“There is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.”

 

—Woodrow Wilson,

28th President of the United States

 

Prologue

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

July 18, 1204

The priest did not accept impending death willingly. Kneeling before the ancient crypt, he closed his eyes and prayed, not for his life, but for something infinitely more meaningful: surely God would allow time to deliver the Relic to safety. Soon the horde of Venetians and French crusaders would discover his deception, and the entrance to the catacombs would be found. The desecration of all that was holy would follow.

     The priest knew only too well what the barbarians were capable of. His hands and vestments were soaked with the blood of his parishioners slaughtered by the invaders of faith who had wreaked such devastation on the greatest city in Christendom. The priest’s rage built as his thoughts turned to what he had seen in the eyes of the survivors, for it was there the Crusaders’ true devastation was revealed. In their vacant stare lay the torn vestiges of the Human Spirit. What kind of man who calls Christ his Savior would enter a convent to satisfy his lust? Or kill a child merely for sport? At this very moment under the great dome above, one of their whores sat naked on the patriarch’s throne, insulting God with her exposed breasts and offering herself for pilfered riches. What would they do if they got their hands on this, the most holy Relic?    

     Crossing himself, the priest leaned into the darkness of the burial chamber and said in a voice no more than a hoarse whisper, “Dionysus. La fretta, non abbiamo tempo. Dionysus. Hurry, we have no time.”

 

Crouched in the narrow passageway the child shuddered in fright. The flickering shadows from his small oil lamp resurrected the holy martyrs whose skulls and severed limbs filled the niches on either side of him. Scared as he was, he didn’t want to leave the catacombs, having seen the evil that had ascended from hell. Counting the tunnels carefully, the boy entered one similar to those he had passed, coming to a stop in front of a low crevice close to the floor. He knew what was waiting there and it terrified him. 

     On his stomach, he crawled into the small opening, his head a mere inch from the jagged roof. As he drew close to the chiseled space at the end of the fissure, he hesitantly raised the lamp and stared at the skeletal remains of the infant. Gathering courage, he pushed the bones aside and ran his hands over the flat rock until he found the crack. Wedging his fingers in the seam, he pried the rock loose, revealing a hidden niche. Sea salt stung the open wounds on his shaking hands as he searched the deep cavity. 

     Lifting the reliquary from the preservative, he wondered why such a simple thing should be so important to the priest. Placing the tarnished, silver box in a cloth sack, the boy emerged from the crevice when a horrific cry of pain echoed through the labyrinth. Down the tunnel he stopped well short of the entrance and extinguished the flame. From the hiding place he could see inside the dimly lit antechamber where a hulking figure stood over the crumpled shape of the priest. He covered his mouth to stifle a soft cry at the sight of the blood flowing from a gash in the priest’s neck.

     “Perhaps this will loosen your pious lips.” The crusader lowered his broadsword, pressing its sharp tip into the open wound 

     The priest remained silent. Anger turned to rage. Lashing out, the knight struck the priest, this time breaking the man’s arm and driving him face-first to the ground. 

     “Show me where it is,” he demanded, prodding him to his feet with his sword. 

     Grabbing the priest’s torch from the ground, the crusader shoved it into the entrance of the dark crypt, causing the boy to recede deeper into the tunnel.

     “Ha. What is this, a rat?” he said with a laugh. “Come out, boy. There is nothing to fear from me.” When the boy refused, the soldier grabbed the injured priest by his broken limb and held the torch close to his face for the child to see. “Come or I’ll kill him.”

     “Stay where you are, boy,” commanded the priest. “I am with God now.”

     Embracing the inevitable, the priest sagged to his knees and asked his Lord to protect the child from harm, then begged forgiveness for his failure. His sacrifice would not be enough to keep the Holiest of Christian Relics from the hands of the devil. 

 

Slipping into the narthex of the massive church, William de Chartres shielded himself from the throng of invaders by melting into the shadows along the soaring, marble-lined walls. Swallowing hard against the acrid stench of rotting carcasses, excrement and death, he led his men to the gallery to take refuge behind one of the four central columns supporting the imposing dome. Hunkered in the darkness, a fresh, more violent wave of anger surged through his body as he took in the devastation. In the near distance, adorned in torn robes, a menagerie loitered about the priceless altar that lay in ruins on the inlaid stone floor. 

