P shoots M in shoulder, slows her down, she looks shocked..
Helicopter arrives overhead. M staggers, but shakes head and slaps S hard. Hammer grip Bowie knife, punches into M heart. Steps back leaving it there. Kr shoots M. P shoots M.
M runs backwards very fast, spins, drops.

S goes to M, her body aging very fast, she expires. “For my father,” he says. Heli lands.

S finds note in pocket from K. Address in upscale Ukraine. 6 year old boy, Katya’s eyes. S sits him down.

“Let me tell you about your mother.”

From the Tower of Darkness

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!

Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after some To-morrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.”
- Omar Khayyam

Rosario and Somerset strode into the lobby of the Kingdom Center’s Four Seasons hotel. Once the crown jewel of the Saudi skyline, the skyscraper had fallen behind younger, taller buildings springing up across Riyadh and Jeddah. Now, at just over a decade old, it had a prideful air of faded lavishness that seemed almost conservative by the soaring standards of its ambitious neighbours.

They waited for polished elevator doors to chime open and, entering, Rosario lowered the black holdall with a heavy, metallic thunk.

“Got everything?” Somerset asked, one eyebrow raised in a hint of mockery.

“I’d have brought the kitchen sink if I could have got it in the bag,” Rosario answered. “Just want to make sure we’re prepared. The plan isn’t as watertight as I would like."

“They rarely are,” Somerset said. He seemed to be acting reassuring, but something dark flickered across his eyes. “Did Katya tell you about the Koernerbank?”

Rosario chuckled, making light of it. “She mentioned something about it, yes.”

“Yeah, well. Let’s just say we should be prepared to improvise.”

Although the hotel had its prerequisite luxury Kingdom Suite, bedecked with all the decadence money could buy, Somerset and Rosario’s shared double had a distinctly pragmatic air, though the price was still well beyond their dwindling funds. But after what they were about to do, vacating a room on a stolen credit card was going to be the least of their worries.

They went straight for the panel behind the bathroom sink, where the architect plans had revealed an access point for the building’s huge and labyrinthian air ducts. Somerset heaved the ceramic basin away in a shower of ruined plaster then set to work on the panel with a wrench. A few minutes later, he crawled through the gap and Rosario passed the heavy bag through to him.

They’d studied the plans relentlessly over the past twenty-four hours, in between snatches of sleep and several trips to source the specialist equipment that now filled the holdall. Even so, they hadn’t been fully prepared for the cloying, claustrophobia of the vents. They had to force themselves down each narrow duct, like a cork into a bottle. Trapped in here, it was impossible to imagine they were in fact hundreds of feet above the ground.

Eventually, they forced their way out into a wide vertical shaft, hung with heavy cables. Somerset hooked a rope on to a diagonal girder and allowed it to take his weight while he recovered his breath.

“That,” Rosario panted, “looked a lot easier in the movies.” He looked down into the shadowed elevator shaft below them, seeing the body of an elevator rise up the steel chamber lit by light leaking from vertical ranks of elevator doors. It paused at a floor far below them, then sank back down out of sight.

Somerset checked his watch. “Patrick should be meeting Katya at the airfield in ten minutes. Come on, clock’s ticking.”

Using ropes from the bag for support, they climbed another five stories before hauling opening a maintenance panel in the side of the elevator shaft and slipping into a maintenance room. Rosario moved to the door, and carefully opened it a crack. He watched as a small patrol of private security men strolled idly through the open plan office space.

The two agents quickly picked their way through chest-high cubicle walls, the worn carpet easily masking the sound of their footsteps. They made their way to the elevator that served the office levels and Somerset slipped a thin piece of metal between the doors. They both heaved one half of the sliding doors open. Rosario slipped through with the holdall, then Somerset followed, letting the door slide shut. The four bored security guards continued their monotonous circuit of the floor, oblivious.

The agents clambered upwards into the lattice frame which formed the backbone for the Kingdom Center’s iconic tuning-prong design. Although the close packed steel girders made the climb relatively straightforward, they still had around thirty floors to ascend until they reached the top of the 300m tower. However, due to a quirk of Riyadh building regulations, the building was actually unoccupied in the bulk of the tallest sections. A short climb would put them at the top of the conference area, then a further elevator shaft completed the journey to the very top and the lobby of the skybridge.

After only a few minutes of climbing, Rosario’s bag felt like an anchor tugging him downwards into the dark void below. Somerset offered to take the load while they paused for breath, then looked at his watch again. “We’re falling behind,” he warned.

They could hear the rumble of elevators moving above and below them, and feel the breeze as the air in the shaft was displaced. Somerset fished a torch out of his pocket and shone it around, examining a connecting shaft adjacent to them. An elevator descended and slowed to a halt a few meters away with a faint creak of oiled machinery.

“Come on,” Somerset said. “I’ve had enough of climbing.” Shouldering the bag, he hauled himself, ape-like, through the zig-zagged beams and swung lightly onto the roof of the elevator. Rosario followed, trying hard not to think of the black abyss beneath him. He alighted on the roof beside Somerset as the elevator began moving upwards again. Somerset motioned him to lie down.

The elevator accelerated upwards and Rosario felt his ears pop as the air pressure changed. Scant seconds later, the car began to decelerate and Rosario felt the strange sensation of weightless, rendered all the more terrifying by the fact that he was inches from the edge of roof with no hand-holds to speak of. He closed his eyes and concentrated on a silent prayer that there would be space at the top of the shaft so that they would not be crushed by the rising elevator.

The elevator halted. Rosario opened his eyes and squinted up at the tangle of cables and pulleys that lay just a few inches from his head. He let out a long relieved breath even as he felt Somerset tugging at his elbow.

“Got to get moving,” Somerset whispered. “Before it goes back down.”

Rosario slid off to the side of the car, and lowered himself on to a crossbeam. He quickly found a place to loop the rope around – once the elevator descended, there would be nothing between the two of them and the thirty storey fall. Somerset dropped down beside him and clipped on.

The elevator quietly began its return journey. Once it had gone, Somerset shone the torch around again, spotting the final maintenance hatch, exactly where it had been marked in the plans. Moments later, they were inside a small room, filled with circuit breakers and junction boxes. Somerset carefully tried the door, moving as slowly as he could manage. The door was unlocked, but he didn’t risk opening it. Satisfied that they had a viable exit, he pressed his ear to the door panel and listened.

“Can’t hear anything,” he said, frowning.

“The ritual’s going to be out in the middle of the skybridge,” Rosario answered, his nerves relaxing somewhat now that their gravity-defying climb was over. “Just how noisy did you think it would be?”

“Well excuse me for expecting there to be chanting or something,” Somerset hissed back. “Better check in with Patrick.”

Rosario’s blood suddenly ran cold. It was time to come clean. “Somerset, there’s something we need to talk about first,” he said, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard by anyone passing through the lobby beyond.

“Oh,” the Englishman replied, his face suddenly cold. “Speak then.”

“It’s about Katya … I couldn’t risk telling you before now. Katya … she’s working with Dorjiev.”

A ripple of emotion passed almost imperceptibly through Somerset’s face. Rosario wondered if the other agent simply shoot him and leave. It was that very fear that had kept him from revealing the truth until now, when it was too late to back out.

Somerset’s cold stare abruptly relaxed. “I know,” he sighed. “I suppose I did all along. I was never convinced by that story about how she got out of hospital. So she’s with Dorjiev. Fine. Think that’s going to make this job any easier?”

“She’s bringing his Zalozhniye. They’re tough. Should be good when the fighting starts.”

Somerset nodded slowly. “And Katya, what’s to stop her turning on us once all this over?”

“She won’t. She’s struggled with this, I know. He almost broke her, before she came to me. And he has some hold over her. But this team means more to her than you think. She will stand by us, I know it.”

Somerset rubbed his brow between his thumb and forefinger, scowling. “Bet your life on it?”

Then their radio earpieces crackled to life. “Did someone order a Hind gunship?” Patrick’s cheerful voice said over the airwaves. “Have the welcome package ready. ETA, 30 seconds.” Rosario grinned at Somerset.

Then everything went wrong.


Twelve years later

Katya sat in the last row of pews, looking up at the stained glass window. The Italian sunset made the colours glorious, but the shards of light were far above her. The nave of the church was shadowed, empty.

“The note you left at Snovi said you’d come sooner. I was ready years ago.” Her words echoed off stone walls.

Sparks of dust drifted idly in the sunlight.

“It was difficult to track everyone down in South America. Took a little longer, in the end.” Somerset’s voice came softly from the darkness behind her. Dangerous and still familiar.

“You sure you got them all?” she asked.

“I’m sure.”

In the silence that followed she heard Somerset’s shoes scuff on the tiled floor and wood creak. Katya felt her pew lift slightly as he sat down on the far end.

“Just a few, final loose ends,” he said.

She turned to him. “Rosario’s plaque is on the wall to your right.” He held her gaze. There was still steel in his remaining eye, but no hate. The other eye was an uncomfortable milky white, a jagged scar running down from his eyebrow to his cheek. He turned his head to the plaque.

Freed from his gaze, she assessed him. He wore a suit, of course, dark material. Underneath it, he still seemed in good shape, though age crinkled his eyes. His hair was short, in the dark she thought she could see flashes of silver in the blond.

And, of course, more scars. A long, thin one round his neck, and a large patch of shiny pink skin on the back of his left hand. She wondered what kept him going.

He shifted slightly and she noticed the dark metal of a suppressor resting in the crook of his arm, pointed at her. She couldn’t see the rest of the gun.

He bowed his head and turned back to her. “We could have done better that day.” he said, his voice laced with regret.

“You’ve never told me how he died.”

Somerset sighed. “Not the way he deserved to.”

Something was troubling him. She wore a sharp grey skirt and cropped jacket. Italian styling, he guessed. She looked full of health. He tried to remember how old she was, how old she ought to look. Wasn’t she about his age? He knew he looked worn out and damaged in comparison.

Katya didn’t look any older than when he had last seen her, twenty years ago. On that day.
He cleared his throat.

“Everything looked like it was going to plan, for all of ten seconds. We got the drop on one of them by the Eastern elevator. He was fast – like Thaler and the others – but the silver did for him, just as we figured. Rosario blew the roof, like we planned.

“We couldn’t see much of the ritual, just figures in the smoke. We held them back with a couple of grenades. I think they hit Rosario then, but he was still moving. The gunship cleared the rest of the bridge.” Somerset paused, his eyes fixed on the middle distance, recalling the spraying glass, torn bodies tumbling into the night.

“When the firing stopped, we went for the altar. Patrick was yelling something, fouling up the radio. I thought he was just excited or panicking. People get like that in combat sometimes. I should have realised.”

She interrupted. “He was in control, the zalozhniye were shooting at him. He jumped out.”

“There was nothing left on the bridge. Just the altar, and an empty syringe, I think. That’s when you and your friends started shooting everything to bits. We started running back, the whole fucking thing coming down around us. It was destruction. I remember hearing Rosario cry out then, but it was impossible to tell above the noise. I just dropped the thermite charge, and we rappelled down the elevator shaft. He never said anything. The sprinklers were washing everything down, and I didn’t notice how badly he was bleeding.“

Somerset took a long breath in, flexing his scarred hand, eyes fixed on it.

“We got back to the conference room level. Rosario landed hard. I saw he wasn’t right. But then you were back on the radio screaming about the 747.”

Katya nodded. “It was coming in so fast. There was no time. I thought you were still on the bridge.”

Somerset did not look at her, did not even seem to hear her. “I shot out the nearest window and pushed Rosario through and jumped after him. We were, I guess, on the 40th floor or so. The plane hit 20 floors below, half-way down the building. It was … Anyway, we’d both pulled ripcords, our chutes were deploying. We tried to steer away. The glass … It took so long to explode, I’d given up expecting it. I assumed it wasn’t going to, it was empty of fuel. Then the air blazed and burned. A sheet of fire reached up and swallowed him, his scream turned to static as the radio burned.”

“I still hear it too,” Katya said quietly.

Again Somerset ignored her. “You know what keeps me awake at night? It’s not wondering whether I could have done something different. It’s knowing that I couldn’t.”

“Somerset, it wasn’t your-” Katya began speaking, but fury grabbed him.

“No, it wasn’t my fucking fault, it was yours – you killed him. He was dead before we even set foot in that building. Because he trusted you!” He spat the final word like a curse, shattering the warm silence.

She flushed, her own anger building. “Bullshit. I did what I had to do, Dorjiev did what he did whether I was there or not. He nearly killed me too! I sacrificed myself in the caves for you, for us, facing Philby, and you did what you always do, you abandoned me. You weren’t by my bed when I woke, Dorjiev was. He healed me, showed me how to make a Zalozhniye and-”

“That’s it? That’s your excuse?” scorn dripped from Somerset’s words. He’d been building up to this for some time. Decades. “So Dorjiev let you into the secret of his little pets and just like that you turned on your friends, the people who saved you time and again! Saved you from Dorjiev, in case you’d forgotten?”

Katya sensed rather than saw his grip on the gun tightening.

“No!” she snapped, it sounded less like a snarl of defiance than she felt, “Rosario saved me, not you. You distanced yourself, you kept yourself safe. We weren’t a team, we just shared your goals for a bit.”

“I was acting like a trained agent should! I was- ”

“No! I was, I am! Dorjiev has power. Not votes, not money. Real fucking power. I was doing our jobs, being an agent. Learning, stealing his knowledge. Working both sides – that’s what we do, Somerset. Well, that’s what I do. You assume-.”

“My god, you actually believe that, don’t you? I see how you fooled Rosario! He told me, you know… About you and Dorjiev. About the Zalozhniye. How you’d choose sides before the end. Guess he was right, afterall. But you chose Dorjiev, didn’t you?

“No!” Her voice cracked.

“Go on,” he goaded, “Admit it. This is an apt place for a confession.”

“No, I hadn’t chosen then,” she repeated, her voice firmer. “and I did nothing that you wouldn’t or shouldn’t have done. There’s no halo above your head, David Somerset. I played the cards I was dealt and I played to win. I had no clue that mudak (ублюдок) would fly a fucking plane into the tower. I didn’t know, I would have told you, warned you, don’t you dare think I wouldn’t.”

Somerset snorted “Easy to say now. To justify it to yourself. God, you admire him, don’t you?”

“I hate him! He nearly killed me that night, and he had my Yasha.., he had him-” For the first time her eyes broke contact.

“Poor you,” Somerset said icily.

“Fuck you.” she said with venom. “I thought Dorjiev could be managed, at least long enough to finish the job, to get us out alive. And he finished them off, he did with the plane what we couldn’t even think of doing.”

“He killed thousands!”

“How many would be dead if they’d finished the ritual or survived, if we’d failed? He’s insane, but insanely brilliant. A man like that … you’re either with him, or dead. We were living on borrowed time.”

“Speaking of which,” Somerset said abruptly. “I think I’ve heard enough. Just so you know, I’d never have played his game.”

He rose to his feet, extending the gun in a long, single-handed stance, his body angled so that he stood almost sideways, his back to the altar. The light of the setting sun spilled through the open doors, inking one side of his scarred face with shadow. There was no pleasure in his expression, no pain, just that stony, determined look he’d always worn. The same one that had been stalking her across the years.

“Goodbye, Katya Lavrova.”

“Hold on.” she said calmly. “You can’t kill Dorjiev without me.”

“You’re lying.” The gun didn’t waver. It was pointed at her face, only a few feet away.

“You can’t kill him with bullets or bombs. I can show you how to do it, I’m the only one who knows his secrets.” She spoke fast, but sat, studying him intently over the barrel.

“You’re betraying him too?” He gave a cynical laugh.

“Yes, I am. But for something better. We made a good team, Somerset, you, me, the others. We balanced each other out, we achieved a lot. We could be a team again, you and me. One last job, before you get too old.”

‘You get too old’, not ‘we get too old’, he thought.

Part of him wanted to just pull the trigger, to simplify things, to stop having to think. “You kill him then, if you know how.” he said.

She smiled ruefully. “He’s not stupid. He’s taken steps to stop me doing that. But you could, with my help.”

He shrugged a tiny fraction. “Thanks, but I think I’ll kill you and try my luck with him. One less knife at my back.”

Katya shook her head, a look of pity at him. “You can’t kill me with guns either. Not anymore.” she said. “You know there’s hidden knowledge and powers. You know Dorjiev has that power, and I’ve learned from him for decades. The things he meant to teach me and other things I’ve found on my own.”

She stood up slowly, watching him, arms wide, palms open. His pistol tracked her, sliding down to stop pointing at her heart. She spoke softly. “You don’t need to trust me Somerset, we have the same goal. We’d be a powerful team again. More powerful than before. We’d finally avenge Rosario, and Sergei. Please David, help me kill Dorjiev.”

It made a horrible, tempting logic. It could easily be true. What had she done in the years he was deep in the jungle?

Another, colder thought washed over him. If she showed him how to bypass Dorjiev’s protections, that might bypass hers too. If she had them.

She could be lying, again. A last bluff to save her life and get him to do her dirty work. Or get him killed.

He glanced up at the roof, seeking answers. The shards of colour had slid along and up the stonework, the sunlight weakening, shadows lengthening in the nave.

He weighed the probabilities, and his feelings.

And decided.

The Wrong Side of History

Dawn smeared the eastern sky, fingers of light reaching through the rolling dunes. In less than an hour, the sun would be up and the temperature would begin to soar. Patrick and Rosario had managed to winch Katya’s limp body out of the pit on a rudimentary stretcher and were loading her into the back of the 4×4. A thick wad of gauze was wrapped tightly around her left shoulder and throat. She was stable, but the wound was bad. She was drifting in and out of consciousness.

Somerset clambered up out of the shaft, carrying a bundle wrapped in a handkerchief. Patrick raised an eyebrow. “That’s it?” he asked.

