Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Judgment Stone by Robert Liparulo

The Judgment Stone
Thomas Nelson (May 14, 2013)
Virginia Smith

Chapter 1


The surface-to-air missile blasted out of a rocket launcher resting on the monk’s shoulder and streaked toward the hovering helicopter. Fire plumed from the rear of the bazooka-like weapon, bright in the nighttime gloominess of St. Catherine’s courtyard, momentarily blinding Jagger Baird, who stood behind it and off to one side. Through the haze of bleached retinas he saw the copter rise and whirl around with the aerial agility of a hawk and the rocket sail past it. Seeming confused, the projectile corkscrewed toward the moon and exploded. The helicopter moved beyond the compound’s west wall, over the monastery’s gardens, and vanished.

Jagger watched for a few more seconds. When it didn’t reappear, he stepped closer to Father Leo. The youthful monk’s splotchy beard, flowing black cassock, and—mostly—the smoking weapon still perched on his shoulder made him look more like a Taliban fighter than a man of God.

Jagger said, “Where’d you get that?”

Leo turned a big grin on him. “If only the rocket had been heat-seeking.”

“Any more?”

Leo let the launcher slide off his shoulder and fall to the stone ground. “I wish.” He reached inside his cassock and pulled out a black shotgun. He pumped the forestock, chambering a shell.

“I need a gun,” Jagger told him.

Leo’s forehead creased. “Where’s yours?”

As head of security for the archeological dig outside the east wall of the monastery, Jagger should have been armed to the teeth—at least better equipped than the monks—but Egypt enforced strict gun restrictions, especially among foreigners. Still, he had petitioned Gheronda, the monastery’s abbot, for a firearm, and the old man had reluctantly given him a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan, a short-barreled .44 magnum revolver with a wicked recoil. “All the brothers are afraid of it,” Gheronda had explained with a slight smile. It was Jagger’s under condition: he had to keep it locked in a pistol safe in his apartment. Far from ideal—how many bad guys waited around while you ran for your gun?—but it was better than nothing. Or maybe not. Not when you were making your rounds when the action started, as he had been just as someone tried to blow open the compound’s main gate.

Jagger looked up to his third-floor apartment, where he hoped his wife and son were holed up in a makeshift panic room: a small closet with a bolted metal door, which Jagger had installed after the last attack on the monastery. “Beth has it,” he told Father Leo, picturing his wife pointing the weapon at the door in a two-handed grip. Don’t mess with Beth.

Leo reached into his cassock again and produced a semiautomatic Glock. He handed it to Jagger, who ejected the magazine, checked it for bullets, shoved it back into the grip, and chambered a round. That done, the two of them turned toward the gate. The inner iron door—one of three that blocked the entrance—bulged inward. Smoke seeped through the edges and streamed up the wall like a waterfall in reverse. Five other monks—Fathers Bardas, Luca, Antoine, Mattieu, and Corban—stood or crouched in a thirty-foot semicircle around it. Three of them wore black cassocks and caps. Luca, obviously rousted from bed, had on a gray flannel nightshirt that fell to his knees; all he needed was a cloth nightcap—and thirty more years—to be Ebenezer Scrooge awakened by a ghost. Corban wore a brown bathrobe cinched tight around his waist; a silver pectoral cross hung over his chest. Each of them was pointing either a rifle or a handgun at the gate. They looked as incongruous and awkward as Clint Eastwood competing in the Miss USA Pageant.

“Back away!” Jagger yelled. He gestured with RoboHand, his prosthetic forearm and clamping hook. “Hurry! Move!” The only way anyone was coming through would be if they detonated another explosive, which would most likely send the doors and surrounding stone walls hurling toward the monks.

Apparently, when the first explosion failed to breach the gate, the attackers had decided to use the helicopter to get in. Having encountered Leo’s rocket, and with no way of knowing the one shot had exhausted his supply, their next move was anyone’s guess.

“Only six of you?” Jagger said to Leo. “Where’re the rest?”

“Not all of us are fighters. Not the kind you're used to.”

“What kind are they?”

“Prayer warriors,” Leo said. “You can bet they're engaging the enemy at this very moment.”

“Wonderful,” Jagger said. He scanned the grounds. The courtyard was wedge-shaped, about thirty feet at its widest point. It was formed by the front wall; the long basilica, which angled diagonally from the back of the courtyard toward the wall; and a structure built around the Well of Moses. No Disney-cute names here: supposedly it was the very well at which Moses met his future wife, Zipporah. Radiating out from the courtyard was a crazy jumble of buildings—constructed at odd angles, in various shapes and sizes and materials over the course of seventeen centuries—honeycombed by alleys, stairs, walkways, terraces, and tunnels. All of it was crammed into an area the size of a city block, hemmed in by ancient walls sixty feet high and nine feet thick.

Over the multileveled rooftops and terraces he could see the top floor of the Southwest Range Building at the far back of the compound. It stretched the entire length of the rear wall and, situated on high ground—the entire monastery was built on the sloping base of Mount Sinai—it appeared even larger than it was. In addition to a hospice, chapel, and monk cells, it housed a library and icon gallery, second only to the Vatican’s in historic importance and monetary value. Whatever the attackers wanted, chances were it was there.

Behind the Southwest Range Building, the mountain on which Moses had received the Ten Commandments rose like a watchful presence, a charcoal silhouette against a slate sky. Jagger was thankful for the moon, which here in the Sinai always seemed closer to Earth than it did back in Virginia. Even in its current half-lit state, its radiance washed away many of the compound’s shadows and gave the surfaces a silvery luminosity.

He turned in a circle and stopped when he was facing Father Leo. The monk held the shotgun in one hand, its muzzle pointed up. Feet apart, spine straight, eyes slowly scanning the top of the front wall, he looked ready for anything. No fear, just vigilance. Jagger wondered how many times the man had defended the monastery and if he’d known what he was getting into when he joined the order.

Jagger asked, “What are they after?”

Continuing his visual sweep across the wall’s ramparts, Leo shook his head. “I don’t know.”

In the still air Jagger could hear the blades of the helicopter slowing, its engine dropping to a purr, then cutting off. It had landed in front of the gardens, on the opposite side of the monastery from the archaeological dig. He ran toward the compound’s northwest corner, bounded up a long flight of stone stairs, and came to a patio in front of a row of unused monk cells. He climbed onto a railing and hoisted himself onto the porch’s steeply sloping roof. After twice almost losing his footing, he reached the flat roof of the monk cells. It was only about eight feet from the porch roof to the exterior wall; “small” didn’t even begin to describe the private living space the monks allowed themselves. Crossing it, he reached the compound’s outer wall, the top of which came to his chest. He climbed up and crawled to the outside edge.

The helicopter sat in the faded edge of the light from lamps mounted on the outside wall. It was canted on the slope leading to the mountain opposite Mt. Sinai, its blades turning as slowly as a rotisserie. The things scrambling out of its wide side door and running toward the monastery made Jagger’s breath stop in his lungs.

A single word gripped his mind, momentarily paralyzing him: monsters.

No comments: