Niklas looked both ways before exiting the treasury. It had been a frustrating search. The American, who had been put in charge of this mission, had said that they were looking for “instructions” and that he would know it when he found it. The man’s face had contorted with rage when they had opened the Shrine of the Three Kings and found only those strange skulls. Of course, the man’s scarred face, partly hidden by the wraparound sunglasses he wore day and night, always looked like it was twisted into a scowl.
The priests had been of no use. They had tortured them one by one and hadn’t gotten a thing out of them. The ensuing search, thorough but careful, had proved equally fruitless. Niklas exchanged nervous glances with Ulrich as they stood in the snow and waited for their leader to give them further instructions.
The American was a bear of a man with a personality to match. Despite his battered body and pronounced limp, he moved with a confident, deadly air, like a caged beast ready to be unleashed at any moment. Niklas had seen him lose control only once, and it was not a sight he wanted to ever witness again.
“I think we’re done here.” The voice was a low growl. “I’ve changed my mind about those freak skulls. We’ll take them with us. They must be a clue, though I can’t see how.”
Privately, Niklas thought they should have taken the skulls with them in the first place, but the scarred man’s rage had been so overwhelming that he had refused to even look at them, and neither Niklas nor Ulrich was about to argue with him. At least he had changed his mind. At worst, they would have something to show their superiors.
They slipped back inside the cathedral, the warm air a welcome after the chilly winter breeze. Niklas moved silently, more out of habit than necessity. It was after hours and they had dispatched the few living men inside the Kölner Dom. There was no danger.
They rounded the corner of the transept, turned toward the nave, and froze. A man sat on the floor alongside the dead priests. His face was buried in his hands and he was speaking softly, the rhythm of his words indicating prayer.
The American held a finger to his lips. He motioned for Ulrich to keep watch at the main entrance and for Niklas to follow him. He moved like a shadow across the floor, impressive considering his bulk and awkward gait. He was on the praying man in an instant, wrapping his thick arm around the man’s throat like a python squeezing its prey, and lifting him up off the ground. The man kicked, flailed, and made squelching noises, but froze when the American spoke.
“You answer my questions, you might live.”
That was surely a lie, but it wasn’t Niklas’s problem.
“You try anything at all and you die. Painfully. Understand?”
The man nodded. He kept his eyes squeezed shut, as if he could deny what was happening.
The American sat him down and the man dropped to his knees. He was shaking so hard he could barely remain upright.
“Tell me what you know.”
“I... I know nothing. I come here to study...”
Snap! The American broke the man’s little finger eliciting a shriek of agony.
“Shut up and listen.” His tone was enough to cut off their prisoner’s screams. “I can tell when you’re lying. I can tell when you leave things out. And I... don’t... care... how much I hurt you. I’ll cut your eyeballs out and eat a damn Big Mac while I do it. You got me?”
Niklas’s limited knowledge of American cuisine did not include ‘damn Big Mac’ but the words seemed to do the job. He saw the paltry bit of resistance drain from the man as his shoulders sagged and his chin fell to his chest.
Torture was something only an exceptional person could endure for any length of time. He had faced his share as part of his training prior to induction into the Heilig Herrschaft. Maintaining one’s focus on the Most Holy was central to the denial of pain. Academics like the man who cowered before them usually broke quickly, for they had faith in nothing.
“Tell me everything.”
The prisoner nodded vigorously and launched into an explanation, his words coming in short, disjointed bursts, as if each phrase was trying to jostle the others out of the way so it could be heard first.
“One priest was not dead. He made no sense. He said he had a secret. Mailänder Madonna. Dreihasenbild. He made no sense.”
“That can’t be everything.” The American reached for the knife at his waist, but the prisoner kept talking.
“He tried to say something else, but he died. All he said was ‘ewige’ and then he died.” The prisoner stiffened as if waiting for something to happen. Indeed, Niklas expected the American to kill the man soon, if not now. “It is true. I swear it!” The man’s eyes remained firmly shut. This might be a bad dream, but it was one from which he would not wake.
The American looked around and froze.
“Where are the skulls?” His voice was velvet soft, and it sent frozen fingers like the touch of a spirit down Niklas’s spine.
The man hesitated and, for a moment, Niklas thought the fellow might try to hold something back, but courage apparently failed him.
“The others took them. I was giving them a tour, and they took the skulls.”
“Did they hear the priest’s words?” Heat rose in the American’s voice.
“Yes. They hear everything. Then they took the skulls and left. I stayed here to wait for die Polizei.”
So the authorities were on their way. That changed things. Niklas looked around as if uniformed men lurked in the shadows.
“I want names, and fast.”
“I do not know them all. They introduced themselves quickly and then we saw the priests.” The man was shaking; clearly fearing this lack of knowledge would cost him his life. “One man was a red Indian. A big man, almost two meters tall. There was a woman, also a red Indian. I do not remember their names. And there was another man and woman.”
“You’d better come up with at least one name or the remainder of your very short life will be filled with pain.”
“Verzeih mir,” the man whispered. Forgive me. “Jade Ihara. She was a colleague...”
“Jade Ihara the archaeologist?”
“Ja.” The man nodded, his body quaking.
“They are here!” Ulrich called. “They did not use their sirens. We have no time.”
The American let out roar of rage and frustration and clubbed the prisoner across the temple, knocking him unconscious.
The three men dashed back to the transept and slipped outside, past the treasury, and across the street. Ten minutes later they were in their vehicle, driving along the Rhine. The American sat in the passenger side, muttering to himself. Niklas finally broke the silence.
“This Jade Ihara, you know her?” He bit his lip, waiting for the explosion, but it did not come.
“Oh yes. I know her well, and if I don’t miss my guess, I know the men she’s with. But they think I’m dead.”