God's Lions - House of Acerbi (7 page)

BOOK: God's Lions - House of Acerbi
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Forty-eight hours earlier, the color yellow had begun spreading throughout the hallways of every hospital on the island of Manhattan. To the medical staff, this was a clear indication of the arrival of something deadly that had drifted in on the wind and spread throughout the city, and as thousands of New Yorkers began collapsing in the streets, their homes, and their offices, the city’s hospitals had become overwhelmed to the point of being unable to care for them all.

In only two terror-filled days, thousands had become ill. Some had died almost immediately, while others who had become infected clung to life for only a few short hours before succumbing to this new and horrific microscopic predator. Strangely, it affected only about half of those it came into contact with, but panic still overcame those who, for some reason, had miraculously been left untouched. They found themselves standing on the sidelines watching others die from an invisible airborne pathogen that appeared to be jumping quickly from person to person. No one had a clue as to who would live and who would die. Almost overnight, the strange-behaving epidemic had caused the city to take on the appearance of a metropolitan ghost town as people locked the doors to their apartments and refused to respond to the last cries of their neighbors on the other side of the wall.

Reacting quickly with pre-set emergency management plans, police, medical, and fire department response teams had placed the city on a total lockdown. Nothing moved in or out, especially on the subway. Those who remained behind were now trapped on an island of fear, with no option other than to remain behind locked doors and pray that the invisible menace now circulating outside their windows would not find its way into their place of refuge.

Due to the siege-like atmosphere at every hospital in the city, huge triage tents were erected outside the buildings as rings of police security surrounded the area. Only the truly sick were being allowed to enter, forcing the drug seekers, psych cases, and neurotic attention-seekers that usually clogged the hallways of the ER to flee for their lives. Fueled by coffee and adrenaline, the medical staff who had not fallen to the disease themselves continued caring for the critically ill, but due to the rapid onset and lethal nature of the mystery illness, their efforts appeared to be futile in the face of a bizarre pathogen that mysteriously left half of those exposed totally unaffected, while the other half died a horrible death within hours. All, that is, except for one patient—Sarah Adams, who had become infected but somehow survived.

It usually began with a slight cough, followed by a raging fever and intense body aches. Within hours, the disease progressed to the point where the lungs had filled with fluid, and people who had been feeling fine in the morning were drowning in their own secretions before noon. On the first day, many epidemiologists thought the mystery disease was somehow related to the 1918 flu epidemic that had swept the world and left over fifty million dead, but then the blood began to flow.

After the initial respiratory phase of the disease had taken hold, blotchy, purplish-red patches began to form in random places around the body. In a matter of hours, they had spread under the skin like dark rivers flowing together across a maroon landscape, until finally the entire body was one great lake of pain. The pain was excruciating. Even the pressure of a single sheet was too much for the victims to bear.

Mercifully, most became unconscious at this stage of the disease, and then, to the horror of those watching, the skin began to separate as the entire outer layer fell away in sheets revealing liquefied underlying tissue. Blood was flowing from every orifice of the body until soon, the twitching remnants of what had once been a living, breathing, human being was nothing more than the rapidly disintegrating repository of an alien invader, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Those not affected huddled and prayed in their apartments, while outside, hundreds of men wearing blue biological protection suits roamed empty streets in an effort to contain and track the origin of the grotesque disease. The blue-suited men swarmed over the city taking samples. They took samples of air, samples of blood, samples of water—they swabbed everything from subway cars to door knobs to family pets, all in an attempt to find anything that might give them a clue as to what kind of pathogen was raging throughout the city and killing thousands.

Then, forty-eight hours after the horror had descended on New York, as the men in blue continued to sample and swab and collect bodies for disposal, a planned event unknown to them was already taking place. The mystery pathogen was now retreating, disappearing almost as rapidly as it had appeared. Within hours, it would vanish completely without infecting anyone else, leaving behind no trace of its identity or place of origin—
for that was the way it had been engineered
.