“Yep.”Somerset’s reply was terse. “Let’s get it out of here.”

“What’s the plan?” Rosario asked. “Are we going back to Riyadh?”

Somerset shook his head. “Not unless we have to. How soon will she recover?” He jerked his head at Katya, her chest rising and falling in a shallow, but even, rhythm.

“She needs a hospital. If she stays hydrated and the wound doesn’t open up, well, she’ll be okay where she is for a few days or more. But she does need proper medical attention.”

“Good, then we’ll make for Yemen. It’s a couple of extra day’s travel but, if we’re lucky, we’ll avoid anyone who picked up our trail in Riyadh.”

Rosario glanced uncomfortably at his patient, but accepted the logic behind Somerset’s decision. The boiling sun had crested the dunes now and was already beating down on the back of his head with an almost physical force. “We won’t get far today,” he said. “But we should at least move away from this place.”

Somerset glanced back over his shoulder at the hole, scowling. “Agreed. You stay with Katya. I’ll take the lead vehicle. Patrick can drive you for the time being. We’ll get a few miles under us before we stop for the day.”

They finished loading the rest of their gear while Somerset took a roll of duct tape and the Nigredo and slid himself under his 4×4. When he emerged, the Nigredo was safely stowed, hidden from all the but the most persistent inspection. Moments later they were accelerating out across the undulating sand, leaving a billowing, dusty wake behind them. As they bounced and rattled across the dunes, Rosario watched Katya where she lay, silent and unconscious. What now, he wondered. They had the Nigredo. They were supposed to destroy it. But how? On top of that, only Katya and he knew that the Albedo was already lost. Would that matter if they could somehow neutralise the other part?

He considered this as the vehicles weaved through the desert, the sun rising steadily through the sky above them. Then his ears caught a low sound, barely audible above the labouring diesel engine.

“Anyone else hear that?” Rosario asked into his radio.

“Hear what?” Somerset’s voice crackled.

Rosario felt the blood drain from his face. “Helicopter,” he said, his sweat suddenly cold on his skin.

Patrick swore poetically from the front seat.

“Stay calm,” Somerset ordered. “We don’t know who it is yet.” The rhythmic chatter of the helicopter blades was easy to discern now. Rosario craned his neck trying to see where it was coming from. “There’s a lot of oil exploration out here,” Somerset continued. “Could be that it’s just …” His voice trailed off as the lumpen profile of a gunship floated out of dunes, like a gross, misshapen insect. Its shape was clearly military, not a design used by oil explorers.

“That’s a bloody Hind!” Patrick yelled.

“Patrick,” Somerset’s voice crackled through the radio. “Throw your satphone out the window.”

“What?! How will that … ?”

“Just do it!”

Patrick’s window lowered and the black plastic handset disappeared out into the dunes. “Done,” he said. Ahead, he could see Somerset leaning forward in his seat tucking something behind his back. “You’ve got a plan, right?” the Irishman asked.

“Split up?” Rosario suggested.

“Sure, sure. It can only follow one of us, right?”

Most of Somerset’s exasperated response was lost in the thunderous downdraft as the huge Russian Mil Mi-24 soared overhead, only a dozen feet from the top of the 4×4s. “It will only have to follow one of us when the other is a smoking hole in the desert. Just keep driving.”

The massive aircraft lurched round and slowed its forward momentum before descending rapidly into a depression a few hundred yards ahead. As it flank came into view, they could see the Overwatch Security marking on the tail. Rosario’s heart sank further. This was no coincidence – they were definitely the target. There would be no running. Not when their tire tracks were leaving an unmissable trail for leagues behind them. Darkness was their only hope, and sunset was hours away. The giant helicopter rose again and turned, rocket pods and autocannons swinging lazily towards them.

A swarm of dark figures crested the dune ahead and fanned out across the sand.

“Nothing else for it then,” Somerset said bitterly. He carried on slowly towards the soldiers, each of whom carried a large, automatic rifle. Somerset stopped beside them and lowered the driver’s side window. “What seems to be the problem, officer?” he asked sarcastically.

“Get out of the vehicle,” the man barked. He had an American accent. Resigned, Somerset killed the engine and stepped out. Rosario and Patrick copied him, clambering out of their own 4×4. Other soldiers ushered them away to where Somerset stood defiant, staring down their commander, though he was a head shorter than the big man.

The troops surrounded them and pushed them roughly to the ground. Oven hot sand stung Rosario’s eyes and filled his mouth as a heavy rubber sole pressed down on him.

“There’s another one in the back here,” a soldier called. “A woman. Seems to be injured, sir.”

“Bring her out,” the commander ordered. Rosario tried to rise, but the force on his head only increased as he squirmed. He heard Katya moan as she was dumped on the floor beside them, then she fell silent, lapsing back into unconsciousness.

“Where is the Nigredo?” the American asked.

No one answered.

“Where is the Nigredo?” he asked again. His voice was authoritative, with no hint of annoyance. “I am not going to ask a third time.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” Somerset replied, his voice muffled by the clogging sand.

The American did not reply, but Rosario saw him motion to one of the attending soldiers. A gunshot cracked and Patrick gasped in pain and swore.

“Stop!” Rosario yelled, “Please, it’s hidden under the chassis. Lead vehicle. Just stop!”

The weight on his head abruptly vanished and he looked up, blinking the sand out his eyes and spitting.

“You!” the leader ordered Somerset, who was already glaring angrily at Rosario. “Fetch.”

Somerset dusted himself off and walked back towards the stationary 4×4. Patrick whimpered in pain where he lay still curled on the ground, clutching his chest.

“Please,” Rosario said to the nearest soldier. “He’s hurt, at least let me see the wound.”

The soldier tuned his head towards his commander, who gave a curt nod, before striding away in pursuit of Somerset. He was pulling himself under the 4×4 for the second time that morning.

Rosario dropped down beside Patrick. “Let me see,” he said.

Patrick uncurled himself, moaning in pain. As he rolled over, he caught Rosario’s eye. His face twitched in what for a fraction of a second looked like a wink.

Rosario checked the bullet wound. The Irishman had been lucky. The bullet had been stopped by his thin kevlar vest. Even so, he’d likely have a few cracked ribs and some serious bruising. As Rosario examined the area, where the skin was already beginning to turn purple, the young man gasped and clutched at Rosario’s hand. He felt a small metallic object being pressed into his palm. He had stifle a smirk as he told Patrick to lay down and rest. Then Rosario slipped the tracker bug up his sleeve.

Somerset finished detaching the concealed lump of black rock and dragged himself back out from beneath the vehicle. A fresh set of feet had joined the military boots, these ones clad in a pair of cheap leather loafers.

“Dawlish!” a refined English accent said in mock surprise. Somerset pulled himself to his feet and found himself face to face with Daniel Chambers.

“We’ll take that, if you don’t mind,” Chambers drawled.

Somerset held the American commander’s eye in a cold stare. He dropped the Nigredo into the man’s gloved hands with a dismissive snort. It didn’t do to look beaten, especially when you were. He turned away from the American to face the MI6 agent.

“Chambers,” Somerset said, his voice sounded more hoarse than he would have liked. “I’d hoped you were dead.”

“Sorry to disappoint, old boy.”

“There’s still time,” Somerset muttered. He looked Chambers up and down, noting that he was carrying himself a little awkwardly, as though recovering from recent injury.Evidently he hadn’t escaped Beirut completely unscathed.

“Well,” said Chambers. “This has been fun. But the game is over for you now. I’m afraid that being on the wrong side of history can be, well, fatal.” He turned away, gesturing to the American commander.

“You’re going to have your lackeys shoot us?” Somerset asked, forcing scorn into his voice.

Chambers paused, then looked back. “No.” He drew out the word as if he was pondering the contents of a wine list. “Bit suspicious, I suppose.” He turned to the American. “Leave them here. But wreck the vehicles.”

“I’ll finish what that thing in the graveyard started,” growled Somerset.

Chambers chuckled. “I’m sure you won’t. Oh, while I remember, I’ll have your satphone, please.” He held out his hand.

Somerset stared at him blankly.

“Come now, old boy. Not even someone as reckless as you would risk coming out here without one.”

Somerset stayed silent, staring the two men down. The American unholstered a handgun in a fast, fluid movement, racked the slide and, taking a half step forward, lunged the sun-warmed barrel into Somerset’s cheek. Chambers rolled his eyes in feigned embarrassment.

“Fuck you. Fine. Here it is.” Somerset reached down the back of his trousers and produced his satphone from where it had been nestled between his buttocks.

“Classy,” Chambers observed drily. He took the phone carefully between his thumb and forefinger, then dropped it to the floor and stamped down hard. There was a crack. He stamped again and the plastic case split apart, a cracked circuit board visible in the guts of the ruined device. “Goodbye, Dawlish,” Chambers said and walked away.

The circling Hind returned to its original landing site and began to settle, like a vast nesting bird. Abandoning the four captives, the Overwatch soldiers swarmed the vehicles. Some opened the bonnets, others reached underneath. Metal screeched in protest and liquid splashed to the sand.

“No!” Rosario shouted, lurching to his feet. “You’ll kill us all, you bastards!” He grabbed at the nearest trooper, one hand clutching at the man’s desert tunic, the other deftly planting the tracker bug under a fold in his webbing. For his trouble he received a rifle butt to the head that left his ears ringing. He landed hard in the sand once again. The soldiers, their work finished, filed back towards the waiting helicopter.

“Chambers!” Somerset called at the retreating figure, his voice almost drowned by the roar of the huge rotors. “I’ll be seeing you again.”

As the Hind vanished over the Northern horizon, Rosario and Somerset carried Katya into the small shade afforded by the ruined 4×4s. “We’ll need to get the shelter up. I think we’ll be here a while,” Somerset said. He turned to Patrick. “How’s the chest, by the way?”

Patrick shrugged. “I’ll live. I don’t feel much like hiking out of here though.”

“Fair enough,” Somerset replied. “Back in ten.” Then he walked out into the desert heat, following their tracks back to find the abandoned satphone.

Saleem arrived several hours later in a Bell helicopter and a foul mood. The flight back to Riyadh was tense. Rosario fed his old instructor a lie about them being on their way to an archeological dig when their vehicles had broken down. Saleem seemed far from convinced, but he calmed down slightly when Rosario made it clear that he would foot the bill for the hire of the helicopter. After that, the old Arab opened up a little, grumbling about the increased number of influential, but not entirely desirable, foreigners they’d had entering the Saudi capital over the past few days. The team, minus Katya, who was still drifting in and out of consciousness, shared a worried look.

The helicopter dropped them off at a hospital helipad in Riyadh and Katya was immediately checked in. She would need surgery, but she might be out within a fortnight, the doctors hoped. Rosario had known her wound was serious, but this was a major blow. Despite the terrible betrayal she had confessed to him in the car before they found the Nigredo and its twisted guardian, he’d been counting on her to be there at the end.

Leaving the hospital, they split up and arranged staggered check-ins at a new hotel. They chose somewhere closer to the centre, a little more upmarket than their usual choice. That meant the possibility of greater scrutiny than their typical no-questions-asked dive, but it was good tradecraft to vary their routine and it put them in the Olaya district, at the commercial heart of the city.

The place was clad decked in faux-marble which refracted the halogen spotlights which might once have looked chic, but now felt tired, though it gave the hotel a cool, sanitary air. Late that evening, Rosario let himself into Somerset’s room and nodded to Patrick. The younger man was ripping cables out of the back of the cheap LCD television and hooking them into one of his many laptops. Rosario slumped down into a creaking sofa chair and stared through a crack in the curtains at the view down King Fahd street, where neon lights framed office towers, shopping malls and highrises. Looming above them all was the Kingdom Center skyscraper, the city’s crown jewel. Its iconic, split oval void glared down at him, lit in fiery orange.

Patrick, seeming satisfied with his hijacked screen, pulled the computer into his lap and began typing. Lines of indecipherable code scrawled down the monitor and Patrick read off some geographic coordinates.

“Okay, the bug’s touched down,” he said, the information tumbling out of him without intonation. “Battery is almost out. Hasn’t moved in a few hours. Looks like the location’s pretty near by … here.”

The screen abruptly switched to a map view, showing an area to the north of Riyadh. Crossed and parallel lines resolved themselves into runways.

“Must be a private airfield,” Somerset observed from across the room, where he’d been lamenting the lack of mini-bar.

“Yep,” Patrick agreed, “Here’s the helipad too.” He indicated a flat, hexagonal piece of tarmac. “That must be where Overwatch Security are holed up.”

The screen changed again as Patrick typed rapidly. “The chopper is actually registered in a base outside Baghdad. It’s a long way from home. Would need a few fuel stops to get back. I guess it’s going to stay here for a while.” Patrick looked up, the light from the laptop giving his face a manic gleam.

“Oh, no,” Somerset, shaking his head vehemently. “I know what you’re thinking. The answer is no. N. O. No. That place will be crawling with those Overwatch pricks.”

Subdued, but clearly far from dissuaged, Patrick resumed his machine-like rattle as his fingers flew across his keyboard.

“Besides,” Rosario observed. “We don’t have any idea as to where they’ve taken the Nigredo yet. It might not even be in Riyadh any more.” The knowledge that the Albedo was already lost was weighing heavily on him. If Somerset found out, he would be gone in an instant. That wasn’t an excuse for not informing him, not by any stretch, but if he left, the operation would be over. He couldn’t risk that, not when there was a glimmer of hope. They were still alive. That was something.

Somerset has been speaking, but Rosario had missed the words while he struggled to align his thoughts. “Sorry, I missed that,” he said.

Somerset narrowed his eyes, then continued. “I said I think it’s still here. I’ve started following up on what your friend Saleem said. He’s right. Lots of strange folk coming into Riyadh at the moment, according to some. Now that we know Chambers has turned, I’ve put in a call to one of my former colleagues. Maybe they’ll turn up something.”

“If all these people are arriving, maybe they’re planning to use the ritual to activate the Nigredo, whatever that entails,” Rosario suggested.

Somerset looked uncomfortable. “Fits with what Katun told us, I suppose, but I’m not sure how they’ll manage without the Albedo. Either way, I’m eager to reclaim our ugly black rock. It wasn’t easy to find. But to do that-”

“We need work out where the ritual is happening,” Rosario finished. “We’ll need a list of ancient sites in or near the city. Somewhere that dates back to the Sumerian civilisation, perhaps?”

Somerset shook his head. “No, I don’t buy that. Your perspective is warped.” Rosario made to interrupt but Somerset waved him to silence. “Just hear me out. Christianity, the Vatican, robed priests following centuries old ceremonies – that’s your schtick. If I say ritual, all you can see are sites of ancient power,” Somerset spoke the last few words with a mocking emphasis. However, we’ve actually seen nothing to suggest that our … opponents … whatever the hell they are … nothing says they’ve got the slightest interest in sites of historical significance."

“Oh sure, and what about that hole in the desert? The one we just got back from?” Rosario asked indignantly.

“That belongs to the Bedouin tribe. The Al Murrah. The other lot didn’t even know about until 24 hours ago.”

“What about Dragovir?” Patrick asked, looking up from his screen.

Somerset frowned, rubbing his chin. “Maybe, but that seemed different somehow. There was something living there and it wasn’t like the others.” In truth, he didn’t like thinking about it and not just because of Sergei.

“Humph, well, it doesn’t matter anyway,” said Rosario. “We’re going to need a more information than this if we’re to make a move. I suspect the city is full of Overwatch and it would be more convenient for them to remain ignorant of our survival. For now, let’s keep our heads down and our ears open. Something will come up.”

“Sure,” Somerset replied. “I hope so.” He didn’t sound very confident.

Katya opened her eyes. Whitewashed walls, disinfectant smell. So, not dead then. Her throat was numb and she felt as though she was wrapped in a soft, warm blanket. She must have been given something for the pain. She glanced around, only moving her eyes for now. A drip hung to her left, slowly releasing its contents into her veins. She turned her head fractionally. She felt a sensation of tightness on her neck, but she didn’t pass out from pain. Good. She wriggled her fingers and toes. All present and correct. Very good.

Next, she tried raising her head but was immediately overcome by dizziness. She slumped to the pillow, took a few long breaths and tried again. The dizziness passed. She could see the rest of the room now, her legs stretched out on the bed, a single worn chair, a shuttered window and a man standing watching her.

“You look terrible,” he said. He spoke in Russian. He had greasy grey hair and a sickly pale complexion. His eyes glittered with dark glee and a cruel smile curled his wet lips.

“Dorjiev,” she croaked. It hurt to speak. She lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper, which eased the pain slightly. “You should have told us about Philby.”

“What about him?”

“He was still … alive.”

“He was?” Dorjiev sounded almost as amused as he did surprised.

“He had the Nigredo.”

“Ah,” Dorjiev nodded knowingly. “And where is it now?”

“My team,” Katya began uncertainly. Her memory was fuzzy, she remembered the sand, the heat, some shouting maybe? “My team had it.”

“That’s good. Where are they?”

“I don’t know. There’s a protocol. I can contact them.”

“First, you must discharge yourself. I will heal your wounds. I have special techniques.” A predatory grin lit Dorjiev’s pale face.

Katya clamped down on her fear. “Okay,” she said, she wanted to learn his secrets, access his power. She pulled herself up to sitting, fought off another wave of dizziness, then slid her legs off the gurney and stood, pulling the drip from her arm.

A nurse bustled in and gasped. She began to usher Katya back toward the bed, but Dorjiev intercepted her. “I’m taking her to a different hospital. Bring me your discharge forms.” The nurse retreated, grumbling. Katya retrieved what remained of her clothes from a drawer and began pulling them on. Dorjiev made no attempt to avert his eyes while she changed.

“So what happened to the Albedo?” Katya asked over her shoulder.

