Off the coast of Brazil, a team of scientists discovers a horror like no other, an island where all life has been eradicated, consumed and possessed by a species beyond imagination. Before they can report their discovery, a mysterious agency attacks the group, killing them all, save one, an entomologist, an expert on venomous creatures, Professor Ken Matsui from Cornell University.
Strangest of all, this inexplicable threat traces back to a terrifying secret buried a century ago beneath the National Mall: a cache of bones preserved in amber. The artifact was hidden away by a cabal of scientists—led by Alexander Graham Bell—to protect humankind. But they dared not destroy it, for the object also holds an astonishing promise for the future: the very secret of life after death.
Yet, nothing stays buried forever. An ancient horror—dormant in the marrow of those preserved bones—is free once more, nursed and developed into a weapon of incalculable strength and malignancy, ready to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world.
To stop its spread, Commander Grayson Pierce of Sigma Force must survive a direct attack on the island of Maui. To be there first has always been the core mission of Sigma Force, a covert team forged to be America’s front line against emerging threats. But this time, even Sigma may not be able to decipher this deadly mystery, one that traces back to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution.
With each new discovery, the menace they hunt is changing, growing, spreading—adapting and surviving every attempt to stop it from reconquering a world it once ruled. And each transformation makes it stronger . . . and smarter.
Running out of time and options, Commander Grayson Pierce will be forced to make an impossible choice. To eradicate this extinction-level threat and expose those involved, he will have to join forces with Sigma’s greatest enemy—the newly resurrected Guild—even it if means sacrificing one of his own.
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Q. You are also active in your support of American veterans. Could you tell us a little bit about your efforts?A. Sure. My support for veterans first came about after I participated in a USO tour of authors to Iraq ... Read MoreA:
Sure. My support for veterans first came about after I participated in a USO tour of authors to Iraq and Kuwait in the winter of 2010. Upon coming home, I knew I wanted to do more. First, I worked with USA Cares, which raises emergency funds for vets in need, then most recently I joined US 4 Warriors as an advisory board member. The new charity started as a grassroots effort in San Diego and has since expanded nationwide. Besides helping to promote the social welfare of vets in a wide spectrum of activities, the latest endeavor also involves helping veterans tell their stories…and get published! So as a writer, I’m especially exciting as US 4 Warriors expands into this adventure.
Q. How do you go about researching your books and how much time is spent on it?A. I certainly do love to dig deep into the subject matters I write about. I love it so much I’ve lea ... Read MoreA:
I certainly do love to dig deep into the subject matters I write about. I love it so much I’ve learned over the years that I have to rein myself in a bit. I limit my main block of research on a novel to 90 days. On the 91st day, I have to begin writing. That all said, I’m also a bit of a lazy researcher. I prefer to interview people and pick their brains versus drily reading some history lesson or scientific treatise. Rather than having to earn a degree on a certain subject, I’d rather query people who have already earned those PhDs. Such a method often uncovers tantalizing details that I would’ve never found in a book, article, or Internet search. For The Demon Crown, I contacted scientists in various fields, but also the management team of a Polish salt mine—where, of course, much mayhem abounds in my novel.
Q. A recurring theme in your novels seem to be the advancement of technology and how it affects us. What are your personal views on this advancement?A. As a veterinarian myself, I’ve always loved science, medicine, and technology, especially anything ... Read MoreA:
As a veterinarian myself, I’ve always loved science, medicine, and technology, especially anything that’s cutting edge and new. In my books, it’s not so much the cogs and wheels of that new bit of science that intrigues me as it is where that technology might be heading and how it might affect or lives—good or bad. The rapid advancement of such technologies often challenges the moral compasses of society and to have that mirrored by my characters during their adventures adds that touch of relevancy to a novel. In The Demon Crown, the book tackles issues involving not only invasive species, but also climate change, and the newest revelation by scientists concerning what truly wiped out the dinosaurs. Shockingly, it’s not what anyone imagined—and that threat still exists today.
