It was gone. Dane looked down at the stone etched with the three hares, lying on the frozen bottom where someone had dropped it. The space it had once filled was set at eye level. It was easily large enough to have held one of the skulls of the Magi. He took one last look, then reached inside and felt around just to make certain he had not missed anything, but he knew it was futile. Someone had beaten them to it.
Cold and angry, he made the climb back out, the frozen stones slick under his fingers. He lost his grip a few times, but managed to catch himself. Come on, he chided himself. You can’t escape armed bad guys only to die falling down a well. When he finally hauled himself out, he was in a foul mood. Were the skulls essential to finding the secret that lay beneath the icefall? If so, would they need all three? He supposed it did not matter now. They would have to proceed with what they had.
“Put your hands in the air.” He knew that voice. He’d heard it just a few days earlier in Paderborn.
He looked up to see Ulrich and Niklas standing there, weapons drawn, grinning. Warily, he held his hands away from his body to show he was unarmed. They had taken the skull and then set a trap for him, and he’d walked right into it.
“Give us the skull.” Niklas held out his hand.
“What?” Dane was genuinely surprised. “You already have it.”
“Let us have it!” Ulrich shouted. He trembled with rage. Perhaps his battered and bruised face, which was probably a handsome one under ordinary circumstances, and the memory of the two whippings he’d already suffered at the hands of Dane’s group, was the source of his anger. Dane looked into his dark eyes, and saw something more; there was a deeper cause for his rage. “We must have it. Time is almost up.”
“What do you want with it?”
A wiser man would not have wasted time bandying words with Dane, but Ulrich had already proved himself reckless, and his agitated state only amplified that trait.
“We must find the Magi! They left the key to resurrection.”
“Ulrich, nein!” Niklas snapped, but the other man rambled on.
“The Fuhrer must live!”
“Wait a minute. You think,” he tried to recall what Adler had told them about the Magi legend, “the myrrh will bring back a guy who’s been dead for more than a half-century?”
The two men exchanged furtive glances, and Dane’s heart skipped a beat.
“No way!” It couldn’t possibly be true.
Ulrich clearly realized he had said too much. His face reddened, but his eyes burned with righteous anger.
“It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t have it.”
“Do not play with us.” Niklas sounded stern, but Dane could see in his eyes that the man knew something was amiss. “Give it to us now.”
“It’s gone. If you didn’t take it, someone else must have.” He raised his hands a little higher. “Search me if you want. Heck, look down in the well. The stone that covered its hiding place is still lying there.”
The men exchanged looks. Niklas nodded, and Ulrich approached Dane. Pistol in one hand, he gave Dane a light pat-down with the other. Dane breathed a sigh of relief that the man had skulls on his mind. Otherwise, Ulrich might have given him a more thorough pat-down and discovered the Heckler & Koch USP he had lost in Paderborn and Dane had recovered. Satisfied Dane did not have the skull, Uhlrich pushed Dane in Niklas’s direction and leaned over the edge of the well to look inside.
Dane wouldn’t get a better chance than this. He pretended to stumble forward, then lashed out with a right cross that caught Niklas on the chin. It was a quick, clean blow that sent the surprised man stumbling backward. Turning around and drawing the HK-USP, Dane clubbed the unsuspecting Uhlrich across the back of the head, and then leapt to the side as bullets flew.
Niklas’s shots tore through the space Dane had occupied a moment before. Two bullets ricocheted off the old well, but the third caught the slumping Uhlrich in the back, and he slid to the ground, leaving a smear of blood on the weathered stone.
Dane rolled to his feet and pumped two rounds into Niklas’s gut. No hired thug could outshoot a SEAL. He would have put another in the man’s head to finish the job, but he hoped to get a few questions answered first.
He kept his gun trained on Niklas, but there was no need. The man had dropped his weapon and now held his arms pressed to his ruined belly as if he could hold the life in. He looked up at Dane, his eyes glassy with disbelief.
“Help me,” he gasped.
Dane had seen enough wounds to know there was no hope for Niklas. He had minutes left, if that. “The only thing that can help you right now is to make things right with your maker if you believe in one.”
“Of course I believe.” Niklas closed his eyes and let his head fall back. “I work for Him.”
“Who do you work for?”
“Heilig Herrschaft.” His voice was already fading.
“What is that?”
“The Holy Dominion.” He groaned and shuddered. “Hurts.”
Dane felt numb. “Are you connected to the Dominion in America?”
“America.” Niklas managed a weak laugh, and bloody froth oozed from the corners of his mouth. “So young a nation and so limited in their vision. The same is true for our Herrschaft brethren there.” He coughed weakly.
“Do you have any idea who took the last skull?”
Niklas’s eyes sprang open, and for a moment he seemed fully alert. “Issachar!” he hissed.
Dane could not hide his shock. Stunned, he wobbled to his feet and took a step back. “What did you say?”
“Issachar. That is the name of the American the Herrschaft put above us. He must have betrayed us and taken the skull for himself.” The sudden burst of life was already dissipating, but Dane understood the man’s final words. “Kill him.” And then he was gone.
He dumped the bodies into the well and tossed in some branches and snow to hide the bodies. He figured it wouldn’t take too many more snowy days before they were hidden until the thaw. Considering the well’s remote location, it might be longer before they were discovered. His mind spun as he drove back to town. How could Issachar still be alive? It had to be the same guy. How many Issachars were in the Dominion? Or in the world, for that matter?
Bones and Angel were waiting outside the inn when Dane made it back to the center of town. Before Dane could cut the engine, Bones had yanked open the door and hopped in.
“Don’t you ever answer your phone?” Bones snapped.
“Not much reception up here. What’s up?”
“Jade’s gone. The innkeeper saw her with some dude. Said he was big and had a messed up face.”
“Issachar.” Dane spoke the word like a curse.
“What? He’s dead, Maddock. You killed him.”
“He’s back.” Dane’s voice was as cold and flat as a frozen lake.
Shock registered in Bones’ face. “If that’s true, he’s got Jade. The lady said it looked like she fainted and he helped her to the car and drove off.”
Hot rage boiled up inside Dane. He wanted to kill Issachar with his bare hands, feel the life drain from his body.
“Did you find out the way to the icefall?”
“We’re going after her. The skulls and climbing gear are in the back. Angel, you go back to the inn and call the police.”
“No way, man. I’m coming with you.”
“No! The police need to know what happened. The lady at the inn can tell them what she saw. Show them this.” He took a picture of himself and Jade from his wallet and handed it to Angel. “They’ll want a picture of her, and the lady at the inn can confirm that the guy she left with isn’t me. I don’t know what kind of law enforcement they have up here, but maybe they can get some help to us.”
“Fine, but as soon as they’ve heard my story, I’m coming after you.” Angel slipped out of the car. “Pop the trunk so I can get my share of the climbing gear.”
Dane looked at Bones, who shook his head. Dane hit the auto-lock button, put the car in reverse, and backed out of the space. Angel cursed and punched the driver’s window, though not hard enough to break it; she was a fighter and knew enough to take care of her hands.
“You two better make it back so I can kick your asses!” she shouted as Dane hit the gas and shot down the frozen road.