     Further away a multitude of wooden statues, tapestries, and fixtures fed an inferno above which two lifeless bodies hung on ropes. To one side, three men threw coins to the floor, wagering which of the two charred bodies would ignite first. Averting his eyes, de Chartres turned to his men, dispatching several to guard his escape as he descended the stone steps that would bring him to the catacombs.

     By the time the crusader saw de Chartres, he was already falling backward, his head nearly severed from his massive chest. As the wounded priest looked up at the man standing over him, a shadow of relief crossed his pain filled-eyes.

     “Bless you, William. Bless you.” Turning toward the crypt, he said, “All is safe. Come to me.”   

De Chartres sheathed his sword and stood in silence as the frightened boy emerged from the tunnel and crawled the short distance to the priest, collapsing in the man’s outstretched arms.

     “Shhhh. You have done well,” the old man said in a waning voice. “There is no need to fear this man.” His life ebbing, he looked up to de Chartes. “I trust him to your care, watch over him, my son.”

     Bending down, de Chartres took the priest’s hand in his. “Of that you can trust.” 

     His words fell on deaf ears.

    De Chartres retrieved the cloth sack and pulled out the humble reliquary. At long last, the True Relic was once again in the hands of those who were charged to protect it. The Order would ensure it was kept from the Pope, thereby preventing him from doling out pieces of it to those whose station allowed them to believe they could obtain salvation by throwing gold at the Pontiff’s feet. 

     Holding the Sacred Relic in his hand, he marveled how exact it was to the copy his artisans in Damascus had created many years earlier. Returning the Relic to the protection of the box, William de Chartres knew it would still be a long while before he traveled on familiar roads. Once found, his spies assured him, the Holiest of Relics would be returned to the Vatican; it was his sworn duty to ensure the forgery was sent in its place.

1

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

June 25

8:43 PM

“He’s quite impressive.” 

     The unequivocal statement came from an earnest, impeccably groomed, middle-aged gentleman standing in the rear of the darkened auditorium.

     “There’s nothing I heard tonight that changes my opinion of him.” The refute was by the intensely wound, equally distinguished director of the Met, a Bostonian aristocrat by the name of Edward Gans. “If anything, his lecture has only heightened my reservations. This is folly on an epic scale.” 

     “Folly or not, if he finds it, you’ll get to play the hero, Edward.”

    Gans sized up the man’s statement, then said in a self-satisfied tone, “That’s a big if, Morty. A very big if.” With that, he walked away.

     Morty Goldman was well aware of the director’s disdain for the man onstage but was past the point of caring. The fight had been a bitterly contested battle that ended only after the full board of directors was brought in to settle the dispute. The decision to hire the famed antiquities hunter, Jack Monroe, had little to do with his qualifications—or that he was seemingly hell-bent on proving he had nine lives—and everything to do with the future direction of the museum. If anyone could restore the Met to its rightful place, it was the adventurous man before him. 

     It was high time the museum started to focus efforts on finding the world’s treasures that would capture the public’s imagination. What the pretentious Gans didn’t understand was the museum would continue its decline unless it attracted the interest of the next generation. The kids who grew up on MTV and Xboxes wanted to see exhibitions like Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, flayed humans frozen in clear polymer; they couldn’t give a damn about the latest sculpture acquired from Bougouni or the Indus Valley. Hell, even he didn’t care; it was just so much nickel-and-dime crap. In order to stay relevant they needed to stop acting like a glorified warehouse and get creative with their exhibitions. Exhibitions that gave insight into some of the world’s darker times and places, like the decadent life of the Marquis de Sade, or the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition. The museum needed to blow the dust off itself and get some balls, for Christ’s sake. 

     Morty Goldman was betting his career on the man who could do just that.

     The lecturer was handsome in the way women found Mick or Bono attractive when they were his age. Perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, it was hard to say. Dark, longish hair swept past an open white shirt collar, dark eyes set against a suntanned face with a smile that could, and often did, disarm his many critics. The relaxed attire matched his manner as he walked up the center aisle of the packed auditorium holding a wireless microphone. No one noticed the slight stiffness in his gait, the result of a gunshot wound suffered six months previous.