Q. You also fold fascinating bits of history into your stories. In this case, you deal with the mysteries surrounding the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. What made you choose to include this bit of history?A. Mostly because so little is truly known about the man who founded the Smithsonian. James Smithson wa ... Read MoreA:
Mostly because so little is truly known about the man who founded the Smithsonian. James Smithson was a British chemist who never set foot in America, yet left his fortune to our young nation in order to establish this institution that would carry his name. He did so without warning or explanation. Then shortly after the founding of the Smithsonian, its first building—the Smithsonian Castle—was nearly destroyed by a fire during the Civil War. Most of Smithson’s books and journals, along with his vast mineral collection, were destroyed, all but erasing his heritage. Then even more intriguingly, the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, defied the regents of the Smithsonian to sail to Europe. On New Year’s Eve in 1903, under the cover of a snowstorm, he stole the bones of James Smithson from a graveyard in Italy and returned them to the States, where those bones reside today in the Smithsonian Castle. To me, Alexander Graham Bell could’ve been a member of Sigma Force. Here we have a scientist and inventor who was not above a little skullduggery…in this case, literally. In fact, many true-to-life mysteries surrounding those stolen bones are critical to the story.
Q. Speaking of those scientific “what if’s?”: You love to include intriguing concepts in your books. What can readers expect to discover in your newest novel?A. This novel serves as a cautionary reminder that we are not living in the Age of Man, but rather—as ... Read MoreA:
This novel serves as a cautionary reminder that we are not living in the Age of Man, but rather—as has been true for over 400 million years—we are living in the Age of Insects. In fact, it is now hypothesized that insects contributed—if not led—to the extinction of the dinosaurs. How? You’ll have to read the book for the shocking answer. But of course, this then begs the question concerning the insects’ latest competitors for the earth’s dwindling natural resources: Could we be their next target?
Q. After writing so many stories with Sigma Force, do you have trouble coming up with fresh ideas?A. I actually have the opposite problem. I have so many thoughts and ideas for future books that I wish ... Read MoreA:
I actually have the opposite problem. I have so many thoughts and ideas for future books that I wish I could clone myself so I can get them out of my head. As to the origin for all those ideas, I always have my antennae up for three things: a piece of history that ends in a question mark, a tantalizing bit science that makes me wonder “what if?”, and finally some intriguing locale where those first two could collide. I collect all those tidbits on a daily basis, from newsfeeds, from magazines, or simply from asking someone “tell me something about this place that no one else knows about.” It’s the latter method that generates the best story ideas.
Q. Being the 13th novel in this exciting Sigma Force series, does a new reader have to have the earlier stories?A. Not at all. I tailor each story so a new reader could jump into the series at any point. In fact, on ... Read MoreA:
Not at all. I tailor each story so a new reader could jump into the series at any point. In fact, only a small fraction of my readership have read my series in order. So anyone interested in this unique set of heroes and the troubles they face, THE DEMON CROWN is a perfect place to jump on in.
Q. What threat in THE DEMON CROWN could keep Homeland Security up at night?A. Specifically the threat posed by invasive species, those foreign invaders to our shores. We’ve al ... Read MoreA:
Specifically the threat posed by invasive species, those foreign invaders to our shores. We’ve already seen how the Everglades are being overrun by pythons that are wiping out our native bird populations. Then there are Asian carp in our lakes and rivers doing the same to native fish. And it’s not just here in the States. Other examples of invasive species are plentiful and global. Most of these cases are from due to accidental contaminations. What worries Homeland Security is that some hostile power might weaponize such a species and use it as means of waging war. Especially as such a threat is nearly impossible to defend against. It’s just such a frightening scenario that I explore in The Demon Crown.
Q. What threat does Sigma Force face in this newest thriller, THE DEMON CROWN?A. To quote my editor: This book is Sigma’s most frightening adventure to date. And I don’t disagre ... Read MoreA:
To quote my editor: This book is Sigma’s most frightening adventure to date. And I don’t disagree. The novel starts when a group of scientists stumbles across an island off the coast of Brazil, where all life has been eradicated, consumed and possessed by a species beyond imagination. Before they can report their discovery, the scientists are attacked and killed. Save one, an entomologist, an expert on venomous creatures. This one event soon blows up into a global threat, when the same species is unleashed across the Hawaiian Islands. As people die by the hundreds, it appears the only way to halt the organism’s spread its to nuke those islands. To prevent that from happening, Sigma Force must discover the terrifying origin of the species—and find a way to destroy it. But already the organism is changing, growing, spreading—adapting and surviving every attempt to stop it. So, yes, it is indeed a frightening story—especially so because how real this threat actually is. Even Homeland Security maintains the threat raised in this novel to be a top priority.
