Vatican Knights, page 1
THE VATICAN KNIGHTS
© 2012 Rick Jones. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Also by Rick Jones:
Vatican Knights Series
The Vatican Knights
The Iscariot Agenda
The Eden Series
The Crypts of Eden
Table of Contents
Fifteen Years Ago
When Shari Cohen’s grandmother was confined to Auschwitz, the sky always rained ashes.
At the peak of the camp’s existence, 20,000 Jews were summarily executed on a daily basis and burned in the ovens, a tragedy that was memorialized by the photos lining the walls, galleries and glass cases of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
People milled noiselessly about, zigzagging across the hall from one display case to another, regaled by Iron Crosses and German Lugers. Beneath recessed lighting hung German and Hebrew banners, as well as framed paintings that the Nazi regime had appropriated from Jewish owners.
At the end of a corridor, Shari walked along a memorial wall lined with numerous black-and-white photos, studying each one carefully.
And then she found it, a grainy black-and-white print of detainees standing together wearing garments draped over limbs no larger than broomsticks. The despair on their faces was obvious, the wallow-eyed sadness speaking volumes.
With the tips of her fingers Shari traced the image of a young woman who stood with her chin raised in defiance. The points of her shoulders, her cheeks, the paleness of her flesh and the death rings surrounding her eyes all bore testament to her will and courage in the face of adversity. It was the photo of Shari’s grandmother.
Immediately she felt the sting of tears, her grief and pity mixed with overwhelming pride.
She moved slowly along the cases, examining every photo and imagining the atrocities behind them. In one picture she noted lifeless bodies hanging from the gallows. Shari remembered her grandmother saying that the bodies would swing there for days, as a reminder to Jews within the camp of their impending fate.
To be a person of Jewish faith, her grandmother told her, was a fate that assured death and never a reprieve.
Even at this moment, within her mind, Shari could hear the slight accent of her grandmother’s voice, the sweet clip of her tone. The way she spoke, with the courage and pride of making it through one of the blackest moments of history, was in itself a demonstration of the old woman’s fortitude.
When Shari was too young to understand the palpability of her grandmother’s suffering, but on the cusp of learning, her grandmother showed her the stenciled numerals on her left forearm. Viewing the numbers from one side read 100681, but when the forearm was viewed from the opposite side, the numbers became inverted, reading 189001. Same tattoo but different numbers. Her grandmother always referred to these as the magic numbers.
Shari smiled. In her mind’s eye she could see her grandmother smiling back, amused at the astonishment on Shari’s young face as the numbers changed before her eyes.
And then Shari’s smile faded, the corners of her lips withering into a straight line. The woman who was so brave and cavalier about her struggles in Auschwitz died of heart failure a week ago in a D.C. hospital, at the age of seventy-nine. Shari missed her deeply.
Moving along the displays, Shari observed more photographs, including pictures of charred and broken bones from the ovens filling deep trenches between the residential quarters—another constant reminder to the Jews of their imminent fate.
How her grandmother was able to maintain her sanity was beyond Shari’s comprehension. How could anybody live under the mantle of an Auschwitz sky, wondering on a daily basis if her ashes would one day rain down and cover the landscape with a horrible grayness?
She could not even begin to fathom the terror of not knowing.
Through the museum’s photos, Shari witnessed a chronology of events that reminded her that even though she was a Jew in a land of tolerance, her country, too, was not entirely without its prejudices. She recalled her grandmother’s words from two years before, when Shari turned sweet sixteen.
“You’re a young woman now,” she told her. “Old enough to understand the things a young woman should know. So what I’m about to give you, my littlest one, is the most wonderful gift of all. The gift of insight and wisdom.” It was then that her grandmother leaned closer and beckoned her to join her in close counsel, as if what she was about to say could only be passed on in whispers. “I’m one of Jewish faith,” she added, “as you are. But I was proud and refused to give up. To be a Jew in Auschwitz was certain death. But if you fight from here,” she said, placing an open hand over her heart, “if you’re truly proud of who and what you are, then you will survive. But never forget this one thing: there are terrible people out there willing to destroy you simply because evil has its place. If you want evil to take hold, then stand back and do nothing. But if you want to make a difference, then fight, so that all can live in the light. Does this make any sense what I’m telling you?”