“They cheated me!” Dorjiev exclaimed. “They killed one of my children, who I created with my own hand.”


“My condolences,” Katya said dryly, turning to face him. “I’m ready to go.”

They took a taxi to the outskirts of the city. Dorjiev didn’t attempt to continue their conversation. She was glad for the chance to stay quiet since it meant the pain from her throat had reduced to a dull ach,e although the heat inside the car was making her head swim. Where was the team? Was she alone?

Dorjiev ordered the cab to a halt on the dusty roadside. They climbed out and waited until the bemused driver had disappeared back towards the city. Dorjiev led her towards the side of the road. She stumbled, her treasonous legs turning to jelly beneath her. She fell to her knees. Dorjiev scoffed impatiently. Beyond the tarmac, the ground fell away sharply, forming a ragged gulley. A human figure appeared, dressed in Arab robes. It bounded easily up the steep slope on its powerful legs. Orange static bloomed behind her eyes as the Zalozhniy swept her up into its arms. She was dimly aware of the smell of embalming salts as her vision faded to blackness.

She awoke for the second time. This room was dark, its walls uneven and glistening with moisture, almost like … a cave. Another drip had been attached to her arm, though it was no clear, sanitary liquid this time. Instead, the substance leaking slowly into her was dark and oily. On her other side, a blood bag fed directly into her right arm, yet another unknown liquid invading her body.

“Good, you’re awake at last,” Dorjiev said from somewhere behind her. “Drink this.”

The Zalozhniy carried a glass of liquid to her and pressed it to her lips. It tasted bitter. When she swallowed, she could feel her body flood with numbing cold.

“What are you going to do to me?” she asked. She must sound like a frightened girl she thought angrily.

“I am going to operate on you,” Dorjiev answered, his feral smile returning. “I will see to it that your wound recovers more efficiently. For now you should relax. Do not move. Just listen to my voice.” He reached towards a tray of shining instruments then began to remove the bandages from her neck. He prattled while he worked, commenting on the condition of the wound and speaking commands to the attendant creature. After a while his line of conversation began to meander, until he was discussing the principles of his work, as though he were with some academic peer. “Have you ever considered the notion of time?” he asked abruptly. “It is my opinion that time is not a linear phenomena, like a piece of string, but is instead folder like fabric, or knotted if you prefer.”

She wondered whether this related to the videos she’d retrieved from Dorjiev’s laboratory at Dragovir and the time dilation effect that occurred whenever a Zalozhniy killed. Why was he telling her this? Since she could not speak, she just stared at him where he loomed above her.

“These things you will need to know. You must assist me in the preparation of Zalozhniye. It is difficult to do, you must have the right corpse. There must be the right conditions. Time is not on our side.”

Finally he’s going to give me some of his secrets, she thought. She closed her eyes, I’ve got to remember this so I can do it without him. She sighed, her throat rasping. He’ll never let me leave him, she thought, and the team won’t take me back. She was damned.

Later, when he had finished his procedure and had bound her neck once more, she sat sideways on the edge of the makeshift stretcher. She asked him, “What will they do with the Albedo?”

He looked up at her from where he had been arranging his instruments. He answered in a slow, hesitant cadence. “The Organisation plans to do something awful to humanity, to treat us as cattle, even me!” The last part he almost shouted. She knew that it was this affront to his ego that bothered him the most. Good, that’s something I can use, she thought.

Her neck was feeling surprisingly good now, though it still twinged when she prodded at the bandages. She found that was able to stand again without feeling faint, so she made her way outside and dialled the number for Rosario’s burner phone.

He answered, cautiously, supplying the pre-arranged code. Once she’d given the answering phrase, he continued. “It’s good to hear from you. How have you- how are you doing?” He couldn’t keep the surprise and suspicion from his voice.

“I’m feeling better. Where’s the Nigredo?”

The was a long silence at the other end. “Katya, I’m sorry. Overwatch found us. They have the Nigredo now.”

She swore several times in Russian.

“We’re working on it,” he said. “We’ll find something, I promise.”

“Okay. There’s nothing else we can do. This is not good though.”

Rosario agreed, but the note of concern never left his voice. “Katya, what happened at the hospital?”

“I checked out.”

Rosario paused again, thinking. “It’s Dorjiev, isn’t it. You’re with him now.”

She bit her lip. No getting out of this. “He’s an ally, Rosario. We need him.”

“Somerset won’t see it that way.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. We’ll need him too before this is done. You’ll have to decide how to handle him.”

Rosario sighed wearily. “I’ll think of something,” he said.

“I’ll go break the news about the Nigredo. Dorjiev will not be happy. But I don’t think this changes things. We all know what needs to be done.”

She closed the handset and ducked back into the cool dark of the tunnel.

After Rosario hung up, he made his way to Somerset’s room. He was nervous – he didn’t know whether the suspicious Englishman would simply accept Katya’s implausibly early release from the hospital. He’d seen the creature’s attack first hand, after all.

A ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hung from the door handle. Rosario knocked and a few seconds later, he heard movement behind the peephole. The door swung open. The room was gloomy despite the bright daylight outside and the aging air conditioner rattled and wheezed in the far wall. Somerset’s chin was stained with a dirty stubble and his shirt was crinkled and untucked.

A pile of Arabic newspapers had accumulated beside a laptop – the same one Patrick had been tinkering with when they’d last met two days prior – which Somerset returned to as soon as he’d let Rosario into the room. He leaned over the computer and tapped at a few keys. He turned to where a series of colour printouts had been taped to the pale wallpaper to form a map of Riyadh, then swore beneath his breath. He grabbed a coffee cup and raised it to his lips, before dropping it again once he realised the cup had long since been drained.

“Are you okay, friend?” Rosario asked. He hadn’t seen this side of Somerset before. From the moment he had met him, this man had always been ruthlessly single-minded in setting out to achieve whatever goal was set in front of him, no matter the odds. Now, when the mission had all but ground to halt, all direction seemed to have leaked out of David Somerset.

“Yeah, sure. Been chasing leads on our Overwatch friends. And their masters. Whoever the hell they are.”

“Find anything?”

“No, god damn it. Everywhere I look, there’s whispers … such and such was seen on a flight to Riyadh a couple of days, so and so was transferring money into who-the-fuck-knows shell corporation based in Riyadh.” He laughed, though the sound was devoid of merriment. “I even found a bunch of weird Occult kiddies on a forum complaining about sleep paralysis, evil presences, visions and so forth. And gues what, they’re all based in Riyadh.” He ran his hand through his close-cropped hair. “All the chatter says Riyadh, just not where. Nor why.”

“Have faith, friend,” Rosario reassured him. “Something will come up.”

Not for the first time, he’d misjudged the agent’s mercurial intensity. The blue eyes blazed. “No, you don’t fucking understand, do you?” Somerset fumed. “If we don’t figure something else soon, then it’s over. Done. We’ve got a narrow window to plan whatever it is we’ve got to plan, else we’d be going in blind. And that’s not an option. These aren’t small time players any more. We’ll be dead men. No, far better to cut our losses and walk away. But will we even be able to, I wonder? We’re in, in up to our necks.” He caught himself, realising he was ranting. “I don’t … I don’t know that we can win this,” he admitted.

“I have news. Katya called.”

Somerset just stared at him. Rosario could see the gears turning behind his eyes. “That was quick,” he said eventually. His voice gave nothing away.

Rosario just shrugged, deciding to play dumb. “She sounded well. I think she’ll be able to rejoin us, when we need her.”

“Hmm, well that’s rather-” Somerset’s phone started ringing, it’s electronic warble stopping him mid sentence. He snatched it up in an instant. Rosario had the feeling he’d just dodged an uncomfortable line of conversation.

“Hello, Dawlish,” Alec Nicholson said.

“Alec, tell me you’ve got something,” Somerset urged, jamming the phone to his ear.

“All in good time. First of all, sorry about that business with Daniel Chambers. He’s MIA by our books. Was part of an SIS op’ in Beirut. Seems almost the whole bloody operational team was completely wiped out. No sign of Daniel afterwards. Of course, the odd vanishing act isn’t too uncommon in our line of work, as you well know, but if what you say is true, then he’s gone rogue.”

“Fat lot of good that does me now, Alec,” Somerset said irritably.

“Look, there was no reason to distrust him prior to this- ahem- ‘incident’.”

“Just tell me you’ve got something else for me to go on.”

“Ah, yes. There’s a German company, Millenium Group, subsidiary of KyssenThruppe AG, looks like they’re connected to some of your ‘friends’. I’ve recently tracked a large financial transaction of theirs to Riyadh.”

“Good. Great. But where? Where’s the money going?”

Alec told him. A few minutes later Somerset hung up and dropped the phone to the table. He turned to Rosario, eyes shining with renewed energy.

“Found something?” Rosario asked.

“Oh, yes. And you were wrong, you know,” Somerset said, turning to the window. “There’ll be no ancient tombs or lost desert temples or what have you. I’m reliably informed that certain German organisation with connections to one Black Sea Bank has recently hired out a large accomdation and conference area right here in Riyadh. They’ve paid top dollar, too. No expense spared.” He paused. “Any last guess as to where?”

“Not a clue,” Rosario grinned. “Come on, man, where is it?”

Somerset paused theatrically, then flung open the curtain. The sunlight stung their eyes as the gloomy suite was abruptly flooded with blazing desert sunshine. The view from the window was dominated by the enormous structure of the Kingdom Centre, blue sky reflected in the latticed mirror windows. The building clawed its way skyward, its huge parabolic arch stretching three hundred meters into the air. It was a powerful symbol of man’s dominance over nature, a vast expression of modernity. It was the last place Rosario would have thought of.

“Huh,” he said.

“Expensive, exclusive and, most of all, secure. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it from the start,” Somerset mused. “Now let’s get busy. We’ve got three days.”

Find one, lose one

The Empty Quarter

They stopped driving and made camp as the sun rose and the temperature soared. The desert was hard driving, according to the satnav they’d covered about 110km. 90km to go.

“Stretch out the tarps from the roof of the cars, it’s the only place we’ll get shade” Somerset ordered. “Put water under there with you and watch for scorpions and snakes. And eat something, you won’t feel like it, but you need it.”

“Should we take watches?” Patrick asked.

“No, I think we’re alright. We’re in the middle of nowhere, no-one will move in this if they’ve got any sense, and the heat haze will make spotting anything at a distance impossible.”
Somerset watched Rosario standing off, in the sun, away from the group. The ex-priest was talking to himself, or his God. Somerset crouched down next to Katya under the other tarpaulin.

“You and Rosario alright?” he asked her.

“Has he said something?”

“No, nothing. Just, we’re worried about you. He just wants to help.”

She said nothing, but lead down in the sleeping bag, and turned her back on him.

“Katya! We are in danger, they have found the Albedo!” Dorjiev’s rasp invaded her dreams.

She stirred in the sleeping bag, but did not wake.

“You were supposed to be getting it!” she thought.

“They have got it! Meet me in my homeland, in my old base. I will initiate you there into the secrets. But rush! Bring the Nigredo.”

“D, you khuilo!” she swore aloud, waking herself. The daylight was painfully bright and hot, and sand stuck to her sweaty skin.

Patrick looked over, yawning, one eye squinting against the light. “You OK?”

“Never trust anyone Patrick. No-fucking-one.”

They found the rocky outcrop that evening. The twilight was shading into night, but the sharp silhouettes of the rocks stood out in the 4×4’s headlights against the serpentine curves of the dunes.

They parked, and checked around the area. Rosario walked a circuit, and joined the others at a well they had found in the centre of the rocks.

“It’s the place for sure.” Patrick said to him “Look, weird writing all around the edge.”

“It’s Arabic, occult wording, I think” Katya said. In the torchlight, Rosario could see the Arabic letters engraved into the rock round the edge of the well. The well itself was dark and dry. The engraving was familiar.

“It’s a warding spell. Protects against evil and evildoers. This place is like a prison or an oubliette. I’ve seen similar incantations in the writings of-“

“Skulls!” Patrick said, shining his torch down the well hole.

Rosario leaned over, but the torchlight was too flickering and faint to be sure. He cracked a lightstick and dropped it down the hole. It fell for a second or so, then thumped into sand. 50’ down there was a cave floor. Many bleached white bones lay scattered, skulls, femurs and more. The skulls were mainly sheep and camels. But there was one, no two, three human ones.

“Nothing lives out here, so where did they come from?” said Somerset.

Katya looked around the starlit desert as if expecting to see the answer. “Maybe the same way we did.”

“You got to work at it to get a camel down there.” said Patrick.

“Let’s get the winches on the 4×4’s up here, then we can go down and see.” said Somerset.

Somerset, Rosario and Katya argued for a while about who should go down, and who should stay up top. Their discussion ended with the whine of Patrick’s quadcopter lifting off. He hovered it above the wellhead, and then it dropped quickly down the vertical shaft.

Patrick’s face was lit from the small screen showing the on-board camera, as he relayed what he was seeing in a stream of chatter. “There’s a cave … lots of bones. Two, no, three passages off. One behind that rock. Signal is iffy, too much interference. First tunnel is opening up, losing signal, just let me … okay, we’re back. Empty. Let’s try door number two … damn it, too far. Lost it." He looked up. "When you’re down there would you get my quadcopter back? Cheers.”

“Tacnet won’t work so well down there then, either” said Somerset, grimly.

Patrick smiled. “Ahead of you. It’ll be fine. I’ll drop a signal repeater down here and as long as you can get reflections off the rock, it should be fine down there.”

“Why didn’t you do that for the drone?” asked Rosario.

“There is a very good technical answer to that but you wouldn’t understand it.” Patrick winked and walked away.

Somerset changed into his full combat armour. It was heavy and awkward, but he didn’t want to be down there without it. For offence he packed his automatic, silver bullets full load, the silvered combat knife and his favoured Steyr Aug with a full mag of silver ammo. Bull-pup config would be easier in the confined passages down there and he wanted heavy ordinance.

He clumped to the top of the well, attached the heavy winch clip to his harness and nodded to Patrick.

The winch whined and he walked, slipped and then was lowered down the hole, into the black. He reached up and flicked on the torch attached to his chest plate. The ancient bricks of the wall in front of him slid past. Then a different coloured mortar.

“There’s signs of repair," Somerset spoke over tacnet. "Recent, by the looks of it.”

Rosario looked around the outcrop and the black desert. Someone knew about this place. “I’m going move to higher ground, just to make sure we don’t get any unexpected visitors.” He slung his MP5 over his back and retied his keffiyeh before trotting out across the sand.

At the bottom of the well, Somerset’s combat boots scrunched into the sand. He scanned 360 degrees, assault rifle ready. Clear. He unhooked the winch.

“Katya, your turn.”

The cave was large, bones were scattered widely around it. The animals, and people, didn’t just fall and die. Or if they did something dragged them about. The torchlight lit the three tunnels Patrick had described. This was a killing ground and he didn’t like it.

He stepped forward. The sand was disturbed, but no pattern he could make sense of. Katya landed softly behind him, she was wearing just the desert armour and shemagh.

Somerset raised an eyebrow, then pointed two fingers towards the tunnel behind the rock. Katya nodded, hefted her Glock up, racked the slide and tilted her head, “You first.”

They moved up the passage in twos, covering each other, placing one of Patrick small radio relays before the signal swamped with static. The only sound was soft crunches as their feet found purchase on the uneven floor. The tunnel curved and twisted for a distance then ahead it split into two. Somerset stopped, crouched, scanning each entrance.

“Listen,” she whispered to him from behind.

He strained to hear, the helmet a hindrance. There. A sound. A voice.

It was a strange, grotesque parody of a human voice. It became clearer, closer. From the right-hand fork, chanting, singing, burbling.

“We need a goat.” Somerset said.

“What?” she frowned at him “There’s none near here.”

“No, we need something to lure it out, into a trap.”

“Oh,” she paused, “I’ll do it.”

“Really?” It was a dangerous role, possibly suicidal. “You sure?”

She nodded.

“I’ll be down there.” Somerset pointed at the left hand fork.

Somerset knelt down the left hand tunnel, far enough to be in darkness, his torch off. He could see Katya waiting back down at the junction. She was shifting weight, foot to foot, limbering up. Her mouth was set in grim determination, but her eyes were bright.

She stopped, focussing down the other tunnel, at something out of his field of view. He shifted the Steyr up into firing position. Safety off. He was aiming at the space in front of Katya.

He could hear the voice more clearly now, it had a whining, grating tone.

“Al-Murah, Al-Murah I’ve been waiting. I waited such a long time. Such pain. Is it you? Al-Murah? Kim ? Kim? Is it you?”

Through the sights, he saw Katya’s eyes widen, she took an involuntary step back. “You!” she said.

Staggering into the light Somerset saw the skeletal shape. Skin was stretched tight over bones, on its head were wisps of hair. Long fingernails spiked out from its claw-like hands, but somehow it was still recognisably St. John Philby.

He paused, could he shoot St. John Philby? Was it, he, hostile?

With a screech the revenant threw itself at Katya, legs and arms flashing preternaturally fast. She was ducking, flexing, blocking as fast as he’d ever seen her move. He tracked the blur of their fight, trying to get a clean shot. A claw caught her arm and her blood flicked across his field of view.

Frustrating, no clear shot. It gave her a sharp kick into her side and she was knocked back, clear.

His finger squeezed the trigger all the way. Full auto. The tunnels, the rooms and their ears filled with blistering sound. The stream of bullets chewed chunks of dried skin and flesh off it. Somerset held the bucking rifle squarely on the nightmare form Philby had become.

It disappeared onto the ground, dust and sand filling the air, blurring his vision. Somerset released the trigger, alert for movement.

He twitched the gun to a flicker, Katya. She was throwing herself to the ground, “Grenade!” her voice loud over tacnet.