     Jack Monroe was only one of a few lecturers who had ever filled the seven hundred-seat hall, due in part to the unexpected success of his book, The Red Merchant, his firsthand account of retrieving a priceless collection of art looted from Germany by the Red Army’s ‘Trophy Brigade’ in the aftermath of WWII. The New York Times bestselling thriller chronicled in chilling detail his abduction and subsequent escape from the Russian Mafia after tracking the art to an arms dealer in Saint Petersburg. 

 

The second reason for the large attendance was the equally successful movie based on the book, starring George Clooney. Both the book and the movie captured the imagination of the buying public, but it was Monroe’s handsome looks and sharp wit that made him a celebrity.

     Tonights night’s lecture was one that had created a great deal of interest among the press and public alike. The Search for the Amber Room sold out three months in advance. The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the Eighth Wonder of the World was the kind of story that stirred the imagination; to Morty Goldman, it was the Holy Grail.

     In the darkened lecture hall, a theatrical spotlight followed Jack as he roamed the large space. On a screen above the empty stage a multimedia presentation acted as a visual representation of the lecture, while its score of ancient chants, piped through invisible speakers, lent a sense of intrigue and mystery to the evening. 

     “Let’s move forward to January 1945. The Amber Room has been at Köenigsberg Castle since the Nazis stole it in ‘41. Goering is getting nervous about his prized possession. The Allies are conducting round-the-clock bombing runs that are getting closer to the castle. Seeing how he is in charge of the Luftwaffe, he knows there is no way to stop them and orders the room moved to safety. The winter is shaping up to be one of the coldest on record but that doesn’t slow down Goering’s handpicked group of soldiers. 

     “In the early hours of the fifteenth, they made a trip to the nearest concentration camp, rounded up some prisoners and returned to the castle where in a matter of hours they had the Amber Room packed into twenty-seven wooden crates. After numbering and branding each with a swastika, the men loaded the crates onto a fleet of waiting trucks where they promptly vanished into thin air. They haven’t been seen since. But here’s the thing: Goering put the operation under the direction of Hitler’s bodyguards, the Waffen-SS. The presence of the SS is significant. Anybody know why?”  

      He waited a few seconds before ambushing an elderly man sitting by the aisle. “How about you, sir? What was happening to the Nazis in the winter of forty-five? I’m guessing you might know.”

     The old man grabbed Jack’s hand, pulling the microphone too close to his mouth. “They got their asses whooped,” he said in a thick Texas accent.

    “Whooped? Like in a good ol’ Texas ass-whooping, right?” The audience laughed, having warmed to his dry, sarcastic humor long ago. “That’s right, they were getting their asses whooped, alright,” he repeated with a chuckle. “The Nazis were losing the war, and Goering knew it. Hitler was hunkered down in Berlin, so when he pulled troops guarding him to move the Amber Room, it was a big whoop-ass moment.” 

     Looking at the Texan with a grin, Jack said, “I like that word, whoop.” Moving up the aisle, he continued. “All right, so they’re losing the war and shift their priorities to crating up and moving the Amber Room. But why? What on earth were they going to do with this unwieldy room made of amber? Granted it’s valuable, but it’s not like this was a painting or gold, something that could have been sold and smuggled out of Germany with comparably little effort. So who the hell is going to buy the Amber Room?” 

     Jack stopped and asked a startled young woman, “Any ideas?”

     “Uh, no.”

     “No? You’re not alone, so don’t panic,” he said, relaxing her with his smile. 

     “The Russians?” called out a disembodied voice.

   Jack hooded his eyes with his free hand and looked into the center of the auditorium, acknowledging the man who had asked the question with a nod.

 

     “Sell it to those they stole it from? Good thought. The Russians’ panties were in a twist trying to find it. In fact, they had a team of historians at Köenigsberg Castle within a week after the Germans surrendered, so yes, getting it back was a top priority for them. But no. Hitler’s hatred for the Russians ran deep. And more importantly, he saw himself as the protector of German culture; it’s unlikely he would ever let the room get back into their hands. No, I don’t think money was the object. So what’s the deal here? Could the room have had some other value? Something other than monetary or cultural?”

          He pushed a button on his remote, changing the picture on the screen. What emerged out of the darkness was the famous square and compass symbol of the Freemasons.