Q. THE DEMON CROWN is the 13th Sigma Force novel. Can you tell us a little about the heroes of your stories?A. Sigma Force is a team of former special forces soldiers who have been drummed out of the service for ... Read MoreA:
Sigma Force is a team of former special forces soldiers who have been drummed out of the service for various reasons. But because of special aptitudes and abilities, they’ve been recruited in secret by DARPA—the Defense Department’s research-and-development agency—and retrained in various scientific disciplines to act as field agents for DARPA. Their mission is to protect the globe against various emerging threats. Basically, they’re scientists with guns.
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11:07 a.m. CET
December 31, 1903
With time weighing heavily upon its passengers, the carriage climbed recklessly up from the snow-swept city of Genoa. It jolted hard around a sharp twist in the narrow street.
Seated in the back, Alexander Graham Bell groaned. He was still recuperating from a fever following the transatlantic voyage with his wife. To make matters worse, upon arriving in Italy two weeks ago, nothing had gone smoothly. At every turn, Italian authorities thwarted his plans to secure the remains of James Smithson, the man who had founded the Smithsonian Institution. To facilitate this bit of grave-robbing, he had been forced to act as both spy and ambassador, doling out bribes and deceit in equal measure. It was a game for a much younger fellow, not a man in his mid-fifties. The stress had taken its toll.
His wife clutched his wrist. “Alec, perhaps we should ask the driver to slow down.”
He patted her hand. “No, Mabel, the weather is turning. And the French are breathing hotly down our necks. It’s now or never.”
Three days ago, just as he had secured all the proper permits, some distant French relatives of Smithson had wormed out of the woodwork to stake a claim on his body, little knowing what truly was at stake. Before this French roadblock could become entrenched, he had argued with Italian authorities that since Smithson had left the entirety of his estate to the United States, such an endowment must surely encompass his very body. He solidified his position with fistfuls of lira plied into the right hands, while at the same time categorically declaring—falsely—that President Theodore Roosevelt supported his mission.
Though he had prevailed in this subterfuge, he could not count on it lasting much longer.
It’s indeed now or never.
He placed a palm over his breast pocket, where a fragment of paper was folded, its edges still charred.
Mabel noted his hand. “Do you believe it could still be there? In his grave, buried with his body?”
“We have to be sure. Someone came close to destroying this secret half a century ago. We can’t let the Italians finish the job.”
In 1829, James Smithson was buried by his nephew in a small cemetery atop a seaside promontory in Genoa. At the time, the graveyard was owned by the British, but the Italians had retained a claim to the ground beneath it. Over the past few years, a neighboring quarry had been slowly eating its way through this hill, and now the company wanted to take it all down, including the cemetery.
Upon learning of the threat to the bones of the founder of the Smithsonian, the museum’s board of regents had debated whether to rescue those remains before they were blasted into the sea. It was during that time that an old letter came into Alexander’s possession. It was written by the Smithsonian Institution’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, the man who oversaw the building of the Castle and who would eventually die within its walls.
“Henry was no fool,” he mumbled to himself, stroking his thick beard.
“I know how much you admired him,” Mabel consoled. “And valued his friendship.”
Enough to follow his instructions to this gravesite in Italy.
In the letter written the year before his death, Henry told a tale that traced back to the Civil War, when the tides were turning against the South. Henry had come upon a strange notation in one of Smithson’s old diaries. He only stumbled upon it because he had been seeking additional documentation concerning Smithson’s endowment, trying to discern why the man was so generous to a country he had never even visited. During that inquiry, he came across a single exception to the estate, something not bequeathed to the United States. While the man’s entire mineral collection—his lifetime work—was preserved at the Castle, one artifact was held back. It was an object that Smithson ordered his nephew to bury with his body upon his death.
The oddity drew Henry’s interest, enough for him to diligently search the man’s journals and diaries. He eventually found one reference to it, to something Smithson called The Demon Crown. Smithson expressed regret at unearthing it during a trip to a salt mine near the Baltic Sea. He claimed it could free something horrific.
“ ‘The very hordes of Hell upon this World…’ ” Alexander whispered, quoting from a page of Smithson’s diary.
“Do you truly believe that’s possible?” Mabel asked.