He managed to shield his eyes as the explosion shook the rock ceiling and walls. Rock shrapnel showered him, even down the tunnel. All sounds went far away. Dust coated the inside of his mouth and throat, he spat it out.

There was still light down at the junction, a cloud of orange sand and shattered rock billowed in the small space.

“That hurt.” Katya said, coughing. A dark shape rose in the dust cloud, one arm up. He took aim, finger tense. He would single shot now.

“It’s me.” she said. “I’m bleeding.”

A second silhouette, lean and asymmetric coalesced out of the dust. Before Somerset could react, a long, bony arm slashed out, across her neck. Her head jerked back, dark liquid arced through the air.

Somerset’s pulse stopped, breath stopped, time stopped. The gun sights moved instinctively, for the creatures’ head, even as he squeezed the trigger halfway back. The stock punched his shoulder as the single bullet left. Philby’s head exploded and fragments flowered.

Katya’s body hit the floor first, then a second later, Philby’s headless corpse.

“What’s happening!?” Rosario and Patrick were shouting over tacnet. Somerset stabbed the knife into Philby’s desiccated chest. Night-black blood sizzled and fizzed against the silver blade.

Katya sprawled motionless against the rock wall, blood pooling on the floor underneath her head and chest. The shemagh was torn and sodden dark with her blood, loose threads trailed red lines across her face.

“Get down here. Katya’s hurt.” Somerset radioed.

Without waiting, he strode down the right-hand tunnel. Ahead he could see it opened up into a larger space. He clunked a fresh clip into the Steyr and entered the room in a combat crouch, weapon up.

The room was bare. A natural stone dais at the back held a single lump of black rock.
He approached cautiously expecting a trap. It was about the size of two fists, slightly shiny. After the trauma and deaths to get it, it seemed terribly ordinary.

Somerset rummaged under his armour and extracted a white handkerchief. Careful not to touch the stone, he picked it up and wrapped it in the handkerchief, then put the Nigredo in his pocket.



The American Zalozhniy was digging. Close by were two other holes.

He stopped digging with the spade, bent down and scraped at the ground with his hand. After a few moments of digging he lifted a battered leather briefcase out of the ground.

Nearby the spade toppled over. He glanced at it.

He opened the briefcase, revealing an old-fashioned vacuum flask. He quickly stuffed the flask back in the briefcase.

The spade gently lifted into the air behind him.

He froze, then quickly drew his pistol as he spun.

Suddenly the gun leapt out of his hand as if hurled by an invisible force.
He attempted to lower his light intensification goggles but was seized and lifted into the air, struggling. He was hard thrown to the ground from fifteen feet up. Three figures loom out of the darkness as he began to move. The spade slammed into his throat from a great height and with tremendous force.

Heike, Franzeska and Simon Thaler step out of the shadows as he lay on the ground, almost decapitated, but attempting to rise. Thaler stepped forward, a dagger in his hand – it looked like an SS dagger but with a modernised design and unfamiliar insignia. He stabbed it into the soldier’s thigh, releasing a fountain of bright blood from the femoral artery. The Zalozhniy stiffened, dead. Franzeska picked up the Albedo.

The Empty Quarter

With the sun dipping toward the western horizon, the team finished loading the supplies into the 4×4s. Somerset called them all together, spreading a large topographic map over the fine sand. It was heavily annotated with Arabic names, but in terms of geographic features, it might as well have been a sheet of graph paper. Rosario looked up and cast his eye over the golden, undulating dunes, which stretched to every visible horizon.

“I can see why they call it the Empty Quarter,” he quipped. No one laughed. It wasn’t the first joke they’d made along those lines and the team’s mood had been soured by the relentless desert sun. Beirut had been hot. Baghdad had been parched. Both now seemed like luxury spa resorts compared to the arid desolation here. And this was only the tamed and civilised edge of the Rub’ al Khali.

“Don’t be fooled,” Somerset warned. “This desert has plenty of unpleasant surprises. One good thing our route is fairly simple. We’re continuing South South East. Patrick and I will lead, you two follow. Give us a little distance in case we stop suddenly, but not so far that we’ll lose you if you fall behind. Just remember: keep your eyes on where you’re going. This hell hole might look empty, but there are plenty of rocks, gullies, steep inclines, even cliffs. You do not want to wreck the vehicle. Not out here.”

They finished packing and Rosario climbed into the driver’s seat. As Katya made to join him in the cab, she paused with one hand on the sidebar, her foot perched on the running board. She pulled her shemagh back to look into the desert sky as the sun vanished. She had never seen stars like this, not even when she would sleep out on the training school roof, deep in the Sayan mountains. These were not mere dots: the cloudless air seethed with the chaotic glow of a thousand, thousand points of silver light, clustered in such density that they formed milky stains above the pitch black dunes. She watched transfixed, convinced she could perceive the very earth itself spinning through the fathomless gulf. There was no God up there, she thought, but maybe there were other things, looking back.

The spell was broken by the sound of Somerset gunning his 4×4 forwards in a billow of dislodged sand. She quickly swung herself in next to Rosario.

True to Somerset’s word, the journey was monotonously hypnotic. The off-road vehicles lurched as they hit each new dune and crested each mountain of sand, adding discomfort to the boredom. All Katya and Rosario could see was the red glow of the lead vehicle’s rear lights and the occasional dark flash of some impossibly hardy desert scrub as it whipped past in the gloom. She could not even make out the stars under the cloud of sand.

Slowly, achingly slowly, the land began to change, from the stationary waves of fine sand to broad, flat mosaics of rough pebbles. Katya had taken over driving an hour before and, as Rosario watched from the corner of his eye, she reached down beside her and retrieved a canteen. His nostrils caught the sharp scent of alcohol. He looked around at her, worry creasing his brown eyes. She caught his movement and looked back at him, then down at the canteen and back to the windscreen. She did not look guilty – she was far too disciplined for that – but somehow he perceived the guilt all the same.

“Katya, we need to talk about that,” Rosario said, trying as hard as he could not to sound like a scolding parent. “You have vodka in there, right?”

“Just to keep me going,” she said, eyes fixed on the vehicle ahead. “Forget it."

“You’re drinking too much.”

“Worried the police will pull us over?” She goaded, though there was no humour in her voice.

“I’m worried you’ll get us killed.” His statement lingered in the air between them.

Seconds passed, then finally she spoke, her voice quiet and subdued. “Maybe I’d be better off dead.” She barked a short laugh, “Just joking Rosy, it just helps, sometimes. Helps me forget. Keep on moving.”

He nodded. “We’ve all done, faced things that are hard to comprehend, even harder to understand. Things that have challenged our beliefs. Even Somerset. But we have survived, overcome. We are all still here.”

“You never met Sergei, did you? Or Rudek.” she said, eyes focussed on the darkness in front.

“No, I didn’t. They were important people to you. For their memory then, would they want you to do this?”

“You don’t know what they wanted.” she snapped.

Rosario sighed inwardly, he needed another tack. “No. But my point stands, we are here and alive, your drinking is not good for you and not good for the team. I want to help you.”

“We’re not a team! Somerset fucks off whenever it gets tough because helping others is a weakness, Patrick’s been got at by god knows who, Sergei’s dead and we’ve known you all of two weeks! Get out of my head!”

“We are a team! Look at what we achieved in Vienna, in Beirut, in Baghdad. You and Somerset covering each others backs in the museum. Patrick and me working on the silversmithing. Somerset with me and the, thing, situation in Beirut. We all work well together. And you care about the team, I know you do. And they care about you. You don’t want them to get hurt because of your actions, do you?”

She didn’t respond. Damn it, Rosario thought, a step too far. He waited a minute, hands steepled in front of his face.

“Listen-,” he said gently, turning in his seat to look her directly in the eye.

He stopped. Her face was a mask of pain, her jaw quivered as she fought to maintain control. “I shouldn’t care about the team. I don’t care. I didn’t want to hurt them. But it’s too late,” she managed to whisper.

Inside the dark, curtained box at San Domenico Maggiore he had listened to people through the grill, on the edge of confessing terrible sins. Building courage and then releasing in a rush or just talking it out one simple word at a time, releasing their internal torture, sharing. She gave off the same signs, desperate to share the burden, despite her instincts and training.

“What have you done? You can tell me,” he spoke softly, reassuringly. His professional voice.

“I had to do it, I’m not proud of it. But anyone else should have done it too. It’s what we’re paid to do. It’s our job,” she said. Her words were confident in the justification, but her voice betrayed her.

“You need to tell me what you have done first.”

She swallowed. The 4×4 bounced hard, then settled down. She took a deep breath and unconsciously rubbed her inner elbow.

“I told Dorjiev the location of the Albedo.”

“Caro padre celeste …” Rosario exhaled. He fought to martial his building panic. “That’s … that’s not good.”

She looked at him, tears inching slowly down her pale face.

“We never got Dorjiev out of your head, did we?” he asked.

Her jaw tightened. “Yes, you did, he left, but he has powers. They would be so useful!”

Rosario leaned back in his chair, stunned. Everything they’d been working towards seemed to have been pulled out from under him. Without the Albedo, they were effectively back at square one. His gaze drifted out of the windscreen to the dark outlines of the desert around him. At least they were still on track to the Nigredo, he thought. There just might be a way out. He watched with detached interest as a patch of dark crept towards them as the 4×4 cruised ever forwards. Their headlights failed to pierce it, as though the desert was just falling away into space…

His eyes shifted wildly to Katya. She was staring off into the distance, unaware of the impending crash. He lunged for the steering wheel, yanking down hard to the right. The 4×4 lurched round, its momentum carrying the heavy chassis almost onto two wheels and slewing the back around, tearing rubble from the baked earth. The suspension groaned as one wheel dropped sharply, before coming to a jarring halt.

The equipment in the back crashed into the vehicle’s side, then slid towards the rear door. Rosario was thrown hard against his seatbelt, forcing the air out of his lungs in a gasp. Katya’s shoulder banged into the driver side window so hard she thought the glass would crack.

She turned on Rosario angrily, but he gestured out her window as he fought to recover his breath. She could just make out the deep, black gulley cutting across the desert floor, its lip just inches from where she sat. As the billowing sand diffused their headlight beams she could just make out the bottom of the narrow chasm, some ten feet straight down and strewn with wind-worn boulders. Somerset and Patrick’s brake lights flared in the distance ahead. Then the lead vehicle began to turn back towards them.

“That was close,” Rosario said, an edge of hysteria in his normally calm voice.

“My fault. Sorry.” Katya said, she took a deep breath in. “I’m sorry about a lot of things at the moment.”

Rosario could not think of a reply, so he stayed silent while he unbuckled himself and leaned into the back to check the equipment. It had rearranged itself spectacularly, but nothing was obvious broken.

“No harm done,” he said as he lowered himself back into his seat, his normal composure returning.

She knew that he wasn’t talking about their near crash. Nor was he being completely honest. “If Somerset found out…” she began.

“… he’ll kill you,” he finished. “Believe me, I know,”

“I could talk… No, fuck.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. He held out his hand. “You know what, I think I’ll share some of that vodka with, if you don’t mind?”

A small smile cut through her pain as she handed him the canteen.

Racing for the finish

Marriott Executive Suites, Central Riyadh

Rosario climbed down from the driver’s seat of a white Humvee in front of the elevator doors. The underground car park of the Suites, was coated in an expensive rubberised surface that suppressed echoes and engine noise. Bentley’s, Lamborghini’s and Mercs patiently waited under bright white lights, air-conditioning quietly purred in the background keeping the car park pleasantly cool and fresh, day and night.

Rosario’s heart felt good. Though he was conscious he shouldn’t get too comfortable with this sleek, modern luxury. But he was comfortable with himself at the moment. More than he expected to be. More than he should, maybe.
Somerset stood at the lift door in his cream linen suit, watching Rosario.

“Not the car I expected, but it’ll do,” he said.

Rosario smiled, swinging the keys in his hand, “There’s more stuff in the back. For you and the others. And me.” Somerset went round the back of the Humvee, scanning the aisles. The car park was deserted, as it always was.

Rosario continued. “Saleem knows the Al-Murah tribe. He said that Kadir Al-Murah died a couple of years back and his son, Harun, is now the head of the tribe. He’s a playboy though he spends a month a year in the tribal lands, the Rub’ al Khali.”

Somerset opened the boot door and quickly confirmed the contents of the big sports bags, one full of weaponry and explosives, the other two suits of body armour.

“How’d you know this Saleem guy again?” He remembered, but it would be interesting to see if Rosario’s story changed. Somerset pulled the bags out of the boot, and hefted them onto his shoulder, walking to the lift.

“Saleem Rashid was my CQC trainer. Ex internal security.” Rosario said. “He hinted that Harun likes spending his oil money on material things. Horses, houses that sort of things.”
Somerset smiled, “I bet he likes Aston Martin’s. Everyone does.”

Rosario “I bet he likes a bet too.”

A Forest Outside Stockholm – 1am

Two young women walked hand in hand towards the waiting SUV. One woman, Franzeska, looked about twenty with short hair. The other, Heike was a bit older, maybe thirty, with loose, long hair down to the backs of her knees. They beamed radiantly, bathed in an aura of moonlight or their own mysterious energy.

Two men waited at the SUV. One, Dietrich Kreiner, was medium height, about thirty, fair and slightly overweight. He wore unmarked, military-style fatigues. The second man in a tailored suit, sat at the wheel of the car.

They all spoke in German, with a hint of old-fashioned quality to their speech and manner. Franzeska had an upper-class accent and a regal bearing. Kreiner’s German accent had regional or foreign influences, hard to pinpoint.

Dietrich spoke eagerly “Tell me! You found it?…“

Franzeska answered, with authority “Oh yes! Oh yes, we certainly found it… Him. We found the signature of Astiru’s blood, the Albedo. It has been suppressed somehow, but there is no mistaking it.”

She pointed back into the deep forest. “There. On that slope, to the west of the stream.“

“This is marvellous news!” Dietrich said.

Heike smiled with genuine pleasure “Tomorrow, Destiny permitting, we will have the exact spot!”

The second man emerged from the SUV. He looked twenty or twenty-five, athletic and handsome with brown hair. Simon Thaler.

“Destiny favours the strong! The time for feasting draws near.” His eyes glitter with delight as he looks into the distance. He stopped.

“Your watch Dietrich!”

Thaler tossed a pair of binoculars at Dietrich who caught them and shrugged in mock dismay. They others waved farewell and departed. Kreiner walked back in the direction the women came from. He reached the base of a tree, stopped and looked up at it for a moment. Then he crouched and leapt almost vertically into the tree.

In the lurid green glow of night vision goggles, someone watches Dietrich’s black shape in the tree. Quickly it pans across trees and undergrowth, back to the SUV. The rear lights of the SUV bright in the night vision as it drives away, three heads inside visible to the observer.

The observer lowered the goggles silently. He was dressed in the uniform of a US marine; one leg heavily stained with long-dried blood.

Lounge, Marriott Executive Suite 3

“I think I’m in,” Somerset announced to the team at the end of the week. They stood and sat around the lounge of the Executive Apartment. Somerset wore the expensive grey suit of his cover, a VP of Aston Martin. He had spent the week ingratiating himself into the upper echelons of Riyadh society.

“I’ve got myself an invite to the races at the Equestrian club tomorrow night, into the VIP box. Harun Al-Mura and his entourage are going to be there. It’s our best chance so far to get to him. So let’s be ready. Katya what’s my best angle with him?”

She looked up from the chair by the window. She’d spent a lot of time out of the apartment, ingratiating herself into the society’s lower echelons. Servants always had the best gossip.

“Well, he’s got House of Saud blood, his maternal grandfather was at the Feast in ’31. He’s not popular. At least with the wider tribe. He’s been described to me as weak, venal, corrupt. He’s probably aware of his popularity problem and wants to do something to restore his rep, like honouring his father’s oaths.”

“What were the oaths?” Rosario asked.

“Don’t know.” Katya shrugged. “Katun mentioned he had sworn some, but not what.”

“OK. Patrick?” Somerset asked.

“I’ve made cigarette packet bombs for us all” he said, standing up. “Plus tacnet as usual, and for Rosario…”

“He’s made silver bullets for all of us, and silver plated knives.” Rosario indicated the knives on the coffee table. Two were modern lean combat knives, two were curved janbiya’s. All had brilliantly silver blades.

“Also there’s garlic spray and anti-coagulant.” Rosario nodded “I think we’re all set.”


Dietrich hid, motionless in a pine tree. He heard something. Listening closely he picks out a quiet scraping sound some three hundred yards away. He peered into the darkness, sensing the body heat of sleeping birds and a foraging deer. He saw only trees and a low hill where the sound was coming from.

Whisper quiet, he dropped from one branch to another and landed on the forest floor, pulling a pistol from his pocket. He moved quickly and silently.

He approached the top of the low hill, the sound now a distinct metallic scraping. Looking over the top of the hill and down the slope, he saw a spade, unattended in a shallow hole.

A twig cracked behind him. He whirled around, but a burst of automatic gunfire knocked him to the ground. A figure in a US Marine uniform faced him, holding a smoking assault rifle. It fired another burst into him. Kreiner rolled and tried to get his feet. A pistol appeared at his temple, point blank range and discharged. He collapsed in a fountain of blood.

The American Zalozhniy returned to the hole. His skin was pale and waxy in the moonlight. There was a distinct cut in his uniform at the stained upper thigh. He picked up the spade and mechanically returned to work.

Riyadh Equestrian Club, 8pm

The lush green grass racecourse was surrounded by palm trees and car-parks of luxury cars. Tall lights flooded both with sharp, white light. Small groups of keffiyeh’d men stood around the barriers talking, smoking and watching the occasional races. Up on the VIP balcony of the main building, Rosario studied the form of the parading horses for the next race through binoculars. He scratched quick notes on his race card with a pencil.

