What lurks at the center of it all are the remains of a seventeen-hundred-year-old Christian saint whose bones secrete a liquid believed to possess immense healing powers. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church in Italy has kept the elixir sacred–extracted only once a year to heal the sick. However, things go dreadfully wrong, and the revered fluid goes missing.
Now, relying on their unique skills and valor to take on a powerful enemy, Alex and Sam are in a race against time to find the essence and prevent it from landing in the wrong hands. Will they have what is necessary to stop a ruthless enemy before millions of innocent people die?
1087, THE ADRIATIC SEA
“Man overboard!” The young Italian sailor passed the news down the line to the captain as another giant wave hit the ship. There was no saving him. It was too dark to see anything.
“All hands on deck!” The captain yelled back, moments before another wave washed two more men overboard. The young sailor hooked his feet around the rope beneath his lookout while his hands clung for dear life to the ropes above his head. Under the flashing strikes of the lightning bolts above he managed to keep an eye on the other two ships in their fleet and reported this back to his captain. His teeth chattered under the strain of the icy wind and rain that pounded down hard on his scrawny body. While the captain had noted that a storm of this magnitude wasn’t usual so late in the fall, his mother had forewarned him of the unpredictable dangers at sea. Now he wished he had listened to her. But it was a job he couldn’t pass on; they needed the money. Not that he had the faintest idea what the job entailed apart from the fact that they were sailing two thousand miles to Myra and back. He had never even been on a ship before—he had told the captain a lie just to get the job. Somehow he suspected the captain knew but had taken a liking to him; or perhaps he just felt sorry for him. In any event, the lookout was an easy enough job—if he could stay alive.
“Is he dead?” the captain asked one of the sailors who had climbed up to the lookout upon seeing the young sailor suspended between the ropes.
“Nah, he’s still breathing, Captain. The boy needs his mother’s lap, that’s all.”
“Get him down and make sure he’s fed. We’re going to need him tonight,” the captain bellowed back.
The crew master did as he was instructed and carried the young sailor below deck. When he eventually woke up, a small bowl of cold bone broth and stale bread stood waiting for him. They had survived the storm. Above his head he could hear the crew at work on deck, repairing the damage caused by the tempest.
“Ah, your stomach finally woke you up,” the burly crew master suddenly appeared behind him. “Eat up, boy. We have an important job for you tonight. It will earn you an extra week’s wages if you can pull it off.”
“What’s the job?” The young sailor asked between biting off several chunks of bread.
“Oh just you wait and see, boy. Your name will be written in the books. Now eat up and change your clothes. We leave in a few hours.”
Barely visible under the pale moonlight, the convoy of small row boats cut through the thick mist that covered the calm water. A small crew of thirty men, spread across three boats, hit the shores of the southern coast of Turkey.
“Come on, boy,” one of the more experienced sailors whispered.
The young sailor obeyed his orders and followed the small group of men who silently got out of their boats and made their way along the gravel road into Myra. He was suddenly scared. His instincts told him his job involved breaking some law or other. But an extra week’s wages would go far. While his mind fought his inner morality, he followed the men through the quiet dark streets to where they hid behind the trees that surrounded a church. It was deathly quiet and apart from the dim lights inside the church, pitch black around them.
“Ready?” the sailor in charge asked.
The boy nodded. Ready for what he didn’t know.
“Give us your best performance. Pretend you are sick until I say otherwise. Got it?”
Again the boy nodded. Two priests who had been traveling with them wedged their arms under his armpits, one on either side, lifting his feet off the ground as they dragged him toward the church. The sailor in charge led the way and then hid behind a nearby tree.
“We need help! The boy’s very sick,” the two priests yelled as their fists hit the church’s large wooden doors. It took one more holler before the clergyman on duty appeared and invited them inside. Once inside the sailor in charge barged through the doors and grabbed the clergyman, covering his head with a hood before he tied him up.
“Let’s go, boy.” He ushered the young sailor toward a closed tomb in the front of the church.
While the two priests stood guard, the sailor in charge produced a thick metal rod from his bag and struck it hard against the marble surface. The young sailor watched in fear as he shattered the smooth marble tomb until there was a hole just about the size of the boy’s body.
“Get in!” the sailor in charge ordered.
The boy froze as terror gripped him by the throat. His mother had always warned him not to mess with the dead.
“Go on, boy! We don’t have all night. Get in and grab as many bones as you can. Hurry!”
The sailor shoved him toward the tomb offering him no chance to resist. The boy’s shaking hand hurriedly blessed himself before he stuck the top half of his body through the hole. A sweet smell filled his nostrils while he continued to pray for protection. He shut his eyes tight as his fingers searched the darkness, squirming when his fingers eventually rested on a cold, hard object. He persuaded himself to reach out and get it over with so he scooped up a large pile of bones and backed out of the hole, depositing more than a dozen skeleton parts into the sailor’s bag. He turned to head back in for a second helping but the sailor in charge stopped him. In the distance he heard a noise he couldn’t distinguish.
