The winter garden in Heller’s Brauhaus was decked out for the holiday season. Traditional music played in the background, scarcely audible over the talk and laughter in the crowded pub. The cheerful atmosphere was at odds with Dane’s gray mood which had only begun to lighten when Jade had received a text from Otto letting them know he was all right and had been released after being questioned by the police. They had sampled a few German Christmas specialties and were digging into plates of spaetzle and bottles of Kolsch, a local specialty beer, when Otto wandered in with a bandage on his finger and looking dazed but otherwise whole. He declined Dane’s offer to buy his dinner, but accepted a Kolsch and drank half of it in three large gulps.
“I don’t feel right about leaving you there by yourself,” Dane told him. “We should have stayed with you.” The others agreed. Excited as they were about the discovery they had made, leaving the man to face the authorities alone felt wrong.
“No, no.” Otto waved away their apologies. “The police would have taken the skulls and we would not have had a chance to look for the hidden passage. The place is now a crime scene. There is no telling how long it will be before it is once again open to the public.” He took another swallow of his beer, this one moderate, and wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve before continuing. “I also agree with the priest. If the public knew the Shrine of the Magi held such grotesqueries...” He pinched his lower lip, his eyes narrowed in thought.
“What do you think they are?” Angel asked. “Have you ever seen anything like them?”
“Never. I suspect they are forgeries– a sinister joke left behind by whoever stole the real skulls of the Magi.”
So you think the bones of the Wise Men really were in the shrine at some point in the past?” Dane had been wondering if perhaps the horned skulls had been there from the beginning.
“If the records are to be believed, the shrine once contained three crowned skulls. This was supposedly verified by priests at Kölner Dom. Of course, everything is in question now.” Otto lapsed back into deep thought, then his eyes suddenly brightened and he looked at Jade. “Where are the skulls now?”
“Back in our hotel room. I thought about leaving them in the temple, but changed my mind.”
“What temple?” Otto’s eyes shone with disbelief as they filled him in on what lay beneath Kölner Dom.
“A temple to a Roman god beneath Cologne’s most sacred site. It is difficult to accept. Of course, ours is a tangled history.” He smiled sadly. “Why do you suppose the priest wanted someone to know about it? Would it not have been best for the church to let it fall from memory? If he was the keeper of the secret, he need not have passed it along.”
“Jade left out the most interesting part.” Dane smiled. “She does that for dramatic effect.”
“I was getting there, Maddock.” She blushed, giving her almond-colored skin a warm, pleasant hue. “But you go ahead.”
“You’ve got the disc. You tell the story.” Dane took a long pull of his Kolsch, savoring its sweet, almost fruity flavor, something between ale and lager. He glanced at Otto, whose eyes sparkled as he leaned in close, his beer forgotten, as he waited for the rest of the story.” Bones smirked and Angel grinned behind her mug.
“But you’re the one who found the compartment inside the Milan Madonna.” Jade played along. “You should tell him.”
“Disc? Milan Madonna?” Otto sounded like a little boy, early on Christmas morning, begging to open his gifts.
They all took long pulls of Kolsch, prolonging the moment as Otto’s pleading eyes darted around the table, eager for someone to let him in on the secret.
“It was nothing much,” Jade said, placing her mug on the table and reaching into her purse. “We found the original Milan Madonna and this was hidden inside of her.” She handed Otto an object wrapped in a handkerchief.
He held it gingerly and unwrapped it with care, holding it close to his chest and hunching over as if to hide it from prying eyes. Dane thought the man need not bother. The place was packed, mostly with young people overindulging in ale and holiday cheer, and no one was paying them a bit of attention.
When Otto’s eyes fell on the three hares, he gaped. He turned it in his hands, gazing at the ancient symbol. Apparently satisfied there was nothing more to see there, he turned it over. “Latin?” he asked as he once again turned the disc, his eyes following the writing that spiraled in toward the center.
“That’s what we thought.” Jade sounded annoyed. “But nothing translates, at least not on any of the websites I tried.” She shrugged and made an apologetic face. “My specialty is the native tribes of the southwestern United States, and I’ve branched out into eastern Asia. My knowledge of this part of the world is comparatively small.”
“I think,” Otto said, a ghost of a grin materializing on his face, “that it is Latin, but in a cipher.”
Now it was Dane’s turn to grin. He had suspected the same thing and had sent photographs of the disc to his friend Jimmy Letson, an accomplished hacker and a computer whiz of the first order. Jimmy had replied with a text that read, I do have a life, you know, but if Dane knew Jimmy, he was already hard at work cracking the code. Like Dane and Bones, the man relished a challenge, though his specialty was of the cyber realm rather than the archaeological.
“Any idea what kind of cipher it might be?” Dane asked Otto, who was fixated on the text.
“I cannot say at first glance,” he mumbled. “The Caesar shift cipher was commonly used in the church. One simply chooses a number to shift the letters, either to the right or to the left. A shift of one to the right and the letter ‘A’ becomes ‘B’ and so on. It is simple enough for a priest who was not a cryptographer to use, but complicated enough to fool the average person.”
“Could the average person even read back then?” Angel asked.
“We do not, of course, know the time period when this cipher was written, if that is indeed what it is. If it is more than a few centuries old, you are certainly correct, particularly for a message in Latin.”
“Any chance it’s a fake?” Angel asked.
Otto tilted his hand back-and-forth. “It is possible, but the temple and the Madonna suggest otherwise.”
Dane nodded. It was the same conclusion they had drawn. He was looking around for a server from whom to order another round of Kolsch when his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. It was Jimmy.
“Why don’t you give me something that requires neurons next time, like a ten-piece kindergarten puzzle?”