“Somebody believed it enough during the Civil War to try to burn the Smithsonian to the ground.”
Or so Henry had thought.
Upon discovering Smithson’s secret, Henry had discussed it with some fellow board members, even wondering aloud if this artifact might be used as some form of weapon. Then three days later, the mysterious fire broke out at the Castle, which seemed to specifically target Smithson’s heritage, both his papers and his mineral collection.
From the timing of this act, Henry suspected someone at the Smithsonian had betrayed his fears to the Confederacy. Luckily, Henry had kept Smithson’s journal that referenced the artifact in his own office, so it had been spared the worst of the flames, though the cover was charred and sections lost. Still, Henry decided it best to keep this recovery under wraps, informing only a trusted circle of allies. The group formed a covert cabal within the museum, and over the passing years, they were entrusted with the Smithsonian’s darkest secrets, information often kept even from the president.
One example of that was the mysterious symbol discovered tattooed upon the wrist of a scoundrel whom Henry finally connected to the fire. The man died before he could be questioned, slicing his own throat with a dagger. Henry had sketched a copy of that symbol in his letter, serving as a warning for future generations.
It looked like a variant of the masonic symbol, but no one knew what group this particular incarnation represented. Decades later, when Smithson’s grave was threatened, Henry’s group approached Alexander and showed him Henry’s letter. They recruited him to their cause, knowing it would take someone of his prominence and notoriety to pull off this bit of skullduggery on Italian soil.
Though Alexander was not sure what he would find—if anything—in Smithson’s grave, he had agreed to undertake this task, even using his own money to finance the mission. No matter the outcome, he couldn’t refuse.
I owe it to Henry.
The carriage bumped around the last turn and reached the summit of the promontory. The vantage offered a wide view across Genoa to its harbor, which was crowded with coal-laden winter barges, so many that it looked as if you could cross the bay by hopping from one to the other. Closer at hand, the small cemetery beckoned, surrounded by white walls crowned with shards of broken glass.
“Are we too late?” Mabel asked.
He understood her concern. A corner of the cemetery was already gone, tumbled away into the neighboring marble quarry. As Alexander climbed out of the carriage into the bitter wind, he spotted what could only be a pair of coffins shattered below. He shivered, but it was not from the cold.
“Let us be quick,” he warned.
He led his wife through the cemetery gate. Ahead, he spotted a clutch of men huddled in thick coats. The party consisted of a few government lackeys and a trio of laborers. They gathered near a prominent sarcophagus cordoned off by a spiked iron fence. Alexander hurried over, bending against the wind, one arm around his wife.
He nodded to the American consul in attendance, William Bishop.
Bishop stepped closer and tapped his watch. “I heard a French lawyer is on a train from Paris. We should be prompt here.”
“Agreed. The sooner we’re aboard the Princess Irene with the bones of our esteemed colleague and headed back to America, all the better.”
As snow began to fall, Alexander stepped toward the gravesite. A gray marble pedestal bore a simple inscription.
Bishop crossed to one of the Italian representatives and spoke briefly. In short order, two of the laborers set about using crowbars. They cracked the seal on the tomb’s marble lid and lifted it free. Nearby, the remaining worker readied a casket made of zinc. Once Smithson’s bones were transferred into it, the box would be soldered shut for its transatlantic voyage.
As the men worked, Alexander stared again at the inscription, his frown deepening. “That’s odd.”
“What is?” Mabel asked.
“It states here that Smithson was seventy-five years old when he died.”
He shook his head. “Smithson was born June fifth, 1765. By my calculation, that means he was only sixty-four when he died. That inscription is wrong by eleven years.”
“Is that significant?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea, but I imagine his nephew would have known his uncle’s true age, especially as he was setting it into stone here.”
Bishop waved Alexander closer to the tomb as the sarcophagus’s lid was finally carried off. “Perhaps you should do the honor.”
While he appreciated the gesture, he considered balking, but he had already come too far to turn back now.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
He joined Bishop before the open tomb and peered inside. The wooden casket inside had long rotted away, leaving a blanket of heavy dust over what was clearly a set of bones. He reached reverently inside, parted the debris, and lifted the skull, which was surprisingly intact. He almost expected it to crumble as he gripped it.
Stepping back, he stared into the eye sockets of the Smithsonian’s founder.