Next to him, Somerset sipped mango juice and leaned casually against the balcony rail, near a group of Arab men. He fiddled with an inside jacket pocket of his suit, checking the photo on the phone. Confirmed. Harun Al-Murah was in the group of men, laughing loudly. Harun had four or five friends or family and at least three bodyguards. Somerset watched the latter out of the corner of his eye. They weren’t distracted by the racing, and stood in balanced stances. Well-trained bodyguards.

Somerset turned back to Rosario “What do you reckon?” he asked quietly.

Rosario frowned, lowered the binoculars and squinted at his card. “Well, Harun’s horse is the favourite, at 2 to 1, but probably because the bookies know his sycophants will have to bet on it. Instead I think either of these two are potential winners.” He pointed at the next two horses on the card. “Maybe Lucky Day, 3.5 to 1”

Somerset pointed at the third horse, Queen of the Desert, “No, that’s the one.” Then he slapped Rosario on the back, and loudly boomed out.

“You have to cut your own path in this world, my friend, not follow the crowd! Queen of the Desert is the one for sure! Go put the money on it!” Rosario pulled out a bundle of euro’s and headed off to the betting window.

Somerset leaned against the rail, back to the horses. Several of Harun’s entourage were giving him narrow eyed looks and Harun was frowning at him. He smiled and nodded at Harun.

Somerset turned back, sipping the mango juice. You better bloody win Queen, he thought.

Al Murah’s horse took an early, flashy lead, but Queen of the Desert paced her and in the last straight pulled ahead finishing half a length in front.

Rosario returned, beaming, from the teller’s window. “Twelve thousand euros!” he said, eyes flashing.

“Congratulations. You picked a winner, and not the obvious choice.” said Harun Al-Murah. He had come over to speak to Somerset, a bodyguard stood nearby.

“Ah, I just have a nose for winners, like my cars.” Somerset said.

Harun smiled politely about to depart, but Somerset’s hook caught him. “You race cars too?” he asked, intrigued.

“Not really, I work for Aston Martin’s R&D Division. We’re testing a new supercar. I believe you’re a connoisseur of supercars?”

“Yes, yes, very much. You must come by to my house tomorrow and see my collection. And tell me more about this new car from Aston of course.”

“You couldn’t stop me.” said Somerset.

Al-Murah Mansion, 10am

The next morning a black RangeRover arrived at the Suites to collect them as Harun promised. Somerset and Katya sat in the back.

“Don’t drink while we’re there, even if it’s offered. And don’t smoke.” Somerset growled to Katya, sotto voce, his eyes on the driver in the front.

“I know what I’m doing.” she snapped back. The drinks she’d already had should keep her going.

Harun’s mansion, on the outskirts of the city, was large, modern and surrounded by wide, well-tended gardens. As the RangeRover rolled along the curving drive, Somerset wondered where Patrick and Rosario were. They had left earlier to sneak in to the mansion grounds, to be on standby, if needed.

Harun met them at the entrance to his large, underground carpark, in the shade.
“Welcome my new friends!” The day was warming up, and servants carried trays of drinks and snacks moved towards the three of them from the inner darkness.

“You have a lovely house and gardens,” Somerset said, “but before you show me your cars, there is one thing I need to talk to you about.”

Harun’s smile dropped from his face, Somerset continued quietly.

“I was asked by Her Magjesty’s Government to make contact with you, about things related to your fathers’ oaths. There are elements in MI6 that are keen to retrieve some items from Philby Senior’s grave. We would like your assistance to avoid embarrassment to your government, my government and your family, for the oaths your father swore.” Harun’s face had dropped and he gazed off into the distance, away from Somerset.

“What proof do you have of this?” he asked, sipping his drink.

Somerset paused, looked at Katya, who shrugged. He continued “We are aware of what was left in St. John’s grave in Beirut. The being made of blood in the box.”
Harun turned to stare at him. “You have been too long in the sun, Mr Somerset.”

“I am just trying to pass on a message to help you. It may strengthen …”

“I do not know what you are talking about. St. John Philby is a historical name to me. He died before I was born. ”

Somerset could tell he was genuinely mystified, and annoyed.
“Many apologies. There is much history in these lands and many myths. Sometimes something starts as fact then over years becomes myth, perhaps an unbelievable myth. But my government colleagues are very sure that St. John’s body, which should have been buried in Beirut, was removed possibly by your father and hidden. And they are sure there was something important with it.”

Harun took a drink. “My father did take me into the desert when I was a young boy. There was a cave, in the deep desert. He called it ‘the other Kaaba.’ The Bedouins called our journey the Hajj Shaitan, though they didn’t let him hear that. Maybe this cave is one of those myths you talk about. The thing that is with the body, it is valuable?”

Somerset shook his head. “I don’t think so, not financially.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Yes, very dangerous.”

“Then please remove it.”

Harun ordered an assistant to fetch a map of the Empty Quarter.

The map was spread on the RangeRover’s warm bonnet. Harun pointed to a blank area in the middle.

“It was somewhere around here. In the deepest desert.”

Somerset checked the scale, 200km south-east of Al-Kharj, into the middle of nowhere. No features, no roads, no nothing.

“How would you recommend getting there?” he asked.

“Camel is traditional. But 4×4 is better. Not by Aston Martin.”

The Queen's Courtyard

The lights are out in Hotel Gioconda’s luxurious oriental suite. The huge bay window lies part open, a gentle breeze sweeping in from the Black Sea to tug at the heavily patterned curtains. Maria Orsic lies on the four poster bed, fully clothed, but apparently asleep. Her long hair fans out beneath her, spreading almost to the four corners of the bed in a wide, dark fan. She opens her eyes wide and screams, as if waking from a nightmare.

Another woman, in another room, sits in cross-legged meditation. The light of the setting sun casts a golden glow beyond an arched balcony. Her long hair lies in midnight coils on the heavy cushion beneath her. She opens her eyes and screams.

Another room, another dark haired woman woman, and another, and another. The five women all awaken and scream.

They speak, though their mouths do not move. They hear, though there are entire continents between them. They are the Vrilerinnen.

“Sigrun!” Their astral voices call out for their fallen sister.

“They killed her! The thieves have killed her!” Maria Orsic’s unspoken voice blazes outrage and fury. “She was destined for so much. The light that shone so bright… they have extinguished it!”

“And Brother Draganovic too,” says the second woman, Gudruna. “And Brother Taure. They burned him alive, the barbarians!”

“My Sister in the Luminous Lodge from the beginning,” Maria Orsic answers. “She was destined to be Anointed and ascend with us. But her light was scattered by those criminals! Her destiny… stolen. It is a corruption of the cosmic order!”

“Let us kill these untermenschen swine!” Gudruna purrs.

“Sigrun’s Vril essence has not been destroyed,” says the third, Franzeska. “It has merged with the Hidden Light of the Secret Sun, upon whose rays we all are vitalised. Let us feast on their blood – Sigrun’s Vril will give strength to our revenge!”

Maria replies, “Lisky has failed. And Gehlen’s indirectness has proven too dangerous. They could not complete even such a simple task. They have exhausted their usefulness.”

“Skorzeny’s Paladins will take care of these brutes,” Franzeska suggests eagerly. “They are ready.”

“Sigrun’s murder is personal,” counters Maria. “We will deal with them ourselves! They must be destroyed.”

“We are not fighters, Maria. Don’t underestimate them – they have been studying us. Sigrun confronted them. You saw what happened to her. Our work here is too important. We are very close to finding the source. As is yours Maria. The Paladin Group will deal with them…”

Maria hisses, “Lisky is an impotent fool. He can survive without me for a little while. You and Heike can stay in Sweden. You said you felt Lord Astiru’s vibration.
Send the Paladins, but I want to finish them myself! I have grown tired of their small-minded interference.”

“And Traute?”

“It is not like the old days. It is now only 20 hours by aeroplane from Buenos Aires.” Maria disembodied voice fills with fearsome anger. “Vengeance knows no borders. It wearies not with the miles.” In her shadowed hotel room, her long hair splays out as if charged with static electricity. It begins to writhe. “We will fly to Lebanon like valkyries to the battlefield!”

Loose objects float into the air, spinning as though caught in an invisible vortex. Maria Orsic’s feet begin to lift off the floor.

Rosario stood motionless under the tiny showerhead, its tepid stream washing through his hair and down his torso as he replayed the night’s events in his head. A bitter aroma hung in his nostrils, dislodged from his pores by the cascading water; cordite mingled with stale sweat and the faint clammy odour which had filled the passageways under the church. The smell of burning hair and skin could only be in his imagination.

He supposed he must be in shock. That could be the only thing gifting his mind the awful, icy clarity he felt. He tried running through the night’s events in his head again, his memory a series glossy snapshots, decision points locked in perfect focus.

The squeezing of a trigger.

The lighting of a match.

“You shall not judge, lest you be judged.”

He would accept those terms, when the time came.

What scared him was that there wasn’t any part of himself that was questioning his actions, critiquing his motives. No agonising over whether he should have done things differently. Just silent, frozen memories and that half-imagined scent.

He shut the shower off and stepped back out into the stuffy confines of the hotel bathroom. If this was shock, then he would no doubt do battle with his conscience at some later point.

He dressed slowly and left his room. He found Katya and Somerset at the hotel bar. Katya had a small booth to herself and seemed content with the pile of Western newspapers in front of her. She was judiciously ignoring the papers, instead focussing her concentration on the glass of clear liquor cradled in her long fingers. She ignored him too as he picked his way past. He decided to leave her be.

Somerset was slouched in an uncharacteristically wearied pose near the bar, his eyes distant. He almost looked dishevelled. Almost. Rosario dropped onto a wooden chair nearby, signalling a waiter.

“Arak,” Rosario requested in Arabic.

“Make it a bottle,” Somerset interrupted. The Englishman stood up from his own table and moved towards Rosario. The waiter gave Rosario a questioning look, to which the former priest nodded confirmation.

“A bottle then, and two glasses.” The waiter returned to the bar.

“You don’t mind if I join you,” Somerset stated flatly, arrogantly presumptuous. It was poor tradecraft and they both knew it. There were few other guests in the bar and it was far too late in the evening for apparent strangers to be striking up idle conversations, but it was likely that their only real adversaries in the city were already dead, one way or another. Rosario shivered suddenly in the warm night air. He needed that drink.

A sapphire-blue bottle of arak arrived with a jug of water and tray of small, ice-filled tumblers. Rosario poured the alcohol into the jug, the water turning the spicy liquor a cloudy, milky white, before filling two of the small glasses, Levantine-style. Somerset sipped, curling his nose at the strong liquorice flavour, but said nothing. They drank in silence for a several minutes, the only sound to break the bar’s muted, piped oud ballads coming from the rhythmic clinking of the ice inside Somerset’s glass as he swirled it.

Rosario spoke to break the tense quiet. “Is there something bothering you, friend?”

Somerset let out a long breath, knuckles whitening on the arak glass, his cold blue eyes still distant.

“That … creature … in the cemetery. What do you believe it was?” His voice was hoarse, rough.

The Italian paused, considering his words. The other agent had been careful to avoid talking about the powers they had faced, even the most overtly abnormal ones, in anything remotely approaching supernatural terms. Certain words were avoided, carrying too much preconception. Somerset had emphasised that those preconceptions could be lethal.

“I believe they are demons, of some kind,” he answered quietly.

Somerset made a derisory sound. “Of course. Why not? It’s a convenient enough term I suppose.” He stared intently at the swirling liquid in his glass.

“I have had my own experiences, before we met,” Rosario explained. “I’ve had suspicions. Now we have faced them, those suspicions have been… confirmed. Yet we have stood our ground and we have survived.”

“Not every time,” Somerset murmured.

Rosario gave him a questioning look. Somerset lowered his glass and reached for the bottle. He refilled his glass, ignoring the greasy scum that now floated on the surface.

He raised his glass and took a deep swallow, wincing at the fiery spirit, licking the fatty residue from his lips.

“We haven’t beaten them all. Some are too powerful. Too… different.”

“The Bridger team wasn’t prepared. And we were already split up. It would have been madness to fight-”

“No,” Somerset interrupted. “I don’t just mean tonight. I’m talking about the monastery, about Dragovir. We levelled a mountain top trying to kill that… thing.” He took another deep slug of the neat arak.

“And I’m not convinced that we did. That we could have done, no matter what.”

Rosario stayed silent, sipping from his glass, relieved by the numbing heat coursing through his body.

“Sometimes I think it would be better to just run,” Somerset confided, eyes still on the depths of his glass.

Rosario considered this. “Any sensible person would. And we would have a good chance at staying out of sight and putting this whole thing behind us. But I will not. And I don’t believe you will either-”

Somerset’s jaw clenched. “Why not?” he snarled. “I’ve warned you before about presuming that you understand me. I could leave you and the alcoholic brothel-keeper to your fate and be on my merry way without a second thought. Don’t imagine I’d lose any sleep over it.”

Rosario leaned back, spreading his hands in a show of capitulation. “Peace, friend,” he said gently. “I don’t doubt that you could, but I refuse to believe that you will, because I think you are, in fact, a good man.”

Somerset’s laugh was a gunshot in the dimly lit bar.

“I never took you for the delusional type. And I’m not convinced you’re in a great position to read anyone else’s moral compass right now. How’s the match hand?” he growled.

The Italian flushed.

“That may be true,” he replied. “But let me finish. We would have a good chance of staying out of our enemy’s hands. We might do so for decades. But these people, these beings, they appear to have long memories and very long lifetimes. Consider Simon Thaler, for example. And we seem to have done more than most to hurt them. Do you think they will let that go? Call a truce maybe?” He laughed sourly. “I doubt it. So could we really keep running forever? Could you?”

“No,” Somerset admitted, his earlier flash of anger gone. He flexed his shoulders, straightening his spine, clutching the empty arak glass once more.

Rosario took another sip of his own.

“You told me that God helps those who help themselves,” he continued. “Consider also this: ‘the devil prowls around us like a lion, seeking someone to devour’. We must resist him, even though we may suffer. Now we have all glimpsed the devil, or some facet of him. We resist and we suffer. We do not shy away from the task. Not Katya. Not me. Not you.”

Rosario paused to take swallow another mouthful of his arak, before continuing. “In fact I think, of all us, you would be the last to give up our fight. You seem driven, my friend, by something deeper than you let anyone see. I am perhaps, as you say, in no position to judge your ‘moral compass’, but I have seen enough to know that yours points straight and true.”

Somerset’s expression softened, the makings of smile breaking at the corners of his mouth.

“Did I mention that you’re delusional?” he asked Rosario. The Italian sighed.

“You are a dangerous man, Mr. Somerset. Not because of your violence, or your disregard for human life, but because you use those traits to cut through to the greater good regardless of the cost. You’re dangerous because you would cut off a finger to save the hand, the hand to save the arm, the arm to save the body. You would sacrifice three billion to save the remaining four. Your conscience would never allow you to walk away knowing the disease remains untreated.”

Somerset snorted. Rosario recalled their earlier conversation. “As you told me, you wouldn’t be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

Somerset threw his head back and laughed, as clear and as genuine as a church bell’s peal. He pulled the jug and the bottle from the tray and stood up.

“Perhaps you’re right. Let’s see if Katushka wants to help finish whatever the fuck this horrible drink is. And then bed, before we meet the elusive ‘Katun’. Tomorrow will be another long night, I think.”

An old man raises his eyes from a large, leather-bound book as the telephone on the desk before him clamours to life. It is a beautiful device, practically an antique. He drops his spectacles onto the book’s gold-inlayed cover and lifts the handset.

“This is Cardinal Genest.”

As he listens, blood drains from his ruddy cheeks.

“What kind of problem? Lord in Heaven! The police?”

He listens to the caller’s instructions, his gnarled hands shaking.

“Yes, after Mass. I will bring Molieaux.” He lowers the handset to its polished cradle and wipes at the cold sweat on his brow.

Falluh was waiting for them at the street corner, a dark figure in the yellow street light. They pulled up beside him in the stolen Quattroporte.

Katya spoke into her radio. “We’ve made contact. We’ll be in touch as soon as we’re done.”

Patrick’s chirpy voice crackled over the airwaves. “Okay, have fun. Don’t get killed.” They’d left the young Irishman with a hired car and instructions to watch their backs, but, knowing as little about Katun as they did, there wasn’t a great deal the team could do except to leave him behind in case the worst should happen.

Rosario pushed the rear door open and beckoned to the furtive youth. He was still in his baggy western attire, headphone wires dangling from the shadowy confines of his threadbare hoodie.

“So where’s Katun?” Somerset asked, pulling away.

“You take me to harbour,” Falluh instructed. There was little sign of his terror from the previous night. Somerset shrugged but played along.

They headed towards the waterfront, with Falluh offering directions. He took them through an industrial area and onto a wide concrete dock. A huge container ship stood stark against the night sky, lit unevenly by several halogen lights. They stopped the car and Falluh led them up a crumbling jetty, where several more youths lounged against the rusty mooring bollards. Tinny music drifted from a mobile phone speaker.

Rosario studied them, surprised to note that not one of them seemed older than sixteen. He realised that he recognised one of the children: it was the street urchin that had first accosted him at the airport. The one who had given him the flyer, where he’d spotted Bernard Taure’s name. It was an unlikely coincidence.

Rosario opened his mouth to question the boy, but Falluh stopped abruptly and pointed down at a dark shape besied the jetty. “Here,” he said, climbing aboard. “You come.”

Falluh turned his attention to the old motorboat’s outboard engine and pulled sharply on the starter cord. The machine coughed noisly to life and Falluh seated himself at the tiller. As soon as Katya, Rosario and Somerset had settled themselves, the boy pointed the vessel towards the mouth of harbour and opened up the throttle.