       “I think the room was built for a reason other than its beauty alone. But what reason? Remember this is pre-Spielberg, the Nazis weren’t trying to resurrect any dinosaurs from a fly caught in the amber.” 

          As the audience laughed, Jack made his way back onto the stage and stood under the large symbol of one of the world’s most secret orders. Other than maybe the Shriners, with their shrunken cars and gold tasseled fezzes, he guessed that few really knew much about the Masons. He wondered what they would think if they knew a Masonic symbol similar to the one he was standing under was found on paintings dating back to a time before Christ.

        “It’s no secret that Hitler and his henchmen were heavily into the occult. What is less well-known is that Hitler’s first supporters were members of a secret society called the Brotherhood of Death Society or the Thule Society. This order had strong ties to the Freemasons. And here is the sexy part, folks: the Freemasons lead us right to the Illuminati, thought by some to be the world’s most powerful secret organization. For those of you who haven’t heard of the Illuminati before, this might sound a bit off the wall, but I assure you this is for real. 

            Formed in the 17th century, the founding members of the Illuminati were men of science and academics who formed the secret order after being persecuted by the Catholic Church. These new-age thinkers posed a considerable threat to the power of the Church and subsequently were tried as heretics for expounding views that ran counter to the teachings of the bible. Most notable was Galileo. After relentless pursuit, the society fled Italy and found refuge in the Freemasons where they quickly took control of the group, thereby gaining access to every strata of society. Over time they have become very powerful indeed. Many believe the Illuminati currently has influence, even control, over most of the world’s media as well as the international banking community and governmental policy, including here in the U.S. They firmly believe these policies are leading us closer by the day to a one-world government. A kind of Orwellian big brother concept, but with commercials.” 

          Seated in the front row, a hefty, balding man frowned while shaking his head. Shifting in his seat, he looked around to see if anyone was buying this crock of shit. Jack noticed him and wondered how many others in the audience could fathom what he was suggesting. As provocative as it was to discuss the possibility of the Illuminati, the likelihood was that most of the audience probably agreed with the man’s skepticism. It was much easier, and a hell of a lot less frightening, to continue dismissing the Illuminati as nothing more than an urban myth, or some ramblings by doomsday prophets. He didn’t blame them. The Illuminati have been portrayed in books and movies in such a wide array of ways, that most people tended to dismiss the organization based on the more far-fetched ideas attributed to them.

          Jack approached the balding man in the front row. “Sir?” 

 

 

      The man appeared startled at being singled out.

      “First of all, thank you for coming tonight,” Jack said, smiling.

      “You’re welcome,” the man mumbled.

      “What part of the possibility of a secret society is hardest to accept, sir?”

     “Well for starters, the idea that Washington is being manipulated by some international cabal is crazy. This isn’t the Mid-East, for Christ sake.”

      There were a few cheers, some shouted comments and scattered applause.

Morty Goldman stood at the back of the auditorium, smiling from ear to ear knowing the audience loved this stuff. Jack took an asterisk in history, interjected it with a heavy dose of theatrics, and voila, a captivated audience. Goldman exited the auditorium, marveling at how convincing Jack was. Heading backstage, he tried his best to manage his expectations but found it impossible to do. 

     “Well, sir, I’m here to ask you to think again. The idea of the Illuminati is not as outlandish as you might think. I could go on and on about the World Bank, or the Trilateral Commission, or how the mergers and acquisitions over the last decade have consolidated the media, news outlets, advertising, healthcare services, you name it. Hell, each time there’s a flare-up in the world you can see the consequences of the oil industry consolidation at the pump. But to your point, some would argue that this administration’s crusade to spread democracy mirrors the Illuminati’s goals of a one-world government. I plan to prove that in my next book.” 

      Jack laughed along with the audience. “For now, I’ll just say this…I have good reason to believe there were members of the Illuminati in Hitler’s inner circle, including Goering, and that the Nazis were the last to have the Amber Room. The Nazis are gone and the Illuminati are still here so guess what? Somewhere the Illuminati have the Amber Room. It’s basic logic. But the real questions are: Why do they have it? And where the hell is it?” Monroe paused to punctuate his next point.

     “I wish I knew. I really do. That’s the mystery. But now with the generous support of the Met, it’s a mystery I plan on finding the answer to.” Jack waited for the enthusiastic applause to stop.