As stated on the inscription, Smithson was an esteemed fellow of the British Royal Society, one of the world’s most distinguished scientific groups. In fact, the man was tapped to join this society the same year he graduated from college. Even at such a young age, his scientific talent had been well regarded. Afterward, as a chemist and a mineralogist, he spent much of his life traveling throughout Europe collecting mineral and ore samples.
Yet, so much remained unknown about the man.
Like why he left his fortune and collection to the United States?
Still, one fact was indisputable.
“We owe you so much,” Alexander murmured to the skull. “It was your generosity of spirit that changed forever our young country. It was your legacy that taught America’s greatest minds to set aside petty ambitions and work together for the collective good.”
“Well spoken,” Bishop said, holding out his gloved palms. The weather was growing harsher by the minute, and the consul clearly wanted this matter finished.
Alexander didn’t argue. He handed over the skull so it could be transferred to the zinc casket and returned his attention to the tomb. He had already noted a rectangular shape in one corner.
Reaching in again, he waved away the dust to reveal a small metal chest.
Could this be the source of such consternation?
It took all his strength to lift the box out of the tomb. It was dreadfully heavy. He hauled it aside and balanced it atop a nearby gravestone. Bishop ordered the workers to finish transferring the bones, then returned to his side, as did Mabel.
“It that it?” his wife asked.
Alexander turned to Bishop. “Let me remind you again. There is to be no official or unofficial mention of this object. Is that understood?”
Bishop nodded and glanced to the rest of the party, who were busy at work. “You’ve paid well for their silence.”
Satisfied, Alexander unlatched and opened the lid of the chest. Inside, a bed of sand cradled something the size and color of a pumpkin. He stared at it breathlessly for a moment.
“What is it?” Mabel asked.
“It…it appears to be a chunk of amber.”
“Amber?” Bishop’s voice held a note of avarice. “Is it valuable?”
“Somewhat. Though nothing exceptional. It’s basically fossilized tree sap.” Frowning, he leaned closer. “Bishop, would you ask that worker if we could borrow his lantern?”
“Just do it, man. We don’t have all day.”
Bishop rushed over.
Mabel stood at his shoulder. “What do you think, Alec?”
“I can make something out. Through the amber. But just barely.”
Bishop returned, lantern in hand.
Alexander took it, twisted the flame brighter, and brought it close to the translucent chunk of amber. It glowed a rich honey, revealing what it hid at its heart.
Mabel gasped. “Are those bones?”
“I believe so.”
It seemed Smithson’s tomb held more than just his own moldering remains.
“But what are they?” Bishop asked.
“No idea. But surely something prehistoric.”
He leaned closer, squinting. At the heart of the amber rested a small, fist-size triangular skull bearing a prominent row of sharp teeth. It looked distinctly reptilian, maybe those of a small dinosaur. A halo of smaller bones floated within the glowing stone. He pictured ancient tree sap flowing over this creature’s old grave, stirring up its bones and forever trapping them in this position.
The tinier bones had come to form a ghastly halo above the skull.
Like a crown.
He glanced to Mabel, who took a deep breath as she recognized the pattern. She knew, too, that this must be what Smithson wrote about—what he aptly named the Demon Crown.
“Impossible,” his wife whispered.
He nodded. In his pocket, he held a burned page from Smithson’s diary, upon which the man had scribbled a remarkable claim about this artifact.
It had to be impossible, as his wife said.
He pictured Smithson’s words, what the dead man had written concerning this artifact.
Be warned, what the Demon Crown holds is very much alive…
Alexander felt an icy trickle of terror.
…and ready to unleash the very hordes of Hell upon this world.
8:34 p.m. EDT
November 3, 1944
“Careful of the rats,” James Reardon warned at the entrance door to the tunnel. “Some real bruisers down here in the dark. One bit off the end of a worker’s thumb last month.”
Archibald MacLeish suppressed a shudder of disgust as he hung his jacket on a hook next to the door. He wasn’t exactly outfitted for an excursion underground, but he had been late getting here, as an evening meeting at the Library of Congress had run long.
He stared down the five steps that led to the old subterranean tunnel connecting the Smithsonian Castle to its neighbor across the mall. The newer museum, the Natural History Building, was completed in 1910, when ten million objects had been ferried by horse-drawn cart from the Castle to their present home. For a decade afterward, the two buildings had shared utilities via this seven-hundred-foot-long tunnel, but with later modernizations, the passageway was eventually closed off and seldom tread, except by the occasional maintenance crew.
And apparently some overgrown vermin.
Nevertheless, Archibald had believed there might be a new use for this abandoned tunnel. As the current Librarian of Congress and head of the Committee for the Conservation of Cultural Resources, he had been tasked to secure the nation’s treasures at the start of World War II. Fearing bombing raids like those that had beset London during the Blitz, he had personally overseen the shipment of priceless documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, even a copy of the Gutenberg Bible—to the safety of Fort Knox. Likewise, the National Gallery of Art had transferred their most prized masterpieces to the Biltmore House in North Carolina, while the Smithsonian had buried the Star-Spangled Banner deep in the Shenandoah National Park.
Still, Archibald had hated the piecemeal approach to these important efforts. Indeed, back in 1940, he had advocated for building a bombproof shelter beneath the National Mall as a more permanent solution. Unfortunately, Congress had shot down his idea due to the expense.
Despite this setback, Archibald had never given up on his idea—which was why he found himself in the basement levels of the Smithsonian Castle, where temporary bomb shelters had been secured for museum personnel. Three weeks ago, Archibald had hired a pair of engineers to conduct a feasibility study, to explore if such a vault could be constructed in secret, branching off this very tunnel. Then two days ago, during their surveys, the pair had discovered a side door in the tunnel, halfway across the Mall. It was hidden behind some pipes and bricked over.
Archibald had immediately informed James Reardon, the current undersecretary of the Smithsonian. As a longtime friend, James had supported Archibald’s efforts for the construction of a bombproof vault. The pair hoped that this discovery might stoke a renewed interest in the shelter, especially considering who had apparently hidden this room. His name was found inscribed on a plaque affixed to the steel door after its layer of bricks had been removed.
Alexander Graham Bell.
The notice came with a warning.
It was a remarkable claim, but the message was supported by the signatures of five regents of the Smithsonian board. James had verified the names. They were all deceased now, and no other record could be found concerning the circumstances that led Bell and these five to secure something beneath the National Mall, not to mention keeping such an effort from the other regents at the time.
Respecting that level of secrecy, Archibald had limited the knowledge of the door’s discovery to only his friend James. The two engineers had been sworn to secrecy and now waited below, ready to break the lock and see for themselves what required such subterfuge almost four decades ago.
“We should hurry,” James said, checking his pocket watch.
Archibald understood. They were already running an hour behind schedule due to his tardiness in getting here. “Lead the way.”
James ducked through the door and down the steps. He moved spryly, while it took Archibald more time to maneuver the steep, narrow stairway. Then again, James was fifteen years younger and spent more time on his feet doing fieldwork as a geologist. Archibald was a fifty-four-year-old poet who had been coerced by FDR into taking a desk job—or as Archibald had described this assignment at the time, the president decided I wanted to be Librarian of Congress.
He entered the dank tunnel. The way ahead was lit by a string of caged electrical bulbs running along the low roof. Several were broken or missing, leaving long gaps of darkness.
James clicked on a thick flashlight and set off down the tunnel.
Archibald followed. Though the passageway was tall enough for him to walk upright, he kept his back hunched and his head low, well away from the run of dark pipes along the ceiling. Especially upon hearing the occasional sound of nails scratching and bodies scurrying up there.
After a few minutes, James suddenly stopped.
Archibald almost bumped into him. “What’s wr—?”
A series of sharp cracks echoed from the passageway ahead.
James glanced back, his eyebrows bunched together with concern. “Gunfire.” He doused his flashlight and freed a Smith & Wesson pistol from a holster under his work jacket. Archibald hadn’t known the man was armed, but considering the size of the vermin down here, the presence of the weapon made sense.
“Go back.” James passed him his flashlight, then cupped both hands around the grip of his weapon. “Get help.”
“From where? The Castle’s deserted at this hour. By the time I raise an alarm, it’ll be too late.” Archibald lofted the long-handled flashlight like a club. “We go together.”
A muffled explosion decided the matter.
James grimaced and headed forward, keeping close to one wall and staying in the shadows as much as possible. Archibald followed his example.