Shari could remember giving her a quizzical look. So her grandmother held her forearm out, the ink of the magic numbers having faded to an olive green color.
“Because I was a Jew, I was given this mark—even though I was a good girl who never hurt anybody. My parents, your great-grand parents, wer
She then reached for Shari’s hand and embraced it with a maternal gentleness. “There is goodness in you,” she told her. “I can feel it. It’s people like you who can make a difference in the lives of all, whether they be that of Jewish faith or not. These marks on my arm are a constant reminder of good people who turned a blind eye and did nothing to help me or others when life was at its darkest. And because of it many people died unnecessarily, because evil was allowed to succeed. But in you, my littlest one, is a fire so bright I can see it in your eyes. You want to do good for those who can’t protect themselves, yes?”
At that moment Shari realized that she did, though her newfound zeal may have been motivated as much by a desire to please her grandmother as by a determination to protect the powerless. This was a new feeling for her, since she was, after all, only sixteen, and her greatest concerns hitherto had involved boys.
Her grandmother’s smile widened. “Not to worry,” she said. “Just remember that when the time comes there will be obstacles. But don’t give up. Determination and perseverance will get you there all the time. I was determined to survive Auschwitz. And I did. Now it’s your turn to make sure what happened to me never happens to anyone else ever again.”
Shari lifted her grandmother’s forearm and turned it over, then traced her fingers softly over the washed-out tattoo. “No one should have suffered like you, Grandmama. And I’ll make sure no one ever will.”
Her grandmother maintained an even smile.
Shari often wondered if her Grandmother believed her promises were merely the offhand remarks of a sixteen-year-old girl, telling an old woman what she wanted to hear, or if she believed Shari had true conviction. But Shari could not have been more sincere, since her love for her grandmother trumped everything at that moment, even if she was sixteen and preoccupied with boys. Good people like her grandmother deserved better.
“This is my gift to you, my dear. Sometimes the best presents don’t come in a box, but as a lesson. So take it and use it well.”
Shari had never forgotten the lesson taught to her by her grandmother on her sixteenth birthday.
Now, two years later, at eighteen years of age, Shari had been accepted into Georgetown University on a full scholarship. Less into boys and more career-minded, Shari was working toward her pledge to never let atrocities happen to “those who could not help themselves” by enrolling in Criminal Justice courses, with an eye on greater achievements.
To her right Shari noticed three teenagers, roughly her own age, dressed in black, with matching black lipstick and fingernail polish, their hair raven with dye and their ghostly faces powdered. They chattered noisily, excitedly referring to the photographs with adjectives such as “sweet,” “awesome,” and “cool,” words that bit her deeply.
And Shari had to wonder. If they were subjected to the same tortures and suffering as those in the photos, would they still think it was sweet, awesome and cool?
She thought not.
Moving along and leaving her unenlightened peers behind, Shari thought about her grandmother and the way she carried herself courageously through the remainder of her life. By surviving Auschwitz, her lineage continued. Her grandmother gave birth to three children, who extended the line further with seven grandchildren, Shari being the youngest. Without her grandmother’s will to continue on in one of history’s most notorious travesties, none of them would be alive today.
Thank you, Grandmama.
Shari stood over a glass case with her reflection staring back. She was attractive, with an errant lock of hair curling over her brow like an inverted question mark, just to the left of her widow’s peak. And her eyes, a dazzling copper brown that shined with the luster of newly minted pennies, gazed back with something inquisitive about them. Why was there such fanaticism in the world to warrant the murder of over six million Jews? In Shari’s mind it seemed all too tragic that mankind had not matured enough to see its own downfall.
Sighing, she looked beyond her reflection and saw the Nazi flag resting within the case. The red and white colors were crisp and clean as if new, and the swastika stared back at her as the symbol of intolerance.
“Because you’re one of Jewish faith,” her grandmother told her, “you’ll always be persecuted. But never forget who you are and always be proud, because one day you will be reminded of what you are, and you’ll need to fight back to survive. Never forget that, my littlest one.”
“I won’t, Grandmama.”
Shari smiled delicately, a small curvature of the lips in remembrance of a remarkable woman. Coming to the Holocaust Museum was not only an homage to her grandmother, but also a reminder to Shari of what her grandmother instilled in her—to be proud and bold and never forget where you came from, or those who didn’t make it. But more importantly, always remain strong in the face of adversity, which is inevitable.