Morty surveyed the audience from the wings with a grin. Jack could work a room, any room, and bring them around to his way of thinking, no matter how outlandish. The scenario presented was filled with just the right mix of fact and conjecture to give it credence, but Morty knew it was Jack’s reputation that lent it credibility.

     “Today the Amber Room is worth half-a-billion dollars, give or take a couple million, so the Met’s motives to find the Eighth Wonder of the World might not be totally altruistic. But, hey, when were they ever?” Jack asked with a smile.

     “Now if you think you’re the next Indiana Jones, remember this,” he continued in an exaggerated Sean Connery accent, “Many a man has wasted his life lookin’ for the Amber Room, Indi. Some, I regret to say, have not returned. It’s a dangerous undertaking indeed, my son.” 

     Dropping the accent and the smile, Jack added, “You’ve heard me speculate about a great deal here tonight, but what I do know for a fact is the danger of looking for the Amber Room is very real. There are fourteen confirmed deaths surrounding the search for the Amber Room; I was nearly number fifteen.

 

Morocco

Six months earlier

The meeting was set up by a contact Monroe had tracked down in Egypt. It was supposed to be a straightforward deal to purchase a cache of German documents written in 1918 by Rudolf von Sebottendorf, founder of the Brotherhood of Death Society. The documents reportedly explained in great detail the secret rituals of the new order, most of which were copied from the Societas Rosicruciana, a society that practiced a form of sexual satanic magic that was founded in England in 1867 by a Freemason, Robert Wentworth Little. If the documents proved authentic, it would support his theory of a link between the Nazi leaders and the Freemasons. 

     The fact he couldn’t secure the meeting place in advance made Jack uneasy, but his instructions were clear; he and his partner would be picked up at the hotel and driven to their contact. Watchful for anyone taking an undue interest in them, Jack followed his partner through the shabby lobby and across a narrow courtyard to the sedan idling in the sweltering heat.

    “Where are we going?” he asked of the thin, arrogant-looking man standing by the car.

     The Arab squinted hard eyes against the smoke from his cigarette and hissed in French, “Hands on the car.”

     Jack and his partner did as they were told. The young, bearded man roughly searched them for weapons and then opened the car door. “Keep your head down. Do not be seen.”

     Forced to duck down in the backseat, Jack knew they were in trouble. Behind the wheel a second man, similar in disposition and intent, shoved the car into gear and sped away, leaving a thin blue cloud of exhaust in its wake. As the battered sedan made its way through the warren of ancient, narrow streets, Jack searched under the front seat for something, anything that could be used as a weapon. Nothing. The car continued through the mostly deserted, darkened streets for some time before straining up a steep hill and coming to an abrupt stop. The driver killed the engine and the men got out. Jack’s heartbeat increased; anxiety caused sweat to soak his face and shirt as he waited on the floorboards.

     “Move,” the driver demanded as he opened the rear door.

     Heavy humidity, mixed with the stench from open sewers, offered little relief from the foul smell of men’s body odor and cheap cologne. The smoker motioned with his gun toward the decrepit staircase at the end of the dark alley. Entering the passageway, Jack swore to himself for not following his gut. He knew better. 

     Clearly he had misjudged the danger, and now they had no choice but to run or die in this god-forsaken hellhole. Calculating his options, he followed closely behind his partner as she neared the top of the stairs. The men were too inexperienced to be as cautious as they should have been. Turning suddenly, Jack used the banister for leverage and kicked out at the nearest of the two men on the stairs below him. His foot smashed into the man’s throat just above the cartilage of the larynx, crushing it; the force sent the two unsuspecting assassins down the concrete stairs in a tangled heap. 

     Running blindly through the maze of dark, trash-strewn alleyways, Jack and his partner searched in vain for a way out of the unfamiliar neighborhood. It didn’t take long before he heard a high-pitched whistle. Their pursuers were signaling to others. The two slowed their pace, following a low-ceilinged alley until reaching a small courtyard. The first bullet narrowly missed Jack’s head. The second brought him down. The last thing he remembered before the blackness was watching his partner being surrounded by armed men.

 

 

 

     

 

 

©  2018 Copyright  Gil Cope