CHAPTER 6

The mood inside the papal apartments was somber when Cardinal Leo and Bishop Morelli entered. The old Jesuit secretary led the men to the library, where they found Pope Michael engaged in a serious sounding discussion with a man they both knew well.

“Ah ... you’ve found him,” the pope said, rising from his chair.

“Yes, Your Holiness. He was just standing out there in the middle of the square.”

A distinguished-looking man with a full head of curly gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard rose from his seat and rushed over to take Leo’s hand.

“Cardinal! It’s good to see you, my friend.”

“Lev! How are you ... and how’s your beautiful daughter, Ariella?”

“She said to tell you she sends her love, as do your other friends back in Israel.”

Leo smiled when he noticed that Professor Lev Wasserman had traded in his usual khaki field shirt and knee-length shorts for a blue dress shirt and a pair of tailored gray slacks—clothes he was definitely not comfortable in. However, this was the Vatican, and shorts were not allowed, even for a world-class mathematician with a doctorate in archaeology.

“Are any of the others coming to Rome?” Leo asked.

“I’m afraid not, Cardinal.” Lev turned toward Morelli and raised an eyebrow in his direction. “He doesn’t know yet, does he, Anthony?”

“He just returned from a sabbatical at my house in the country.”

Leo’s piercing green eyes scanned the room.

“I don’t know
what
yet?”

The pope set his wine glass on the table and motioned for the others to follow. “Come, Leopold, I think it’s time we brought you up to speed.”

The three men followed the pope out of the papal apartments past two Swiss Guards who immediately snapped to attention when they saw Pope Michael heading for his private elevator. Once inside, the group squeezed together in silence as the elevator descended below the palace and stopped. As soon as the doors slid open, they saw a sight very familiar to all of them.

Beyond the open doors of the elevator lay the crumbling ruins of a section of ancient catacombs that had been hidden beneath the Vatican for almost two-thousand years. For centuries they had been covered over and forgotten until a construction crew, working below the basilica the year before, had accidently crashed through a wall, thus providing Morelli and his team of Vatican archaeologists a window to a sealed off labyrinth that snaked beneath the city. It was down in this area, following clues from a hidden code discovered in the Old Testament by Lev Wasserman, that they had discovered the secret chapel.

Leo was shocked to find that the pope had direct access to the catacombs from his private elevator in the Apostolic Palace. “I didn’t realize your elevator descended into the catacombs, Your Holiness.”

“Bishop Morelli had the work done a few months ago. We’re now four stories underground. I got tired of squeezing through holes and crawling down over piles of rubble to reach the chapel. I go there quite often you know ... it’s a very spiritual place to think.”

Following a path lit by construction lights mounted on tripods, the three men followed along behind the pope until they reached a twisting tunnel that had been dug two thousand years before through the reddish volcanic rock that formed the foundation for the entire city of Rome. After walking up a slight incline, they turned a corner and came face to face with the pinkish limestone wall of the ancient chapel.

The only way inside was through a jagged hole that lay before them. When first discovered by Morelli, along with Leo and a young candidate for the priesthood by the name of John Lowe, they had been unable to find any entrance. Using a pickaxe, they had knocked out a section of the wall before crawling inside to discover an immense ballroom-sized space. With the exception of a raised stone altar that lay beneath a five-foot-high cross carved into the wall, the gigantic room was empty.

Standing to the side, the pope extended his hand toward the opening, indicating his desire for the others to enter the chapel first. Only Morelli held back.

“Aren’t you coming, Bishop?”

“I’ll be along in a moment, Your Holiness. I want to check the progress of the excavation along the back wall.”

Morelli disappeared around the corner, while the others ducked through the small opening and entered the chapel. Once inside, they all stood there in silence, for it had been within this very space that they had all been allowed a brief glimpse into a spiritual battle between the forces of heaven and hell—a battle that continued to rage out of sight in a cosmic realm usually not visible to mortal man, even though the eventual outcome would one day determine the fate of everyone on the planet.

Looking at the ancient stone, they could feel a palpable energy all around them, as if the angels had left something behind, an invisible message that had the quality of aura—left there in the chapel to remind them of the vision they had all seen with their own eyes.