Within a few steps, a cloud of dust rolled over them, blown forth by the blast. Archibald fought against coughing, but the air quickly cleared. The same couldn’t be said for the passageway. A smattering of dark forms sped across the floor and along the pipes.
Rats…hundreds of them.
Archibald had to stifle back a scream as he flattened along one wall. Something dropped from overhead, landed on his shoulder, and bounded away with a sharp squeak. Other bodies pattered over his shoes. A few scrabbled up his pant legs as if he were a tree in a flood-swept river.
Ahead, James seemed unfazed and continued on, oblivious to the squirming bodies underfoot.
Gritting his teeth, Archibald waited until the worst of the horde fled past him, then hurried to catch up.
As the two reached a dark stretch of broken bulbs, a glow appeared ahead, marking a pair of lanterns resting on the floor. The pool of light revealed a body.
One of the engineers.
Other shadowy shapes stepped into view, appearing from the left.
Three masked men.
James dropped to a knee and immediately fired. The loud blast made Archibald jump, deafening him in turn.
One of the intruders spun and struck the wall.
James gained his feet and fired again, running forward. Archibald froze a breath, then gave chase, too. In the tumult that followed, lit by the camera-bulb flashes of gunfire, he watched one of the masked men try to haul his wounded companion to his feet, but James refused to relent, squeezing his trigger over and over again as he ran. Rounds sparked off the nearby pipes and concrete walls.
The third intruder fled down the tunnel with a heavy satchel in one hand, blindly returning fire over his shoulder. The shots went wild as the man was plainly more intent on escaping. His companion finally followed, forced by James’s barrage to abandon the slumped form on the ground.
As James and Archibald closed the distance, another explosion knocked them both back. Flames blasted out an open doorway to the left and washed into the tunnel.
Archibald shielded his face with an arm.
As the fire guttered out, James led the way again.
Archibald quickly took in the damage as they reached the doorway. The engineer who lay crumpled at the threshold had been shot in the back of the head. The other was dead in the neighboring room, his clothes on fire from the blast. More flames raged at the rear of the small concrete chamber, turning it into a furnace, fueled by a burning bookshelf and the tomes that once rested there. Fiery pages still floated in the air, drifting through the smoke-choked air.
Nearby, James checked the assailant slumped on the ground. He swatted at the man’s burning clothes, then set about searching his body.
Archibald kept his full attention on the neighboring room. A waist-high marble plinth stood in the center. A small metal chest lay toppled and open at its foot, likely blown off its pedestal by the blast. The box appeared to be empty, except for a pile of sand that had spilled out as it struck the floor.
He pictured the heavy satchel in the hands of the fleeing thief. With a sinking heart, he knew that whatever Bell and his cohorts had hidden here was gone. Still, he lifted his arm over his mouth and nose and ducked into that wall of heat, drawn by something he spotted poking out of the sand.
He stepped around the dead engineer to reach the chest. Dropping to a crouch, he grabbed what was exposed and pulled it free. It appeared to be the remains of an old field notebook or journal. Its leather cover had been blackened by a fire far older than what raged here now. A quick flip revealed most of the pages were charred or missing—but not all.
He imagined the thieves must have failed to spot the remains of this old journal hidden in the sand at the bottom of the chest. Sensing some significance to this discovery, he retreated with his prize.
“Look at this,” James said as he returned to the tunnel.
James sat back on his heels. He had peeled away the thief’s woolen facemask.
Archibald took in the sight, shocked by what was revealed. “My god…it’s a woman.”
But that wasn’t the only surprise. The thief had black hair and wide cheekbones, and from the pinched squint to her dead eyes, there was little doubt to the figure’s heritage.
“She’s Japanese,” Archibald mumbled.
James nodded. “Likely a Jap spy. But this is what I wanted you to see.” He lifted her lifeless arm to reveal something tattooed on the thief’s inner wrist. “What do you make of this?”
Archibald leaned closer, frowning as he studied the mark.
“Any idea what this might mean?” James asked.
Archibald glanced back to the burning room. Its door lay crookedly to one side, blown off its hinges. The inscribed metal plaque glowed in the firelight, as if emphasizing the warning about what was once hidden here.
…a danger like no other.
“No,” Archibald said, “but for the sake of our nation—and maybe the world—we need to find out.”