“Let’s get out of here! They’re coming,” his leader yelled as he helped him to his feet.
He ran back to the boat as fast as his cold feet allowed him, his heart pounding in his chest. Behind them a howling mob of Saracens chased after them. Nearing the beach the sailor shouted orders to the crew that had stayed behind, who hurriedly prepared the boats for departure. His feet hit the icy water and two burly sailors yanked him safely into the boat while the crew worked hard behind the oars. By the time the angry Turkish Arabs reached the ocean’s edge they had already reached the ship.
Loud cheers roared above his head when his feet hit the ship’s deck and they escaped into the darkness of the ocean, back toward Bari.
“What’s your name, boy?” the captain said to him next.
“Matteo,” the boy answered, his body still shaking with adrenaline.
“Well, Matteo, you just honored your country and the church.”
The boy frowned. “How so?”
The captain triumphantly held up the bag of stolen goods.
“Because these, Matteo, are the bones of Saint Nicholas of Myra.”
Anguished screams echoed through the streets of the once small Italian fishermen’s village. Amplified by the crisp morning breeze, the shrill cries of panic traveled out toward the ocean leaving in their wake a flurry of fear and chaos throughout the town. Alex and Sam woke as soon as the piercing sounds reached the chartered yacht upon which they had been spending their honeymoon.
“What’s going on?” Alex stepped out onto the deck where Sam had already come out to assess the situation.
“Not sure, but something’s amiss. I suggest you get some clothes on Mrs. Quinn.” He gave her a hurried kiss while slipping on his shoes.
“You’re not thinking what I suspect you’re thinking, are you?”
Alex didn’t need to push her new husband for an answer. She watched him pull his sweater over his head before checking that the guide ropes were still secured to the harbor wall.
“Sam, it’s our honeymoon. Can’t we just pretend we didn’t see or hear anything… just this once?”
“You really think you can go back to bed not knowing why the town is in chaos? I don’t think it’s something we can ignore even if we try, Alex. You know it as well as I do. Screams like this spell disaster and in a small town where tranquility is the norm, we should at least go see whether we can help out somehow.”
Alex knew not to argue with Sam. His instincts took over, still living fiercely by the Hippocratic oath he’d once taken. She knew there was no stopping him when it came to helping people. Besides, he was right. She shared the same conviction. As she took in the chaotic scene that played out across the bustling coastal town in front of them, she could hardly deny her own instincts that gnawed at her insides; part curiosity, part an insatiable need to save the world. She disappeared below deck and reappeared moments later fully clothed and ready to go.
“As pretty as the day I met you,” Sam whispered mischievously as they jumped out of the yacht onto the jetty and hurried down the cobbled street toward the source of the screams.
The pair pushed their way through the anguished crowds, forging a trail through the fleeing masses who came running toward them. They were mostly tourists. Alex caught sight of an American flag on a charm dangling from a young girl’s backpack. The couple, with their two children, were running away from the front of the line toward them. Taking note of their son’s wheelchair, Alex stopped them.
“What’s going on? What are you running from?” Alex asked.
The grim-looking man answered in angst. “We’re not entirely sure but it has something to do with one of the priests.”
“Where?” Sam urged.
“Inside the Basilica di San Nicola,” the wife replied and then pointed behind her in its direction, her voice laden with fear.
Alex stared at a long line of people trailing toward the basilica, noticeably undeterred by the event.
“Why are these people all still lining up and not running like you?”
“Isn’t it obvious? We’re all desperate for the manna. The pilgrimage is only the biggest event of the year, you know. How do you not know that?” Their bratty teenage daughter answered while her fingers fiercely hit the keys of her cell phone.
“Right, thank you,” Sam replied, ignoring the teen’s rude rant and turning his attention back to her father. “You’d better get your family to safety until things are clear and settled down. Things could get out of hand quickly and it might not be easy to get away in a hurry considering your restrictions.”
A fresh wave of panicked cries rippled its way down the line toward them, suggesting that something else had happened.
“Hurry, get out of here!” Alex urged the family.
Rushing along the narrow cobbled streets that led from the tranquil harbor to the basilica, they passed several Italian devotees who had fallen to their knees clutching their rosaries in prayer. Fearful expressions lay bare on the faces of hundreds of visitors, some of whom still stood in the long line along the coastal road. As they neared the church further down the street, several men dragged their wives and children to safety away from the church, causing much uproar among those who had chosen to remain in line but instead got bumped out of the way.
When Alex and Sam approached the eleventh century Roman Catholic church that stood proudly in the center of town, a few horrified pilgrims and church clergy hovered over the bludgeoned body of a priest who lay on the steps at the entrance to the church.