“Remember, my littlest one. There will come a time. Believe me.”
In a country where religion was a constitutionally protected freedom, Shari doubted that being Jewish would cause any marginalization of any kind. But she couldn’t quite dismiss it either.
If it became an issue, then it would be one more obstacle to conquer in order to champion the cause for many, she considered. She knew she would always persevere, because persevering was a part of her grandmother; therefore, a part of her, genetic or otherwise.
Walking along the cases from one display to another, Shari spent most of the day reflecting on the courageous people who survived the camps, and praying for those who didn’t.
Six miles northwest of Mesquite, Nevada
September 18, 1416 hours
Two Humvees and a canopied cargo truck in the color scheme of desert landscaping moved quickly across the desert floor, kicking up plumes of dust and sand. The forward Humvee, easily equipped to handle the environment, escorted an M-Series cargo truck deep into the valley while the aft Humvee kept pace, making sure those held within the truck’s cargo bay did not escape.
As the Humvees took the rises and falls of the desert floor with little bounce, the cargo truck, which lacked certain capabilities for such terrain, was less cooperative. With difficulty, the commando inside tried to steady the point of his MP5 on the eight Arabs sitting along the benches, their wrists bound by flex-cuffs.
The farther they moved off-road the more barren and inhospitable the landscape became. Enormous rock formations poked through the parched wasteland as windswept dust sped across the plain like sea swells. The clay was worn and brittle, the surface fragmenting over time from the elements of searing wind and unforgiving heat. And the caretakers—the snakes, scorpions and lizards who adapted to a wasteland that offered little rainfall and blistering sun—inherited a kingdom that no one cared to rule.
It was a place of no contrition.
Once the vehicles had negotiated the miles of ruts and rises and the topography finally leveled, the forward Humvee slowed to a stop, with the other vehicles coming to a halt in its trail. As the dust slowly settled, nine commandos, clad in desert camouflage, goggles and helmets, exited the Humvees and seated their magazines into their assault weapons.
In the forward Humvee, a commando stood through the open roof to the gun turret with a Laser YardagePro, the range-finding system making the binoculars so heavy he had to use both hands to steady them as he made a slow scan of the horizon. After confirming no movement, he lowered the binoculars. “Clear!”
At that moment the team leader, sitting in the rear of the cargo truck, lifted the canvas flap and, with the barrel of his MP5 pointed to the desert floor beyond the tailgate, shouted for those bound by flex-cuffs to exit the vehicle. When he spoke he did so in fluent Arabic
One-by-one the captives leapt from the cargo hold, their eyes narrowed against the severity of an unforgiving sun, as the remaining soldiers barked orders, knowing full well their captives had little command of the English language. Yet the prodding with the tips of their weapons was language enough as they goaded the Arabs to a clearing of dead brush and sun-baked clay.
From the rear of the cargo hold, the team leader looked on dispassionately while his unit led the hostages before a stone structure shaped like a half shell, its surface having been worn smooth by the winds. He then turned to face the two Arabs still sitting along the hardwood benches, their ankles shackled to a steel ring welded to the floor. With cold fortitude, Team Leader directed his weapon on them.
“Today marks the beginning of the end,” he told them. “So consider them—” he tipped his head in the direction of their brothers standing before the half shell— “the lucky ones.” With mechanical slowness, he pointed his weapon ceilingward. “I’m afraid Allah has a far greater destiny for you both,” he said, “so your Paradise will have to wait.” There was nothing cynical in his tone. It was simply a straight-forward statement that death had its place and this was not their time.
Recognizing the Islamic scripture, Team Leader, previously so self-possessed, became incensed.
“If Allah truly hears you, then ask Him for divine intervention for the sake of your brothers. And if He truly is your savior, then have Him strike me down before you as a show of His almighty power. I will grant Him one minute to do so,” he said. And then he held up his forefinger. “He has one . . . minute. Not a second more.”
He abruptly jumped out of the truck and slammed the tailgate shut as a sign of his resentment. He walked toward the half shell, his eyes fixing on the Arabs, and then gestured to his troops to force the captives to their knees.
Having regained his composure, Team Leader gripped his weapon and took stock of his enemies, exhibiting little emotion as they pleaded for clemency. But their words fell upon deaf ears as he looked skyward.
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