Unlike before, when they had only lanterns and flashlights to illuminate a space that was as dark as a mine when the lights were turned off, the room was now bathed in floodlights and littered with the tools of construction workers. The ancient structure was undergoing preparation for the construction of a modern underground center that would allow visitors to view the ancient chapel without disturbing it.

The pope cleared his throat and looked straight at Leo. “So, Cardinal, you haven’t heard anything for the past week ... not even a newspaper?”

“Nothing, Your Holiness.”

“Well then, I’m afraid we have some disturbing news for you.”

Leo stiffened. “I noticed that the city seemed deserted, and people look frightened.”

“That’s because most of them are staying indoors. Every commercial mode of transport in the city ... the whole world in fact ... has been put on hold.” The pope paused. “A mysterious and deadly virus was unleashed in New York City. Thousands have died, Leo.”

The cardinal’s green eyes narrowed. “Is it spreading?”

“No, it seems to have stopped as suddenly as it began. Surprisingly, it hasn’t appeared anywhere else in the world ... at least not yet.”

“That’s good news ... isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid not. It was a biological attack, which means whoever dispersed the pathogen still has the ability to do it again.”

“A biological attack!” A familiar sense of dread descended over Leo. “Terrorists?”

“That seems to be everyone’s best guess for now, although a number of bad actors could be involved. A witness claims they saw a man disperse a white powder in the subway under the city a few days ago. The timing is right, but so far no one’s been able to make a connection between the incident and the spread of the virus.”

“The witness just happened to be a friend of ours,” Lev added. “Sarah Adams, the flight attendant who was with you on the plane that crashed in the Mediterranean last year. She was also infected, but amazingly she survived, which is another mystery, because no one else has. Except for her, the disease has been one hundred percent fatal to anyone who was infected.”

“A hundred percent ... and she’s the only one who survived. Do they know why?”

“So far it’s a complete mystery, but the situation is still evolving. There may be other survivors we don’t yet know about.”

Leo could sense the underlying tension in the room. “What else is going on? I have a feeling there’s more.”

“We’ve uncovered something else in the code, Leo. We’re not exactly sure what it means, but we’ve discovered a phrase in Genesis that leads us to believe there are other prophetic messages still hidden somewhere in this chapel. That’s why Morelli is rushing the excavation along the back wall. It’s possible we may have missed something when we explored this area last year.”

“But we’ve gone over every inch of this chapel ... there’s nothing else in here.”

“Exactly. Up until now we’ve focused on the inside of the chapel and the one exterior wall that was visible. The other three exterior walls have been covered over for almost two-thousand years. A few weeks ago, we put a team of Vatican archaeologists to work digging the dirt away from those walls. It’s possible, even likely, that there are other cryptic messages just like the ones we found last year.”

“Let’s hope your theories will prove fruitful,” the pope said, looking up at the large Christian cross carved into the wall at the far end of the chapel. Leo and Lev both knew that the mystery of who had built this ancient place of Christian worship was one that kept the pope awake at night.

Morelli was sweating when he returned and squeezed through the small opening. “It looks like they’ve just finished excavating the back wall. We may have found what we’re looking for.”

With eyes that glistened with all the excitement of treasure hunters, they all followed Morelli back out through the opening and around to the opposite exterior wall of the chapel. The men who had excavated the area had left for lunch, but it was evident that they had worked through the night to clear a four-foot-wide passage along a wall constructed by the ancients using pinkish-colored limestone blocks.

Morelli waited for everyone’s eyes to adjust to the glare from the halogen floodlights before pointing to the faint outline of a painted image directly above their heads. The others let out a collective gasp, for right before their eyes was the faded outline of a trefoil—a small central circle that served to join three larger ones that had their outward portions erased, like three sets of horns joined together by a center ring and pointing outward. It was the universal symbol used throughout the modern world to indicate a biological hazard, and it had been painted on a wall that had been hidden from view for over two-thousand years.

BOOK: God's Lions - House of Acerbi
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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