Without hesitation, Sam pushed through the anguished group of onlookers.
“Excuse me, I’m a doctor. Let me through.” Sam pushed his way to the scene and knelt next to the body, careful not to touch or move too much. His fingers searched the priest’s neck for a pulse, but it was already too late. His eyes scanned over the body. Multiple stab wounds across his abdomen and torso revealed the priest had been stabbed to death.
Moments later the paramedics and the Italian police arrived.
“Medico, medico,” Sam explained when the police official threatened to arrest him.
It was only when one of the priests confirmed that Sam had rushed to try to help the dead priest that the police let them go and Alex and Sam watched from between the now small crowd of devotees as the police set about securing the area. Inside the taped-off crime scene a police official started his interrogation, fervently scribbling two surviving priests’ accounts in his black notebook. Another, seemingly more senior official, did the same with a third priest who was trying to console an altar boy. It was obvious the boy was somehow involved in the ordeal.
Photographers from a local tabloid flashed their cameras across the restless crowd while a few eager reporters set about conducting their own inquiries among the onlookers. Alex spotted the bishop and several more clergy inside the church, concluding that the annual event evidently rendered far more significance than what they were aware of. As the weight of the situation settled over the small crowd of church attendees and pilgrims who stood in terror at the scene, the panic slowly gave way, leaving distraught wailing and subdued murmurs in its place. Several onlookers stood in somber contemplation to one side as they watched the police inspect the priest’s lifeless body that lay just outside the church’s large wooden doors; his white robe now totally transformed by a large crimson stain across his abdomen.
“Whatever this pilgrimage is about, it’s obviously a big deal for the bishop to be here,” Sam commented.
“I know, I spotted him too. Any idea what the girl was referring to? She said they’re all here for the manna.”
“No idea, but judging by the number of people here, it must be quite important,” Sam replied. “Think the altar boy was with him?”
“Looks that way. He seems pretty shaken up.”
Quietly surveying the scene they watched as the altar boy allowed his eyes to wander off into the small crowd that circled him. Seconds later the boy abruptly pointed a shaking finger into the group of onlookers while frantically shouting something in Italian. A shuffling in the crowd where he had indicated summoned the attention of police officers who rushed toward their mark, with the sudden change in circumstances initiating a new wave of panic among the onlookers. Shoved out of the way and to the back of the group, Alex and Sam spotted their target. A tallish male wearing jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt suddenly fled from the scene toward the main street behind the church. Panic followed as the police chased after the man who eventually outran them and disappeared between the multitude of scattering people. With several more policemen deploying in search of the suspect, Alex turned her attention to where a live television crew was filming and reporting on the scene.
“There’s nothing more to do here, Alex. The guy’s dead. We should let the police handle it. Besides, we have more important things to get back to remember?” he said with a sheepish smile.
But Alex had already moved toward the news crew.
“What is she saying?” Alex asked one of the nearby devotees in the hope that she could gain an English translation. But the distraught middle-aged woman ignored her and instead buried her face deeper in her white lace handkerchief; her knuckles white where she clenched the cross at the end of her rosary.
“You know, curiosity killed the cat,” Sam teased.
“I know, I just want to know why all these people were lining up.”
“I should have known you wouldn’t stop until you find out what this so-called manna is. Come on then. I think that guy might be able to help.” Sam pointed to a young male standing amidst a group of apprehensive foreigners who had moved slightly away from the main crowd. As they neared the group, the tour guide’s lack of experience was evident as he failed to compose his frazzled group despite making every effort to calm the frantic tourists.
“Tough day at the office, mate?” Sam came to his rescue.
“You can say that again,” the man replied with a strong Turkish accent.
“I’m Sam and this is Alex.”
Seizing the welcome break, Khalil stepped away from his group and lit a cigarette, propping one foot up against a wall.
“It’s a mess. They’re going to take it from my salary if this bunch asks the company for a refund,” he continued, clearly annoyed at the unfortunate loss of income he now faced.
“Do you know what all the fuss is about then?”
Khalil took a long drag of his cigarette and stared at the pair through squinted eyes.
“First time to Bari I take it.”
“It is, although we haven’t really seen much of anything yet. Except of course all this,” Alex replied.
“Well it seems you’re in for a treat then. It’s not every day the bishop visits.”
“Why exactly is he here?” Sam asked.
“For the ceremony of course. It’s a big deal,” Khalil answered.
Neither Sam nor Alex reacted.
“You really don’t know? Interesting,” Khalil commented.
“We only arrived last night so perhaps you’d enlighten us?” Alex said.
Khalil exhaled a cloud of smoke, forming circles in the air with his mouth.
“I’ll tell you for a hundred bucks,” he chanced.