The journey was an uncomfortable one. The water was choppy, whipped up by an unseasonable easterly wind, which in turn drove cold spray onto their exposed arms and faces. Katya was a shivering and trying in vain to wriggle into a more comfortable sitting position by the time the lights from the dock had faded behind them. She wondered if they going to meet another boat. Falluh, however, kept a straight course, heading for nothing but empty black waters. Katya judged that they must be heading north west and after an hour had ticked by, she concluded that they must be heading to Cyprus.

Sure enough, after two more shivering, jolting hours, Katya spotted a set of buoys on the approach to what was obviously a military installation. That must be the British base at Dhekelia. The realisation sent a jolt of fear down her spine: was this some elaborate ploy by MI6 to bring them in? It couldn’t be. It didn’t make any sense.

At that moment Falluh turned the tiller sharply, sending the small craft west, following the shoreline. The coast slowly grew into tall white cliffs and Falluh brought the boat to a wooden jetty at their base. Here, shielded from the wind, the water was calm, the gibbous moon shimmering in the inky sea.

Somerset leapt out as they bumped against the dock, eager for an excuse to stretch his cramped legs. He tied the boat to a mooring post and reached down to help the others out.

Falluh made for a set of steps carved into the cliff face and beckoned them upwards. Together, they climbed the rough stonework to the top where the found themselves facing an old mansion, its red-painted walls peeling and weathered. The boy led them through a brick archway into an enclosed courtyard steeped in shadow. The only source of light came from the moon, dimmened now by a veil of thin clouds.

In the wan light, the three agents could make out a figure seated on a stone bench near the centre of the courtyard. Before it was a table and set of chairs. Its face and body were completely covered in a shapeless, body-length veil. The sight was eerie, given the late hour and the black, unfamiliar surroundings, but as the moon broke free of the clouds momentarily, they realised that it was a person wearing a full length, silk burqa.

“Please sit,” the woman said in English. “I am Katun. We have a great deal to discuss.” Somerset noted that her accent was British, likely from Yorkshire or County Durham.

Rosario and Katya sat. Somerset remained standing, eyeing the roll of paper on the table. Now that his eyes were becoming accustomed to the weak, silvery light, he could see that it was a map of Saudi Arabia. He was aware too of the outline of two human figures at the farthest edge of the courtyard.

The woman seemed to read his thoughts. “The boys are my eyes and ears,” she offered by way of explanation.

“Why have you been watching us?” Katya asked bluntly.

“There are events unfolding,” Katun said. “I would see to it that they turn out for the best.”

“And what do you want in return?” Rosario asked in guarded tones.

“Consider me an interested bystander. I may be able to help you in your efforts and I have information that might help you.”

“So why don’t you drop the act and get to the point?” Somerset snapped. “Or didn’t your spies mention that I have very little time for bullshit?”

“Go easy, Somerset, we are guests here,” Rosario urged. For his diplomacy he earned himself a dangerous look from the Englishman, but Somerset’s tension relaxed fractionally. “Let’s at least let her talk to us in a manner of her own choosing.” He too was struggling to see how this woman fitted into the puzzle, but her uncanny manner coupled with the ghostly light, made him wary of offending their host.

“Falluh told me what happened at the cemetery,” Katun continued, ignoring the outburst. “Do you know what happened to Nikki?”

“He was killed,” Katya said. “A sniper. From the Bridger Investments team. He did not suffer long.”

“Poor Nikki,” Katun said. There seemed to be genuine regret in her voice. “He spent his life waiting for this, always faithful to his old KGB masters.”

“Do you know why Bridger was there?” Rosario asked.

The woman chuckled. “Becuase they, that is to say MI6, seek the Nigredo. As do you. Tell me, me what do you intend to do with it, should you find it?”

“We have the other half,” Katya stated.

“Then you would seek to create the Rubedo?”

Rosario raised his hands in confusion. “Wait, the Rubedo? What is that?”

“The powers of the Albedo and the Nigredo combine to form the Rubedo. The Rubedo would make you kings of the world, if you so wished. Tell me, Rosario, is that what you wish?”

“What? No!” he replied, offended.

“Why then do you seek these powers?”

“We seek them only to keep them from our enemies: those who would use them first to destroy us, and then to far, far worse ends.”

Silence fell over the courtyard as Katun considered this. Finally she made a gesture, aimed at the two boys watching from the far wall. The watchers filed out past the group. As Somerset watched them go he felt a flash of recognition. Baghdad … near the museum. he’d been there, as a beggar or street urchin. Katun’s network spread further than Beirut, it seemed.

Katun spoke once more. “Supposing you do succeed, Rosario. What then will you do with the Rubedo and the power it contains?”

This was a test he realised, but he saw no reason to lie about his feelings. He took a deep breath, mastering his thoughts. “Throughout my life, I have seen how power – no matter what form it takes – can corrupt even the most well intentioned people. If I had this Rubedo, I would be tempted to use it, to strike at evil and create a better world. But my faith teaches me that redemption comes from choosing to do good when the choice is hard, not when it is forced upon you. So I could not use this power. I suppose I would have to destroy it instead, to ensure it would not fall into the hands of others.”

If Katun was impressed by his impromptu speech, she made no sign. “And you Katya?”

Katya looked up, a grim determination shining in the weary lines of her face. When she spoke, it seemed like she was speaking mostly to herself. “I have seen my country brought to ruin by gangsters and criminals. I will wipe them out, scour their corruption away.”

“And you, Mr Somerset?” Katun asked.

Somerset laughed a low, cold laugh. “Oh, I don’t care for power. Not like this anyway. If I had to destroy it, I would.”

Another long silence fell on the group. They sat listening as a low wind rustled in some distant leaves, the night growing ever darker as the moon receded into the clouds.

“In Gertrude Bell’s diary,” Katun began abruptly, "she tells of a time when she was travelling through the desert. She was awoken by the approach of Bedouin riders. As she greeted them, one removed his kuffiyah to reveal the familiar features of Harry St John Philby. Though history paints him and Gertrude as great friends, beyond their professional relationship, by this time her attitude towards him had changed. She secretly believed him to be a traitor and a trouble maker due to his support of Ibn Saud.

“He seemed agitated. He drank and talked of theology and politics. He confessed that he was considering converting to Islam for political gain. Gertrude Bell recalls telling him irritably that she thought all religions foolish.

“At this he produced a talisman. ‘This is all the proof I need,’ he said. He claimed it was his gateway to heaven. He gestured to his Bedouin companions and called them his brothers. He told her that he was to be buried with his trinket.”

“That sounds like a lead on the Arabs who removed his body from Beirut,” Somerset observed. “Do you know which tribe they were?”

“They were Al Murrah. If you wish to find them, you should start in Riyadh. Their sheik, Kadir Al Murrah, settled there, I believe.”

Then Katun rose and turned to Katya. “Forgive me, I expect you would like a drink. Falluh will guide you. He will also show you places to sleep and refresh yourselves.” Falluh appeared out of the darkness and waited attentively for Katya to follow him. She turned to the others, raising one thin eyebrow.

“Go ahead,” Somerset said. “I’ve got a couple more questions for Katun. We’ll be right with you.”

As Katya trailed Falluh out of the courtyard, Somerset addressed Katun and asked, “So, would your network extend to getting us some supplies once we get to Riyadh?”

The veiled figure inclined her head. “That can be arranged. I’ll will tell you of a address before you leave.” She paused for a few seconds, then continued. “Now that Katya has left, I must give you a warning.”

“Go on,” said Somerset.

“Katya can’t be trusted.”

“If you mean her drinking, that’s- well, it is complicated,” Rosario said uncertainly. “It is just her way of coping. What she went through, with Dorjiev … that is to say- I understand it is not healthy, and were the situation different, I would urge her to seek some other form of help.” Rosario gave a hollow laugh. “It’s complicated,” he repeated lamely.

“It is not that alone. She strives to complete her mission though she is hurting. I believe she has the strength to continue towards your goal. But she carries a burden, and not one that can be completely explained by your recent trials. I can only urge you to be wary in your dealings with her. Her aims may not be so benevolent as yours.”

“But she has the Albedo,” Somerset said quietly.

Katun began to make her way towards the archway.

“Wait,” Rosario called. “Is there nothing else you can tell us?”

She paused, then said, “Only this: those you fight are ancient forces. I believe they came from the stars. They are parasites on humanity.” The last was spoken with surprising venom. Then she turned and stepped out of the courtyard, vanishing into the shadows.

The doors to Rafic Hariri Internation Airport open and The Scarred Man exits, pulling a suitcase. He looks tired. He narrows his eyes and looks around determinedly. A small crowd of poor-looking boys arrives and begins to harass him. He sighs and looks around for a taxi.

Sowing the wind

White ranks of headstones flashed past her, ghostlike in the artificial twilight. Midnight had passed, but lights still glowed behind a hundred windows amongst the crooked, jumbled buildings crowding the cemetery. Their orange gleam left scattered shadows dancing behind the untamed foliage which forced its way between the grave markers and flooded the forgotten kerb sets.

Behind her, someone screamed.

Katya sprinted through the graveyard, aiming directly for where they’d parked the Quattroporte. Pale marble flowed past her with a warm sluggishness born of the alcohol still working its way through her blood stream. One misstep here, amidst the chaotic tangle of packed graves, could mean a broken a leg. And that would leave her at the tender mercies of whatever the MI6 agents had unwittingly released into the night.

A solid, dark mass loomed ahead of her. She’d reached the boundary wall at last. It was ten feet high and its rough surface was easy to grip as she scrambled over the top. She landed with careless precision and slowed to a less conspicuous jog as she approached their stolen Maserati. She was the first to arrive, but as she scanned around she spotted the tall form of Rosario, accompanied by Somerset, clambering over the wall further down the street. Patrick sauntered out of the shadows a second later.

They slammed the Quattroporte’s doors and Somerset gunned the big engine. “Well, that didn’t go entirely according to plan. We’ll figure out what to do in the morning. In the meantime, do you still want to pay your old friends a visit?” he asked turning to face Rosario.

The Italian nodded, his face grim.

Somerset turned back to the wheel, checked the rear view mirror, then froze. “We’re being watched,” he said, the barest hint of amusement in his voice.

Katya had already twisted in her seat to gaze back. A youth skulked in the shadows at the corner of the graveyard. He had something in his hand, held out in front of him. A pair of wires fed into the darkness beneath a thin cotton hood. Even here, youth fashion followed the pattern of sullen anonymity populari in the West, she reflected.

“He’s taking photos of us,” Patrick breathed.

“Catch or kill?” Somerset asked.

“Catch,” Katya said. She was a little surprised at the question. Not at the implication of his willingness to commit cold blooded murder – she was well aware of his capabilities in that regard – but that he had asked at all.

“Get alongside him,” she said. “We’ll grab him.”

The Maserati lurched forward. Somerset spun the wheel and the big car streaked up the street towards the youth. He was already on the run, across the road in a flash of scuffed trainers and flailing headphone cables. He bolted towards a narrow passage between two tall, concrete apartment buildings as Somerset roared up behind him.

Katya leapt out before the car had even come to halt and hit the hard ground at a run. Her eyes were locked on the fleeing figure, but she heard the car pull away behind her, spraying gravel in its wake. She ducked into the passage, spotting the boy as he tore himself free from a tangle of refuse and fled away. She put on a burst of speed, years of regimented exercise giving her the edge over youthful energy. But as the gap began to close, her footing slipped and her leg almost went out from under her. She scraped along one wall, but managed to regain her balance and push onwards. Up ahead, the youth was fleeing headlong towards the far end of the alley where he could vanish from sight.

He turned his head to check his pursuer and, as she watched, the huge black shape of the Maserati slammed to a halt in front of him. Somerset’s pistol pointed at him through the window. The British agent barked a series of commands in Arabic directing the gasping youth to get to his knees.

Katya reached the car just as Patrick pushed the boy into the back seat beside Rosario and climbed in behind him. She jumped into the passenger seat. Somerset was already accelerating away before she had closed the door.

“Don’t shoot! Please!” the frightened boy sobbed.

“Who do you work for?” demanded Patrick as he frisked him and retrieved a mobile phone. It looked expensive, certainly by the standards of Beirut street youth.

The boy shook his head, eyes wild.

“He’s got pictures of the car and the registration plate. There are some of us arriving at the graveyard too,” Patrick observed as he tapped at the handset.

“Tell us who you work for,” Katya said calmly. “Or this man will kill you.” She nodded towards Somerset in the passenger seat.

Somerset cocked his head. “You tell me I kill too many people,” he observed dryly. “No, we’ll cut him, then throw him the boot to think about it. Rosario, cut him.” He reached on hand into his jacket pocket and retrieved a thin folding knife and tossed it over his shoulder. Rosario snatched it neatly from the air and flicked it open, twirling the blade confidently in a complex pattern. Katya raised an eyebrow.

His theatrics were enough to convince the boy to speak. “Katun told me to watch,” he blurted desperately.

“Who the hell is ‘Katun’?” Patrick demanded.

“Katun told me to get photograph of you,” the boy replied, offering little in the way of explanation. He was hyperventilating, terror reducing him to a quivering shell.

Rosario decided to change tack. He tucked the knife away and let his voice soften. "What’s your name? he asked.

The youth gulped a few mouthfuls of air and said shakily “Falluh.”

“And what does Katun want from us?”

“I think … I think she want to talk to you. I take you to her,” he suggested, desperation straining his voice.

“Where is she?”

“She live in red palace.”

This drew blank looks from all the agents.

Somerset braked the car to a stop at the side of the road. “We’re busy people, Falluh,” he said, turning to look directly at the boy. “If your Katun wants to meet, tell her we’ll be back here-” he indicated the roadside, “-in exactly 24 hours. Now go.”

The boy scampered away down the pavement behind them, as they paused with the engine idling. “Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what that was about?” Somerset asked.

Everyone shook their heads, except Katya, who ventured, “‘Katun’ is Arabic, I think. It means ‘Queen’, although it’s a bit of archaic version of the word.”

“I thought ‘bint’ was Arabic for queen,” Patrick said.

“Depends on which region you’re talking about,” Somerset replied. “Hmm. I wonder what that tells us?”

Katya shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”

“Guess so.” Somerset pulled away from the kerb. “In the meantime, I believe we’re late for our other appointment.”

They coasted slowly through the Lebanese capital, incandescent tower blocks reflected in the stolen 4×4′s gleaming paintwork. The high-rises dwindled in scale, but grew in density, as they drove away from the city centre, out toward the docks, until the landscape degraded to a gap-toothed army of small residential buildings, industrial units and drafty warehouses. Here, squatting in a pool of its own shadow, was St Joseph’s church. They drove past it, parking halfway between it and the river.

They climbed out in silence, hurrying to retrieve the concealed equipment from the back of the car. For a moment the night hummed with the tearing sound of Velcro straps being fastened, adjusted and refastened; gun were checked and sighted; magazines slid home, rounds sliding into their oiled chambers with metallic chatter.

“Who is taking point?” Katya asked, addressing Somerset. He nodded in Rosario’s direction.

“I feel it is my duty,” Rosario acknowledged.

“This is your party, I suppose,” she answered, giving the ex-priest an encouraging smile. “Keep it simple and we’ll be fine.”

Rosario gave a brief, verbal outline of the layout of the church’s hidden basement complex. He assigned himself and Patrick to assault the room with the long table and bed while Somerset covered the camera room.

“Shall I stay here with the car?” asked Katya.

“What, and miss out on the fun?” Somerset answered. “No, better to have you covering our backs. Lots of dark corners down there.”

“Agreed,” Rosario said.

“One last thing,” Patrick said. He opened a bag and produced a handful of pistol magazines. “These are silver bullets. In case we find … you know.” He handed them out in silence. Katya and Rosario pocketed theirs, but Somerset weighed his in his hand, then unloaded his standard magazine and loaded the silver bullets in their place.

They made their way to the river at a rapid march, weighed down by their bulky body armour and weighty long-arms. Of these, Patrick had taken the shotgun, while Somerset cradled the squat, olive-coloured Tavor assault rifle across his chest. They located the outflow pipe at the river bank and pried open the grating. Rosario ducked inside, followed by Patrick.

“Ladies first,” Somerset said to Katya. She favoured him with a raised eyebrow, then slipped through the gap. Somerset was about to pull himself into the dark tunnel, when something caught his attention. A flash of movement, just at the edge of his sight. He quickly pulled a pair of night vision goggles from his side pack and raised them to his head. They emitted a faint, high-pitched whine as they powered up.

The riverside warehouses swam into eerie green luminescence as he pressed the goggles to his eyes. He caught a second glimpse of the humanoid figure as it moved down a side street, then it seem to bound forward in a surge of inhuman speed and was gone.

“Just fucking wonderful,” he muttered as he pulled himself into the tunnel. “Stay alert,” he hissed to the others. “It isn’t just perverts and priests down here.”

Silently, they crept through the rive pipe and out into the tunnel beyond. They reached the metal set of double doors that led to the brick passage way. Rosario’s heart was back in its now familiar leaping staccato. He wanted to stop and get his adrenaline-soaked body back under control but there was no sense in delaying now. Every second that passed might mean another second of suffering for a helpless child. Unbidden, his thoughts returned to videos he’d watched the night before, the sheer inhuman depravity he had witnessed, and by those who professed to be men of God. His anger came to a sudden boil and he used the force of it clamp down on his stampeding mind. He felt a kind of calm flow through him, though the rage was boiling beneath the surface, like a dangerous current under the surface of a placid lake. His heart rate steadied, and he took long deep breaths. Game time.

He pushed the door open, gun raised in front of him and turned left. The passage was clear. His left hand flicked up to beckon the others on, his eye never leaving the doors at the end. His took careful, measured steps as he stalked forwards. Patrick was at his right elbow. Behind them, Somerset took up station at the camera room door.