“I take it you’ve deciphered our cipher.” At those words, all eyes at the table turned to Dane.
“If you can call it that.” Jimmy was clearly disappointed at the lack of challenge posed by the text on the disc. “It was one of the most common ciphers ever.”
“The Caesar shift?” Dane asked. Relishing Jimmy’s sudden silence, he caught the eye of an attractive blonde waitress and signaled for five more drinks. She nodded and gave him a wink that did not escape Jade’s notice. She arched an eyebrow at him, but then smiled.
“You’re smarter than you look, Maddock,” Jimmy finally said, sounding even more disappointed. “Want to take a guess at the key?”
“The number of the shift. How many letters over you count when substituting the new letter.” A bit of Jimmy’s cockiness was returning.
Dane thought immediately of the Wise Men. “Three.”
“All right, Carnac, which direction?”
Dane decided not to spoil all of Jimmy’s fun. “No idea.”
“The right. You should have known that. This is more of that ancient church crap. Right hand of God. Left hand is unclean...”
“True. I’m a little distracted right now. I’m sitting in a pub in Cologne, downing a few brews with a couple of beautiful women.”
“You’re such an ass, Maddock.” Jimmy chuckled. “Of course, Bones is probably there too, which sucks all the fun out of everything.”
“I’ll tell him you said so. Can you send me the translation?”
“Sure. The last word was partially rubbed out or chipped away or something, so I didn’t get it all. Emailing it to you right now. And, of course, you owe me a meal... again.”
“What would I ever do without you? Thanks Jimmy.”
Dane ended the call and punched up his email on his phone. Everyone leaned toward him as he began to read.
“As the lion roars for the king, the peacock be your guide into the depths of the well. The kings point the way to the falling ice that hides eternal l...”
It ended just as Jimmy had said– with an incomplete word.
“There it is again,” Bones said. “You know, we figured the priest just didn’t manage to get the last word out, but if he knew the words on this disc, maybe he was trying to tell us all he knew.”
“Maybe.” Dane looked up as their next round of drinks arrived. He found he had lost his thirst, though, and drank mechanically as he pondered the words. “It’s a far cry from step-by-step instructions.”
“And this should lead us to the missing skulls, you think?” Jade leaned over to read Jimmy’s email. She shook her head. “The wording makes it sound like there’s something more. But what?”
“Should we go to the police with this?” Angel asked.
“I don’t know.” Bones spoke slowly, absently spinning his beer mug as he thought the problem through. “What do we really know? The killers want the skulls of the wise dudes. I’m guessing you told them as much.” He looked at Otto who nodded. “We could give them this clue but what would they do with it? Can you see a cop who’s probably got a ton of cases on his hands taking the time to trying to figure this thing out? That’s what we do.”
“I could share this with the police,” Otto volunteered. “I will tell them it is something I found in my research. I suspect it will all be meaningless to them, but at least we will not be holding back anything significant.” He frowned as he said the last.
Dane nodded. It made sense. Still the fact that they were hiding their presence at a murder scene, though they arrived after the fact, felt wrong. He remembered that the killers had left no footprints, and he had a hunch they’d been careful not to leave behind any fingerprints or DNA.
“The safest course would be to go on with our vacation and just forget the whole thing. Then again, my gut tells me the only hope there is for finding the murderers lies with us. Maybe if we can solve this riddle we can figure out who was after the Magi’s bones and why. Even then, who knows what we can really prove?”
“I say we go for it.” Bones had the familiar gleam in his eyes that Dane associated with the start of a treasure hunt. “What better way to celebrate Christmas than solve the mystery of the lost bones of the Magi?”
Jade nodded. “You know I’m in. And you,” she turned to Dane, “live for this stuff, whether you want to admit it or not.”
Dane grinned. He and Jade were kindred spirits; both loved the sea, archaeology, and mysteries. That left only one person. He turned to Angel, whose cheeks were aglow and her brown eyes sparkling as she gazed back at him. He was suddenly struck by her beauty, and there was something in her expression that made him uneasy. He was pleased to see that Jade’s attention was once again on the stone disc, and she hadn’t seen whatever might have passed across his face. He took a quick drink, buying himself a moment to clear his head.
“How about you, Angel? You signed up for a vacation, not a mystery.”
“Are you stupid? I’m all over it. Do you know how sick I am of Bones coming home and bragging about wrestling Bigfoot and all the other crap you two get up to?” Her roguish grin was so like that of her brother that it made Dane flinch. It was one thing to notice Angel was hot. To think that Bones’ sister was hot– that was something else entirely.
Otto cleared his throat.
“There is something else I must tell you.” Not meeting anyone’s eye, Otto recounted the time after they had left him alone in the cathedral. His voice was soft, remorse weighing heavily in every word. “I told them about the three hares.” He lapsed into silence, but Dane sensed there was more.”And I gave them Jade’s name.”
Dane and Jade exchanged glances. He couldn’t tell exactly what she was thinking, but she didn’t seem too upset about it. She was tough.
“One of them knew you and he sounded very upset when I told him your name.” Now Jade did look surprised, but she kept her silence. “That was when the authorities arrived.” Otto finally looked at her. “I am so sorry. I have read adventure novels and iMagined myself a hero, but reality is something entirely different. I am not a strong man.” His chin fell to his chest and his face darkened.
“It’s all right.” Jade took his hand in both of hers. “I would have done the same thing.”
Dane knew that wasn’t true. Jade was stronger than Otto ever dreamed of being.
“This is really jacked-up,” Bones said to Jade. “If you have any rivals in your field, they’d have one of your specializations, wouldn’t they?”
Dane looked at Bones and could tell they were thinking the same thing. There was only one group that was likely to have it in for Jade. If his hunch was correct, they were all in danger.