Katya stayed behind, gun pointed down the passage towards the torture chamber and pit room. She only had a loose idea of what lay beyond those silent doors, but had no inclination to go poking around. She kept her gun pointed at them, ready to shoot anyone or anything that made the mistake of stepping into her path. Behind her, between where she stood and the others gathered at the other doors, the doors to the river passage hung open.

She failed to hear a soft, furtive sound scampering up the tunnel in their footsteps.

Patrick paused at the doorway and cocked his head. He nodded to Rosario, pulled a round, metal object from his belt. He yanked the pin out of it, pulled hard on the door and flung the grenade through the gap. Rosario caught a glimpse of seated figures around the huge wooden dining table, surprise just beginning to register in their faces. Bernard was there, seated beside a hooded figure. Then the door had slammed shut again. From beyond the portal came a sharp crack that reverberated through the door frame. They could see the flash through the cracks in the door frame.

Then everything was in motion.

Patrick flung the door open and Rosario leapt through, his pistol gripped in both hands, arms slightly bent, bracing the handgun. In front of him, robed figures clutched at their eyes and ears, or flailed their arms weakly in the wake of stunning sensory assault. Some were calling out in alarm, others shrieking in terror. Glasses shattered as they were sent flying by the disorientated mob. A distant part of his mind registered a feeling of grim satisfaction at their fear. He heard himself shouting orders at the panicking mob. “Get down, get down! On the fucking floor!” His voice dissolved into a series of barked commands and jumbled expletives.

It hardly mattered. No one was listening to him, not with their ears ringing and their eyes dazzled by the magnesium flare. A corpulent figure at the far end of the table rose as if to run. Rosario shot him in his gut. Patrick’s shotgun boomed at his shoulder. At the sound, the confused mass seemed to register its peril all at the same time. They surged back towards the far exit – the ladder that led to the trapdoor behind the altar in the church above – in a single, clawing, jostling mass, upending chairs and smashing more glasses in their flight. Rosario fired again into the nearest struggling figure, even as his eyes scanned the room for Bernard Taure.

He spotted him easily. The former cardinal was at the periphery of the crowd, trying to push his way inside the mob as they fought to escape their attackers. Rosario’s arm leapt again as another bullet burst from his pistol.

Patrick stepped forward from Rosario’s side, the big shotgun thumping in a steady rhythm. He moved towards the hooded figure who, up until now, had been crouching with his eyes covered. The shotgun blast flayed the edges of the hood and he looked up, bestial anger writ deep in his sallow, wrinkled face. His expression twisted in a rictus glare and he lunged forward, mindless of the shot that was pummelling his body, to grab at the huge, polished table.

With the speed of a cracking whip, he swung the table off the floor as if it weighed no more than a piece of kindling, and hurled it at the two agents. Patrick, ahead by a couple of paces, took the full force of it and was knocked backwards, arms flailing, the shotgun dangling from its shoulder sling. The creature with the shape of a man bared its teeth as it saw its victim reeling. Its arms reaching forwards like a pair of claws as it leapt forward in a blur of motion.

Somerset appeared at Patrick’s side, his cold eyes set on the beast. His assault rifle clattered a murderous staccato. Bullets scythed through its chest to spin it around and dump it on the ground. Somerset hauled the shaken Irishman to his feet.

Rosario saw none of this. His shot had been spoiled as he dodged out of the path of the impossibly animate table. Gunfire erupted around him, but he only had eyes for his quarry. His path clear once more, he lowered his aim and fired at Bernard’s leg. The bullet flew past its intended target and smacked into someone deep in the dwindling crowd. He fired again. This time his aim was true and he was rewarded with the sight of Bernard sagging to the floor, clutching weakly at a ruined knee.

The room seemed to rush back into focus all at once and he remembered his teammates. Rosario blinked, trying to clear the red fog of barely controlled anger and adrenaline from his mind. He watched Somerset take a step toward the hooded figure, who lay motionless on the floor. Somerset lowered the assault rifle and pulled the pistol from his belt in a single, practiced motion. He fired a single, silver bullet through the creature’s head.

They heard a single gunshot echo down the passageway behind them. Somerset whirled, raising the assault rifle, and raced towards the passage.

Katya had been watching the two sets of doors, fighting back the slowly encroaching hangover, when the room behind her exploded with gunfire. It was a very one-sided affair, if her ears were any judge. The sound didn’t seem to elicit any immediate reaction from her appointed doors, and she allowed herself to relax a fraction. Then a cold rush of fear slid down her spine as she heard a footstep on the rough floor behind her.

She spun round with the speed drilled into her by years of intensive combat training, but she was far too late. A blonde woman was already striding towards her, one arm outstretched, a triumphant smile locked on her flawless face. Her steely, cold glare seemed to burrow into Katya’s skull and into her brain. Katya’s gun arm froze as she fought to keep the force at bay. Time seemed to extend – her shot was only a few grams of pressure away, yet her fingers refused to respond as she battled with its overwhelming power. It cut through her disciplined combat training. It cut through the vodka’s dwindling buzz. It cut through the memory of Yasha she kept so closely guarded.

As it burrowed deep into her mind, Katya retreated inside, back beyond her defences into the core of her. Icy fingers of invisible strength reached in to crush her, but somehow she held it there. For a second, she was that frightened, abandoned child again, staring at the looming face of the orphanage, all her fears realised. Then she laughed, a choking, sobbing laugh that rang with a kind of triumph. Her finger snatched at the trigger, the gun spasmed in her tight fist. The bullet punched into the woman’s neck.

To Katya’s dismay, the shot seemed to have little effect. Though she could see the bullet hole blossom with crimson, the blood didn’t seem to flow as it was supposed to, as though it was unwilling to release its grip on the woman’s body. The woman’s expression turned furious. Katya felt a cold, sinuous power wrap itself around her body as though she was trapped in a snake’s coils. Before she even acknowledge what was happening, she was hoisted into the air as if on invisible strings. Then the floor was rushing to meet her, punching the air from her lungs. Sparks exploded behind her eyes and she tasted blood.

Katya had somehow hung on to her gun through the impact and tried to raise it before her. Her hands shook and her head swam. The effort of inhaling made the air seem as thick as treacle. The woman’s fist smashed down on her outstretched hand, sending the pistol skittering down the shadowed passage way.

“I was hoping I would have the chance to repay your hospitality,” the woman muttered in darkly mellifluous tones, a hint of a Central European accent

A name flowed unbidden to her mind. Sigrun. She’d met this woman before. A lifetime ago. Back when this all began. Eastern Europe, somewhere near– Sigrun’s Katya’s mind fired a thousand commands to her unresponsive body, willing, ordering, screaming at herself to get up and fight.

Sigrun’s body convulsed to the rhythm of a fresh burst of gunfire. She staggered forward and Katya was instantly released from the woman’s unnatural spell. Air rushed into Katya’s lungs as though she had been underwater and had just now broken the surface. She sprang to her feet, one hand reaching to the small of her back and the haft of her ceramic knife. She pulled it free and in one movement drew it hard across Sigrun’s neck, snarling triumphantly as hot arterial blood sprayed across the corridor.

As it made its crimson arc, the quality of the blood changed, from bright to dull, thinning, somehow sagging, hitting the walls and the floor with a wet splat.

Sigrun sank to her knees and slumped sideways, clutching at her throat as if she could stop the fountaining spray. Katya gripped the thick blonde hair, furiously sawing back and forth with the ceramic blade, until vertebrae separated with an ugly snap. She let the bloody bundle fall as she collapsed back, exhausted, against the tunnel wall, unaware of anything but the dead woman, not even Somerset standing over her with the assault rifle trained on the corpse.

“Did you recognise her?” Katya asked as the four operatives gathered beside the wreckage of the cedar dining table. Rosario was tying stitches in a short gash on Patrick’s hand, made by the table’s impact. Katya was idly leafing through a passport.

“Who, blondie?” Somerset asked. “It was hard to get a good look at her, but there was something familiar about her.”

“Sigrun. Her name was Sigrun.”

“Ah, yes! I remember her. The Croatian lot… the neo-ustasha. The ones who took Nate?”

Katya nodded.

“Well, that’s ironic,” he said.

“What is?”

“Dropping a Nazi with a Jewish rifle.” He patted the stock of the Tavor contentedly. Katya shook her head and rifled the corpse’s clothes. She pulled a passport from a coat pocket.

“Austrian. And she’s going by the name ‘Gertrud Eisler’. But, if you recall, she came to Bosnia from Beirut.”

Somerset looked at her blankly. “So what?”

Katya sighed tiredly. “Nothing I suppose. We’ve got a connection between Austria, Beirut and Bosnia. That means we’re going to find Simon Thaler mixed up in this somewhere, I believe. It means we’re still on track. But now we’ve got a line to the Catholic church too. These neue mensch, whatever you call them, their network is big. Very big.”

Something nagged the back of Somerset’s mind as Katya talked through the connections, but he couldn’t focus on it. A thoughtful quiet descended over the group.

After a few minutes, Somerset gave up trying to wrestle the distant memory to the surface. “So what are we doing with him?” He asked, nodding at the gagged, huddled figure of Bernard Taure. He lay shivering on his side in the brick-lined carriage way, a wad of torn robe bandaging his shattered kneecap. “It would be kinder to put him out of his misery.”

“Not yet. I need to make a phone call first.” Rosario’s voice sounded eerily calm, even to himself. A smell of burning meat wafted down the corridor from the pit room, where the bodies of Sigrun and the unknown, hooded monk were blazing in a petroleum inferno.

“We found someone in the torture room, by the way.” Somerset said casually. “Not a kid, though,” he added as Rosario’s expression darkened. “Poor sod was hooked up to that machine. I cut him loose and sent him up the river tunnel. Better if he doesn’t see all of our faces. Anyone want to venture a guess at what those machines are for?”

No one did.

Twenty minutes later they had hauled Bernard out of the underground lair and into one of the empty warehouses on the riverbank. He was tied to a scuffed, plastic chair. Rosario held the petrol can as he paced in front of the silent captive. Back and forth, back and forth. Each circuit was an evenly measured set of steps. Rosario paced and thought, his mind struggling to find order amidst the trauma of all that he’d witnessed, the videos he’d watched, the realisation that he’d been ousted from the Vatican to protect this man. This man who consorted with demons in a very literal sense, who had drunk blood. He had done things Rosario didn’t ever want to remember seeing and knew he would never be able to forget.

Back and forth. Had it been this way the whole time? Even while he was growing up on the streets of Naples? When he had escaped the cruel, casual violence of the street, had he thrown himself into the midst of far more terrible evils? Rosario turned again. He considered his ascension through the church, his first audience at the Vatican, his many subsequent appointments. He wondered now whether those assignments were righteous. They’d told him so. But he had hurt people – a great many people – in order to protect the Lord’s truth. Or was it the Vatican’s truth? Where did the line between God and church lie? And who was drawing it? Unanswerable questions whirled like a cyclone in his skull. Back and forth he paced, the petrol can held at his side.

No, he decided, his actions had been just. He’d committed sins to stop far worse ones. Never without cause. Never without evidence. But he knew he wasn’t the only creature of his kind in the vast mechanism of the Vatican. There were other so-called Special Apologetics. Had those others all been like him? Or was their service to the Vatican far less morally certain?

One answer was clear to him now; he could see it in the terrified eyes of the man before him. This man had been sent away rather than risk bringing the church into disrepute, even though his crimes were ones that demanded proper civil justice. And in exile he had carried out even greater crimes. His evil had been a known quantity. Rosario had compiled the damning evidence himself, had handed it to the Cardinal Secretary of State in person. Yet still Bernard Taure had been left to fulfil his corrupted fantasies in a place where victims were plentiful and unlikely to be missed. That meant there had been collusion.

Rosario abruptly stopped pacing and dialled a number on his phone.

“Cardinal Genest, I hope I haven’t woken you,” Rosario said politely to the man who answered the call.

“Rosario, friend, what’s this about?” The cardinal’s voice sounded worried. Rosario had known him for the better part of his adult life and he could tell this call was one the cardinal had been dreading.

“Do you remember Bernard Taure, cardinal? You must do, of course – he was the one I raised those concerns about.”

“Yes, what of him? I told you before, Rosario, no good would come of pursuing him. He has been dealt with.”

Rosario’s voice was like cold iron. “Dealt with? You believe that sending him to a backwater diocese is ‘dealing’ with him?”

“Rosario, where are you?” Genest’s was scared now.

Rosario carried on as though he hadn’t heard the question. “When I was dismissed, I thought it was because the College was worried about the work I had been doing. Now I see they were only interested in keeping me quiet!”

“No you don’t under-” Genest began, but Rosario cut him off.

“I understand perfectly!” he snapped. “But you don’t have to worry about my silence. I shall not run to any newspaper, or law court. Just know this: I shall make you account for your crimes. All of you. Starting with Bernard Taure.” Rosario placed the phone down in front of the chair. He could hear Genest shouting at the other end, but the voice was tiny and indistinct now that the handset was on the floor.

Rosario circled around behind the bound figure. The man gasped as Rosario emptied the petrol can over him, soaking into his torn and bloodied clothes.

Taure spoke at last, his voice cracked and hoarse. “Y-You can’t do this! You have no authority!”

Rosario bent and whispered into his ear, “I have the only authority that matters.” He straightened and returned to the front of the chair to face the former Cardinal. When he spoke again, his voice rang through the warehouse, audible even to Katya, Patrick and Somerset where they sat waiting in the car outside. “Bernard Taure, will you confess your sins?” he asked.

Taure’s voice had risen to a shriek, “No, no, you have no right! You shall regret this! I have powerful friends!”

“Of that I am very much aware.” Rosario retrieved a box of matches from his pocket and lit one, watching the flame flicker for a moment. Then, with cool disinterest, he dropped the lit match onto the priest’s lap and walked away.

The man’s eyes went wide with shock. Orange flames blossomed outward, coiling around his body until they swallowed him completely. It took a few seconds for the heat and pain to register in his petrified mind, then the agony engulfed him and he began to scream.

A box of delights

Tuesday AM

The team’s apartment, down one of Beirut’s lesser side streets, far from the cool seafront, was hot and sticky. Katya opened her bedroom door, squinting in pain at the bright sunlight. Her mouth tasted of vomit and cigarettes. She was still wearing her cream linen dress from the day before, creased and stained.

“I’ve seen better looking Zalozhniy than you” said Patrick cheerily. He was working at a table in the shared lounge area.

“What the fuck are you doing this early?” she snarled. Blood banged against the inside of her head, her stomach was so empty it was eating itself.

“Well, firstly it’s 12:30 – so not that early. And secondly I’m making you all some silver bullets.” Patrick indicated the drill and candles on the table in front of him. He was drilling out the bullets, filling them with silver powder and sealing with wax. Two clips sat completed beside a parade of shiny bullets on the table, ready to be prepared.

“Have a nice time yesterday?” he asked. “Find out anything useful?”

Katya walked carefully to the sideboard, and cracked open a bottle of water.
She shook her head slowly. “I found myself in the Takaya Suites. I didn’t realise where I was, until, until I did. Then I had to forget. The rest of the day is…” She shrugged and saw Patrick’s confusion. “It’s where they gutted Rudek and hung him from the ceiling.”

She drank deeply from the bottle, and saw Rosario standing outside, on the balcony. He entered, pushing aside the net curtains. She noticed deep, dark bags under his eyes, and a hunted look that was new.

“Where’s Somerset?” she asked him.

“He’s out, scouting the KitKat club for the first of tonight’s activities. You had bad dreams last night. Is it Dorjiev again?” Rosario’s face was concerned.

“No. Yes. I had dreams but about Rudek. Not Dorjiev.” she said, looking down at the table.

“If you want to talk about it, I am here.”
“I’m fine. What happened to you yesterday?”

Before he answered, Somerset banged in through the front door, and dumped two bags of shopping onto the table “I got lunch and a car. A Maserati Quattroporte. And the original KitKat club has gone, it’s a Western tourist club now.”

“What we doing at the KitKat?” Katya asked.
“Christ.” Somerset said seeing her, “We’ve got an appointment at the KitKat then we’re going to kill some priests.”
Rosario coughed. “What Somerset meant is that we need to rescue some children tonight, and put a paedophile ring out of action, but first he’s been invited to a meeting at the KitKat club with someone called Chambers, a friend from before, it seems.” he said.

Katya and Patrick looked at Somerset, waiting for an explanation, but he continued to unpack the shopping without speaking or making eye contact.

Rosario eventually spoke into the silence. “So in the meantime I will visit a Lebanese friend at a shrine near here. To retrieve some useful supplies. Body armour. Flash bangs.”

“Night vision kit if the shrine has it” said Patrick.

Somerset looked at Rosario’s eyes. “Did you get any sleep?”

Rosario spoke earnestly. “How could anyone with a conscience sleep knowing what we now know? I studied the videos all night, and if they stay to the pattern, I believe they will start the ritual about 10pm. We need to be there then.”

“We’re supposed to be finding Bridger and the Nigredo” said Katya.

“I thought that’s what you were supposed to be doing?” said Somerset sharply.

“Hey! It’s alright, I did some digging this AM,” said Patrick “when I was being quiet ‘cos you were sleeping. They have rooms booked at the Four Seasons, on the waterfront.”

Tuesday Evening

Rosario entered the KitKat club first. It was a dirty building from the outside. Neon and techo-music blaring into the street. Two bouncers stood at the entrance, and perfunctorily searched clubbers entering. They didn’t want to stop the drugs, just the guns. Inside it was dark and a sweaty mix of locals and tourists.

“Water please” Rosario ordered at the crowded bar. He saw Katya enter and get served, Vodka Redbull. She was wearing a tight black dress. His jeans and shirt felt slightly out of place here. All around him there was a lot of young flesh on show.
Rosario leaned against the bar, watching the dance floor and listening to tacnet.

Somerset came in the entrance, and headed to the bar. A man stood up in the raised VIP area at the back and waved him over. Somerset skirted the dancing horde, and while he was hidden from view, slipped his tacnet off, putting it into his trouser pocket. There might be things said about his past he didn’t want public.

“Hello Pete” said the man who had waved to Somerset. His seated colleague watched Somerset and the crowd behind. They were both casually suited. Like Somerset.

“Hello Daniel” Somerset sat down opposite them. “How’s things?”

“Good. I moved departments after you left. Are you still well?” Daniel turned his drink glass thoughtfully around on the table in front of him.

Somerset smiled. “Getting by. Surviving on the other side of the fence.”

“This is my colleague Matt. Matt, Peter Dawlish.” Matt made brief eye-contact with Somerset. He was lean, but Somerset couldn’t tell if he was only muscle or something more. Matt’s face was familiar, but Somerset couldn’t place him at the moment.

“Would you like a drink?” Daniel continued.

“Please. My usual.” said Somerset. Daniel raised a hand and a hostess appeared at the table.

“Hi, good evening, what can I get you?” she asked Somerset, brightly.

“He’ll have a whisky.” Daniel answered “On the Bridger tab.”

Of course, thought Somerset. Rosario was right, Bridger is a 6 front. Or close to them. That’s where he’d seen Matt’s face before too, in the Bridger Investment passport photos.

After the whisky arrived, Daniel leaned forward, still absentmindedly rotating his glass in place on the table, “So Pete, how’d you get my number?”

Somerset took a slow mouthful of whisky. He savoured it for a moment before swallowing.

“I took it off a dead guy in Baghdad. Not my kill. He was already stuffed in a box, and they were trying to dispose of the evidence.” He shrugged.

Dan sat back and glanced at Matt who returned a brief, significant look. They knew about Baghdad Somerset thought. Maybe they knew the dead man as well?

“Have you seen Alec recently?” Dan asked.

“Spoke to him a couple of weeks ago. You still working for him?” Somerset countered. He was growing tired of this gentle back and forth.

“No, I left his employ a few years ago. But we’re still friends. He still talks about retiring.” Dan turned his glass on the table, considering his next question.

Somerset interrupted his thoughts. “Tell me about Bridger. Why are Overwatch and the Lisky Bratva so interested in you?” Matt’s eyes snapped to Somerset, then returned to restlessly scanning the clubs patrons.

“Bridger’s just SOP, but let’s come back to them later.” Dan said. “This meeting’s timing is very fortunate. First, I’m sorry about the incident at Al-Kirkuk’s flat, they were after him, not you. He was an informer for the Bormann Organisation.”

“We know the Organisation, the people behind the Lisky Bratva”
Dan glanced at Matt again, who shrugged halfheartedly, his eyes hardly leaving the crowd.

“Yes, the Organisation are involved with Gehlen. They have their,” he paused to emphasise “claws in all sorts.” He studied Somerset’s face for a reaction.

“You mean, they are post-human?” said Somerset.
Dan relaxed slightly, nodded. “Yes, they’re-“ he started, but Somerset cut him off quickly.

“We know what we’re talking about. No need to say it. So what’s 6’s interest?”
Dan sighed. “It’s deep in their history –“

“I know about Gertrude Bell’s diary, and about the Philby’s.”

“You have done a lot. St. John created a slow-burning bomb, of sorts. He and the other Intrusives found something in the ruins of Babylon and Sumeria. An entity. They overcame it and…” he stopped and took a drink.

“and what?” Somerset didn’t want him to stop, wanted it to be made clear, finally. Everything they’ve been dragged into, explained.

“Based on their, the Intrusive’s, research Philby poisoned the Eid-ul-Fitr feast in 1931. He created a contamination in the House of Saud, passing from one generation to the next, until at the right time, with the right components, someone could control the House of Saud.”

“And the oil I guess. Did Kim pass this to the KGB?”

“Philby Senior told him of it, but he hid the components, one in a safety deposit box, and the other component we think is here. They are after it, but we are confident it is still here. In Beirut.”
Dan sat back, waiting on Somerset’s reaction.

“You think it’s in St. John’s grave. Here, in Beirut.”

Dan’s eyebrows shot up. “Yes, we do. In Bashoura cemetery.” He looked past Somerset “Peter, this is Alistair West.”

Behind Somerset stood a smartly suited man, incongruous in the garish club and patrons. A paper was tucked under his arm. He smiled thinly and held out his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you Mr Dawlish. Please sit.”
Somerset remained standing until West had sat. “Are you asking me to back off our investigations?” he said.

“No, not at all. Indeed, if you wanted to come back in to the fold, we could arrange that” said West.

Somerset looked suspiciously at him “What about the CIA? They wouldn’t accept that.”

“We can handle the CIA. Or we could arrange a retirement if you prefer. A bar on a beach somewhere warm and sunny. Your choice. Come with us, tonight, help us get this component, and don’t get in the way.”

“I’ve got a prior commitment tonight.” Rosario was behind him somewhere, waiting to go.
A detail about Matt and Dan came to mind. He’d noticed they wore slip-on shoes, Lebanese style. Not unusual in Beirut. But… There was also the hint of incense in the air off them.

“You’ve already been looking for it. At the mosque.” Somerset said.

Alistair nodded, “You are quite perceptive Mr. Dawlish. Of course we’ve been looking, and we will find it tonight. What can be more important than that?”

“I’ve promised to help a friend torture and kill some paedophile priests tonight. Let me see if I can rearrange my schedule.”

Alistair frowned, looked to Dan “I don’t get the joke?” Dan just shook his head.

Somerset fished the tacnet out of his pocket and pressed it into his ear. He stood up and moved a few paces away, looking out over the dance floor.

He told the others what Dan and Alistair had said. He’d barely finished telling them when Rosario spoke forcefully. From the tiny tacnet, over the thumping music, Somerset could hear the passion in Rosario’s voice.

“They are raping and torturing and killing innocent children. Nothing is more important.” he hissed.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Somerset “they could get the Nigredo tonight.”

Katya spoke. “The priests have been doing this for years and years, Rosario,” Somerset could hear the slurring in her voice “it can wait one more night.” she finished.

“That’s not helping Katya.” Somerset said.

“They started the ritual 40 minutes ago, they … They’re just children… I can’t save them alone. I need your help.” Rosario pleaded.

Somerset paused, then decided. “We’ll get the Nigredo and then save the kids. I promise.”

There was a long emptiness. Finally Rosario said “God, forgive. I hope this Nigredo is worth it. We’re going back to the church as soon as we’re finished though, yes?”

“As soon as we’re finished,” Somerset agreed. “Rosario come with me and Bridger, Katya you go with Patrick.”

Hereturned to the seating, tacnet still on. “Tonight is good. My colleague will be joining us.”
Alistair smiled. “Very well. One last thing, Peter, for our deal. We need the Albedo. We know you have it.”

“I don’t have it, actually.”

“Your team has it. Buried somewhere in a Swedish forest. We want it.”

“The Russian woman has it, not me. It was in the forest, but she moved it. And she’s not telling where. Maybe she doesn’t know anymore.”

“Who is this woman?” Somerset was aware the tacnet was still live in his ear. Did he trust Katya? No. Was he prepared to sacrifice her? Not yet.

“Kalina Autolic.” Somerset said.

“Kalina? I think you mean Katya Lavrova.” Dan interrupted.

“Kalina’s how Rudek introduced us. She has it, but she’s become unreliable. She screwed the BND over it, and won’t even tell us where it is.”

“That’s disappointing. Ask her when you see her to have a word with us. We will make it worth her while.” Alistair finished. “I must go now.”

“Get the Nigredo and I’ll introduce you to her.” And you can deal with her, he thought.
Alistair disappeared off into the club.

Patrick watched Katya come out of the door of the Kit Kat club into the neon-lit street. The Quattroporte was parked on the same street, about 30m away, in the shadows between streetlights.

The pavement was uneven and she stumbled slightly at the door, her heels catching on cracks in the paving stones. A bouncer caught her arm, stopping her falling.
Patrick could hear his “You OK pretty lady?” over tacnet.

He was sat in the passenger seat, laptop open. The map was mostly finished, their bank heist in Zurich rendered in Call of Duty 4 multiplayer. The video Sergei had recorded had helped him pick the right textures and get the layout of the vault right. There were pre-positioned bodies, with weapons and spawn points where the real bodies had fallen. It was uploading now to a cracked CoD4 server.

Katya walked away from the club in the opposite direction to the car. Patrick had become used to their anti-surveillance routines. Walking extra miles, doubling back, staring into windows, all while carrying phones that, if it wasn’t for him, would be pinging their exact location into the ether.

He watched her cross the street and stop to light a cigarette, struggling to get it lit. She’s actually drunk, he thought.
It was still early for serious partying and there were few people on the street, but several parked cars. A wind blew rubbish and a plastic bag along the gutter.

“Come on, let’s go.” he said under his breath. After a couple of drags, she turned back towards him, a hand on the buildings to steady herself. He shut the laptop and slid over into the driver’s seat. She was in no state to drive.

When he’d awkwardly clambered over the central console, he looked for her again. She’d stopped at a phone booth. The old fake phone-call routine. Did anyone believe it anymore, everyone had mobiles?

She picked up the handset and he heard her punch in numbers, then she reached up to her ear and cut tacnet off. She stood in the booth, pretending to speak to someone for a minute, then hung up and came straight towards the car.

“You driving?” she asked as she got in. He could smell Red Bull and cigarettes.
“For sure you’re not.” he said smiling, the Maserati’s engine roaring into furious life.

“One more drink Pete? Celebrate the end of the journey?” Dan offered Somerset, waving at the hostess again.

“That sounds like they’re planning to kill you.” said Rosario’s voice in his ear.

“No thanks, I’m keen to get there. Get this over with.” Somerset said.

At the entrance door, Rosario joined the group and they headed out to a large BMW parked nearby. Rental plates. Matt pulled out a set of keys and beeped it unlocked.

“I’ll drive.” Somerset said, holding out his hand for the keys. “You know I’m a better driver than you.”

Matt chucked him the keys, “We’ll take the back seats.” he said.

As Somerset drove through Beirut, Rosario listened to Patrick and Katya on tacnet as they scouted the cemetery ahead of them.
“There’s a group, eight I think, locals at the main entrance. Big sports bags. We’re doing a circuit round.” Patrick sounded calm.

A minute later, Patrick spoke again. “Well, what do you know, at the top of the hill is an old office with a Koerners Bank on a frieze above the front.”

As the BMW approached the main entrance of the cemetery, Patrick said “We’re parked to the west, I’m going to sneak in. Katya will too, if she can stand.”

Somerset parked at top, above the cemetery. It sprawled down the side of a gentle hill, sloping towards the sea, beyond the tower blocks. The mosque was at the top, and Somerset could see the locals with sports bags standing around.

“Expecting trouble?” he asked as they got out.

Dan smiled, “Just prepared for anything.”

He lead them inside, he seemed to know where he was heading among the graves, his torch beam pointing the way. The locals picked up their bags and followed behind. He stopped at a nondescript grave, one in hundreds of identical stones. The name ‘Hajji Abdullah’ engraved on it.

Spades and shovels appeared from the bags, and the locals began digging into the dirt. The Bridger men stood a little way back, looking relaxed.

A walkie-talkie crackled. Matt pulled it out and spoke quietly into it. Somerset edged closer to hear.

“An intruder has got through the cordon on the east side. Take him out.” the walkie voice said.

“Received” said Matt, and extracted a long pistol from his jacket.

“Trouble?” asked Somerset.

“No trouble.” he replied and stalked off into the dark to the east.

A minute later there was the unmistakeable sound of a silenced pistol shot in the night.

Matt returned as the diggers pulled a shroud from the earth.

“Unwrap it” Dan ordered, and brown, human bones clattered to the ground.

Somerset could see immediately that the skull had a gunshot hole. “I don’t remember St. John Philby dying of a shot to the head. Or being that tall. Or that skinny.”

“Keep digging. It is here.” ordered Daniel.

The green glowing figure in the night vision goggles had pulled itself up against a gravestone about 20m away from where Patrick and Katya hid, keeping watch.
Patrick had tracked its crawl from where it had been shot, leaving a shining trail. It now slumped against the stone, fiddling with something in its lap, but Patrick couldn’t make it out. Night-vision had limits. He ducked back down behind the graves.
“I’m going over to see who it is.” he whispered to Katya.

He circled wide through the shadowy cemetery. The slope helped keep him in the dark from the Bridger people and their observers on walkie-talkies. He could see through the goggles the cluster of men, Rosario and Somerset included, further up, and he could hear the sounds of digging and muted conversation through the still air.

As he got closer to the injured person, Patrick slid the goggles off. He could see in the reflected glow of the city lights that it was an old man, one hand pressed to his chest, eyes closed. Covering him with his gun, Patrick approached carefully.

“Who are you?” he whispered when he got close.

The old man started, opened his eyes and squinted at Patrick crouched in the dark. He had been fiddling with a book. He looked 70? 80? Creased and thin.

“I am Nicholai, who you?” the man’s voice was weak, with a Russian accent.
He shifted and light shone on the book’s cover. Das Kapital. In Russian. The man gave a groan, and a wave of blood swelled out through the fingers pressed to his chest.

“You’re not looking too good there.” said Patrick.

“I am KGB, we are tough. Not FSB, not SVR, original KGB!” the effort caused him to cough, a trickle of blood ran out of the corner of his mouth. “You are British agent?”

“More or less” said Patrick. He glanced over at the huddle of men by the dig. They had found something metal deeper in the grave and were digging and pulling it out.

Nicholai nodded. “My handler set me to watch over this cemetery, over St. John’s grave. We knew about object for years. Kim had one part, but we never found it. My handler, Shevlenko, set me to watch here. We thought Philby ready in ‘74 to put plan into operation.” the old man paused, struggling for breath.

There was a screech of metal from the dig, excited voices.

“But you must know the Nigredo is not in the grave. The Arabs took it in ’75, where I do not know. They left something terrible in its place.”

Patrick swung round to see where the dig had got to, when there was the sound of metal giving way and a thump as the box opened.
“Shit” he said.

Rosario watched them crowbar open the black metal box from St. John’s grave. What would a Nigredo look like?
The iron box lay open, in the middle of their group. It was dark, but he could just see inside. It was full of a shiny dark-red liquid, roiling and writhing. One of the locals leaned in closer to get a better look.

“Get the fuck out of there, it’s a trap!” Patrick’s voice was loud in Rosario’s ear.

Rosario looked at Somerset and saw he had drawn his gun. “Run!” said Somerset simply and bolted west, to the exit and the car.

Rosario turned back to warn the others of the danger. They had pulled guns too and were backing away, unsure of what they had found. The blood in the box bulged, and a head and shoulders came up out of it. A shape made of blood. A human shape, utterly inhuman.

Rosario sprinted as fast as he had ever done, faster than he thought he could. Behind him, behind them all as they ran, the screams started, but he did not dare look back.

The man of her dreams

Katya jolted awake, the room was sticky and stuffy. A bar of moonlight sliced through the room where she hadn’t closed the curtains properly. She was lying on top of the bed, still dressed. She could taste the evening’s drinks and cigarettes, but specific details evaded her memory.
Beirut and the apartment was silent.

Dorjiev stood motionless at the foot of her bed. She tried to stand, to move, but couldn’t. A great weight pressed down on her, pinning her to the mattress. Dorjiev’s eyes drove into her brain, through the hangover and alcohol.

“Katya… Katya…” his rasp was in her head.
“Our plan is in danger! They have been searching for the Albedo in the forest near Stockholm. Your friend gave them that much. They have been looking in the wrong area. This I knew. But now I have learned that they have agents on the ground who can sense where the Albedo is. There is a source of energy that comes from outside this galaxy. There is a secret circle of the… ‘Ubermenschen’… who can channel it. They are called ‘The Luminous Lodge’. They said they have found the signal of the Albedo and are close to locating it. We don’t have much time. Tell me where it is. I can send… someone.”

Katya felt incredibly heavy, she dragged air into her lungs, forcing her chest to work.
The weight pressed her breath out in a whisper. “Sorry D. I will get it in Sweden. You should delay or distract them. Follow me, you will know when I have it. Have your people ready.”

“No! That would play right into their hands! They are looking for you! You will lead them straight to it!” His anger was fierce, tinged with fear?

“Then give me a reason to trust you D! My team are on the trail of the Nigredo, we will have it soon.” She was flushed, angry. If she could move she’d.. but she couldn’t.

The weight increased, crushing her still tighter. Muscles strained, lungs fought for any scrap of air. Grey static crept into the borders of her vision. In the dark, Dorjiev glowed.

His voice filled her, “After all we’ve been through together, you still don’t trust me? Even if you somehow managed to fetch it, do you imagine I lack the power to take it from you if I wanted? Die Spinne is another matter.
“And your team? You can’t trust them! Why won’t they hide the Nigredo away for themselves, just as you hid the Albedo away for yourself? I need you there to take it first! For us! For the secrets I will give you!”

The room shrank, filled with static, her chest ached for oxygen, she wanted to scream.
Long seconds passed.

The weight lifted fractionally. She managed to take long, painful rasps of air, wheezing.

“I didn’t hide it for myself! Take it. It’s 10m north, 10m west of the GPS point!” Bile rose, tears trickled down her cheekbones. “You have my trust..”

“Thank you. If this is true you will get your reward. You have done well.” He smiles at her, fatherly.

The weight evaporated, in a flash her knife was out, edge flashing in the moonlight, but he was gone. Her hand shook. Frustrated she flicked the knife at where he had been. It thunked loudly into the door and stayed quivering.


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